Fare Minded

Rough Going at Rustico

Rustico Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria is attractive, but there is room for improvement.
Rustico Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria is attractive, but there is room for improvement. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006

There's a lot to like about Alexandria's Rustico, a beer-centric bar with 30 taps and 250 bottle brands, a wood-burning pizza oven -- exposed but not too exposed -- and padded bar stools. (The bartender makes a commendable martini, too.)

Rustico Restaurant and Bar, which opened in March, has become a neighborhood hangout, offering happy hour specials and carryout beer as well as pizza, and it has larger-than-usual bar tables good for after-work groups hauling bags. It offers beer flights in fours with reasonably witty names (the stout and porter quartet, the darkest set, is called "Luke-I-am-your-father"). The restaurant has high warehouse-chic ceilings but with spotlights over each table suitable for menu reading, not thoughtlessly aimed into diners' eyes. The music is an unpredictable mix but fun, though the volume creeps up as the evening goes on. The decor is witty -- broken crockery mosaics, embedded tableware and crockery, whimsical photo blowups -- and not excessive. And there's free parking, as long as it holds out. Be still, my beating heart.

Unfortunately, it just might.

Rustico's dinner menu is a cholesterol counter's nightmare. There's so much animal fat coming out of the kitchen, topped off by rendered cheese oils and creams and olive oil, that by the end of the evening you don't feel so much replete as congealed. And that's even if the waiter forgets to serve the bread and olive oil.

The roast chicken comes with Brussels sprouts and bacon-studded celery root-potato gratin (which is fairly restrained). The grilled salmon comes with andouille-sweet potato hash; the braised pork shank with a sausage-stuffed baked apple; and the so-called cassoulet -- which is completely over the top -- is studded with venison sausage, a confit duck leg, bacon bits and lumps of what is supposed to be braised pork but in at least one case were cubes of unadulterated fat. The oyster-andouille "bruschetta" on corn bread, a peculiarly confusing description, is salt on a schtick. The "mac & cheese carbonara" is as solid a mound of cheesy noodles as any 12-year-old could want, just made richer with bacon. Oh, and pancetta. As a side dish, great, but as an entree? Even the whole-wheat linguine with squash, which one might expect to be the vegetarian option, has prosciutto, as well as olive oil broth. And Parmesan.

The other common denominator is salt. The cassoulet is a sort of deconstructed extravaganza that could be solved simply by not salting every ingredient -- cannellini beans, diced carrots, onions, etc. -- before combining them with naturally salty preserved meats.

Even weirder, the "grilled seafood bouillabaisse" -- an oxymoron and not one redeemed in the execution -- tasted, and smelled, of bacon, as if the scallops had been seared and the onions and tomatoes sauteed in rendered grease. In any case, there was no broth or aioli; it was more like spaghetti sauce with a shrimp or two, a scallop and a piece of fish.

Then you get the flip side: pork shank all but dried up, with so little juice painting the bottom of the bowl that even tipped up, there was not enough to spoon out. (And the parsnips were petrified.) The duck, too, was strangely tough for a confit, as if hurried along in its fat bath. At least on one night, the "flight" of three soups was simply bizarre: The tomato bisque was fair, the turkey chili pedestrian and the butternut squash soup with maple-cinnamon whipped cream so watery it seemed more like a very sweet spiced tea.

So much half-baked butcher-shop bistro fare on a brickskeller menu quickly palls. First, redundant fattiness doesn't complement beer, it deadens it. (Ask a brewer what a little grease on a mug will do to the head.) Sure, sausage and cheese are traditional beer buddies, but within reason, and with such condiments as mustard and vinegar pickles to rinse the palate. At least we can trust that the routine oversalting comes from trying to compensate for the fat and is not some post-peanut-mix plot to increase your thirst. A few days' rejiggering of recipes would make eating here a lot more enticing.

Meanwhile, to avoid a grease hangover, choose carefully. The pizzas are pretty good, especially the mushroom and goat cheese version with sauteed Swiss chard and the basic basil-mozzarella pie. The pizza with salami, capicola, mortadella, olives and pepperoncini, the one with duck confit and the white pizza with three cheeses and truffle oil are a little rich as a first course, but if you're splitting them with a salad, the cumulative effect isn't so strong. I haven't had the heart, so to speak, to try the fried pizza dough, but the crust is tasty and so is the dinner bread, so ask for it if it doesn't appear.

The sauteed mussels come in a generous portion, though there was an awful lot of liquid in the pot -- most of the mussels were boiled, not even steamed -- and a heavy flurry of garlic. A little less would be more.

The rather plain top sirloin is actually a best bet -- lean, cooked to order, chewy in the good sense and served with unusually restrained scallion mashed potatoes. The roasted broccoli alongside would have been fine had the stems been peeled of wood, and the admirably light batter on the onion ring topper must have been the only thing in the kitchen to come up without any salt, but, hey, that's what ketchup is for.

The hamburger is also nearly fine, served on focaccia with deeply caramelized onions and aged cheddar, and the roasted garlic aioli was so mild you could have sworn it came right out of the mayo jar. But the burger itself came out on the short end of a half-inch thick, not rare as ordered, and Parmesan was applied so heavily to the (pretty good) fries that they battled the cheddar to a standstill on the tongue.

Yes, this is a beer bar, but it's also a corporate sibling to Arlington's Tallula, which offers about 60 wines by the glass. Here the glass list is a half-dozen choices, and only three of the bottled wines are less than $30. Considering that a sauvignon blanc is such a fine antidote to a fatty dish, a longer list would be an asset.

What else puts a chill on dinner? The door from the bar to the outdoor seating/smoking area throws a huge blast of cold air onto nearby diners every time someone goes out for a break. It's nice that they do go out, but if the smokers were directed out the main door or some sort of curtain were draped in front of the exit, it would help a lot. Also, something slightly rounded or padded would be more pleasant than the absolutely flat wood seats in the booths and banquettes. On the other hand, since, like so many restaurants these days, Rustico prefers to stuff in an extra table than to provide a coat rack, people are mostly sitting on their crammed-up wraps.

Rustico takes dinner reservations only from 5:30 to 6:30 and again after 9:30, presumably to keep the atmosphere informal and encourage impromptu dining. But in practice it tends to make the hostess tense up as the deadline passes and waiting parties line up, and the dining room staff sometimes seems overwhelmed and distracted. Beer orders and occasionally prices get a little confused -- some beers come in flat-bottomed glasses, some in those oversize red wine balloon-like steins -- and some wines come in Pilsner glasses. (This is in the dining room; bar and lounge service is cheerier and more proficient.)

The atmosphere is nice, and you can't say it's boring, but at more than six months old, Rustico should be a lot less "rough" than its name. C'mon, guys -- have a heart!

Rustico Restaurant and Bar 827 Slaters Lane, Alexandria; Metro: Braddock Road Phone: 703-224-5051 Kitchen hours: Open Mondays 4-10; Tuesday-Thursday 11:30-10; Fridays and Saturdays 11:30-11; Sundays 11:30-10. Prices: Appetizers $8-$10; entrees $12-$23; pizzas $12-$15. Wheelchair access: Good.

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