BY GEOFF MCGOVERN
Rustic Kitchen used to be a Todd English joint, but was transferred from Boston’s culinary wunderkind’s grasp in a lawsuit (damn you lawyers), and with it went its pizzazz. A mainly unsuccessful attempt to reinvent Italian cuisine, the Kitchen has great atmosphere, a prime location, and a hit-or-miss menu that, after missing once too many times, has me questioning whether it’s worth the risk.
To be fair, I’ll begin with the highlights, since the kitchen produces some plates that are truly outstanding and not to be missed. Each table is served a basket of fresh foccacia, and a warm savory pureed white bean dip with freshly cracked black pepper and extra virgin olive oil. It’s a great start to an uncertain meal.
Do try the tuna tartar ($11) with parsley cream and pistachios, served with crisp sesame crackers and golden beets. Stacked like a napoleon, the fish is ultra fresh, the sauce smooth and scant, and the beets simply scrumptious. It’s a creative and wonderful appetizer. The oysters on the half shell ($12 half-dozen), too, are deliciously accompanied by a variety of yummy spiced sauces.
The best of the entrees is the slow roasted pork ($22), served with pickled grapes and mashed potatoes (though the accompaniments often change). Truly succulent and scrumptious. I’m not generally a fan of pork, and find it difficult to prepare well. So kudos to the Kitchen for a top notch production with this one. The tagliatelle bolognese ($16) is a delight, and portions noticeably have been growing bigger. If you order this dish, take my advice: let it cool down for a minute or two, as it is served too hot for the flavors to be fully appreciated.
The last time I visited was the Monday after winter finals–a celebratory meal at what was once one of my favorite haunts. It was crowded but we were able to get a table without wait. What we did wait for, however, was our waiter. Now, the wait wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for the seasonal selection of holiday music playing over the PA system. Josh Brogan’s Jingle Bell Rock, the Von Trapp Family’s Bavarian rendition of Feliz Navidad, and Nick Lechey’s Little Drummer Boy Band are enough to make one’s appetite evanescent; my companion had to take the table knife from my immediate reach. It was for my own protection, she said.
There’s nothing so destructive of an appetite (and sanity) than the thought of Harry Connick, Jr., at my Home for the Holidays.
The meal was just as bad. The clam chowder ($9) was, without putting too fine a point on it, a disappointment. More a lentil stew than a chowder, a few bad clams made the pricey potage unpalatable. To make matters worse, it was served sans the crostini mentioned on the menu. The waiter said they hadn’t made crostini since Friday. Toast: too complicated to make daily.
The Baked Macaroni and Cheese was the biggest failure. No, a disaster, really. Now, I’m not one to order mac and cheese with reckless abandon. But as it was the most bitterly frigid evening I have experienced (and that means something coming from this Buffalo native), I thought a dish with a home-cooked feel might just hit the spot. I couldn’t have been more wrong. First, my casserole made an appearance as a baked rigatoni al pomodoro, which looked delicious and I’ll admit the transformation from mac and cheese to baked rigatoni was an impressive magic act. Unfortunately it wasn’t my order. So our waiter told me not to worry, that he merely grabbed the wrong dish from the kitchen, and would be back in an instant. Suspecting something was afoot from the waiter’s demeanor, my companion politely requested her meal be kept hot in the kitchen while mine was readied. No, no, we were assured. It was merely an oversight and we weren’t to worry about a thing.
Steven Hawking could have written about the time it took for that dash to the kitchen to fetch the ostensibly overlooked entrée. An Ice Age engulfed my friend’s homemade pasta. Eventually, my meal arrived: a hurried and soupy mess of assuredly not homemade fusilli, fontina, heavy cream, burnt porcini mushrooms, and a handful of frozen peas dressed in far too much truffle oil. It was obviously thrown together in a rush. It was inedible. Where was that rigatoni?
Surely, I thought, surely I could just forget about the experience over an espresso. Nope. Machine’s broken. Damn it, this was the fourth consecutive time the espresso machine had been broken at Rustic Kitchen. Why is that dysfunctional contraption always busted? C’mon. I know we Italians aren’t especially known for our machinery (Ferrari and Marconi aside), but you’d think espresso drinks are a fairly common post-prandial request and would deserve some attention. I guess there’s never an MIT engineer around when you need one.
I should say that despite my role as RECORD epicurean, I am a very patient diner. Mistakes happen, tables get overlooked, and wait staff have bad days every now and then. I am one of those customers who grow irate when I see patrons treating wait staff with disrespect. When a slip-up happens, I take none of it personally, as I figure those good natured souls do more hard labor than most of us law students ever have.
But what I find inexcusable is the utter failure of Rustic Kitchen that night to show any concern about our dining experience (a not unsubstantial $70 meal for two). No apology from the management, no concern shown by the staff, no complimentary glass of wine. The waiter did, however, reassure me that if I left my email address, the manager might contact me. I did. She didn’t. Rustic? Perhaps just rusty.
Rustic KitchenLocated in The Porter Exchange Building1815 Mass Ave, Cambridge(617) 354-7766www.rustickitchen.biz