First Bite

Welcomed to the neighborhood

first bite
Rustik Tavern chef Seth Brady puts the finishing touches on a Pep Pep pizza, whose toppings include two kinds of peppers. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)
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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Diton Pashaj wanted to open a restaurant, but not in an obvious place such as U Street or Columbia Heights. "I was looking for a neighborhood that had nothing," the Albanian native says.

The location Pashaj settled on for his notion of a cozy saloon: Bloomingdale, where he lives just a block or so away from the warm-in-brick Rustik Tavern. Opened in September, it's a mere 45 seats in a single small room whose main feature is a brick oven with a rotating metal base.

That oven is the chief means of cooking in the restaurant, says chef Seth Brady, who, like his boss, previously worked at Vinoteca Wine Bar & Bistro in the U Street corridor. The limited space explains Rustik Tavern's concise menu of five pizzas and not many more small plates.

Neighbors tell me they're thrilled to finally have somewhere to sip and sup. I'd be more excited if the food had more finesse. Mushrooms that smacked of the canned variety lessened the appeal of a thin-crusted pizza billed as Ward Five, and a grilled cheese sandwich, while generous with Gruyere, could have used more seasoning. (Pickled carrot sticks add a colorful touch to the plate, however.) Braised lamb with pita tastes one-note; like the sandwich, it needs a flavor injection.

The best of the lot might be baby octopus, every restaurant's must-have appetizer these days. The tender seafood rests on a nest of shredded purple cabbage whispering of marjoram and julienned carrots tossed with Japanese soy sauce: More, please.

In these early months, I'm more forgiving of Rustik Tavern during happy hour (weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m.) when I'm paying $3 less for one of those pies - and washing it back with a $3 beer or a $5 glass of wine.

84 T St. NW. 202-290-2936. Small plates, $6 to $9; pizzas, $9.50 to $12.

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