210 Stuart Street (Radisson hotel), Boston
Open Sun-Wed, 11:30 am-10 pm; and Thurs-Sat, 11:30 am-11 pm (late-night menu available nightly from 11 pm to 2 am)
AE, MC, VI
Valet parking, $14
Rustic Kitchen is actually the third restaurant of its name in Boston (with another in hingham).Its history is long and complicated, but it leads usto a menu that is both simpler and more consistent than its predecessors. If we were to ignore that story for a moment, we could boil rustic kitchen down to some very compelling food and wine, some amusing spaces in which to dine, and potentially useful late hours. But who doesn’t like to unroll a ball of yarn?
Our story begins, then,with a restaurant called Todd English Rustic Kitchen in Quincy Market. This happened at a time when English was opening so many restaurants, he couldn’t think of concepts fast enough. So Rustic Kitchen was christened witha wood-fired oven for “flat breads” (free-form rectangular pizzas) and some baked-pasta dishes. It was a kind of greatest-hits reprise of English’s other ideas.
But English eventually had to stop opening so many restaurants and regroup, so Todd English Rustic Kitchen was handed over to his ex-partner, Jim Cafarelli, in a legal settlement, and the name was simplified. Cafarelli, an architect and designer good enough to make the Quincy Market space functional, hired chef Bill Bradley andtook another, larger location in Porter Square. Bradley supervised first Mark Usewicz, then Tom Holloway. And earlier this year, Cafarelli closed the first two locations to open this Rustic Kitchen in what was once the 57 Restaurant, a large, modern dining room. Holloway is now executive chef.
Given the many changes in both owners and chefs, the menu has managed to successfully accumulate the specialties of each, despite a general (and wise) pruning.Thiscreativity goes into daily-special appetizers and entrées, so it doesn’t feel like a chain. And the current kitchen staff executes much more consistently (less rustically?) than in the past. That is, they don’t attempt to recreate they’ve everything ever tried. Still,I spot aTodd English move here, a Bill Bradley Italianism there, a signature Usewicz meatball in a couple of appetizers, and a some new tricks that must be pure Holloway.
We start with a simplified bread basket, definitely a sensible move when you can focus on something as good as the soft black-olive-flecked bread. With it comes an excellent white-bean paste and a pour of fruity (not flowery or nutty) extra-virgin olive oil.
My favorite appetizer was a special escarole soup with pork-lightened meatballs ($9), a fun reminder of the Venetian meatballs of the Bradley-Usewicz era. Another appetizer with meatballs featured Apulian ($10), a light blend of meats in a good marinara sauce.
The wood-fired oven is part of the concept, as are the oblong pizzas. Judging by our pizza margherita ($10.50), they’re still served thin-crusted and crisp, but smaller and less skillfully baked than in the past. It made forgood eating, although the original pizza created for Queen Margherita was red, white, and green like the flag of Italy. This implies more equal and visible proportions of basil (here about three whole leaves of the fresh stuff), cheese, and tomato. A spinach salad with roasted beets, kalamata olives, white beans, red onions, and feta cheese ($9.50) had every one of those things, just not a lot of some. The beets were small, goldencubes, for example.
My favorite holdoverentrée is Agnolotti dal plin ($19). These are meaty stuffed dumplings, pinched like a priest’s hats. Bradley’s original version was veal stuffing and a clear, meaty broth. Today, the homemadepasta dumplings aresquare with a veal and cheese filling, served with a more elaborate and buttery bowl full of broth with shitake and oyster mushrooms. Despite the changes, I still love this dish.
Grilled flatiron steak with roasted garlic, truffled rustic fries, and a spicy tomato relish ($24) prompted the question, “What is a flatiron steak?” I guessed it wasone of those narrow, triangular sirloins, but the beautifully arranged slices that arrived left me unsure. The fries are very good, although oddly presented with cold tomato sauce too chunky to useas ketchup. A grilled salmon special ($22) had the meaty flavor of wild salmon (though it might have been carefully selected and farmed) and was nicely plated with a celery-root purée, some sautéed red chard, and two sauces of puréed vegetables. A swordfish special ($27) featured excellent fish, served in chunks, with grilled eggplant rounds.
The wines by the glass are very good. Pinot grigio drinkers get the real thing with the 2005 La Vis ($7/glass; $26/bottle) from Italy’s alpine province of Alto Adige-Trentino; it’s crisp with mineral flavors, more like a Sancerre than the sweet pinot grigios of the dating bars. A somewhat aged 2004 Pepperwood Grove zinfandel ($7/$26) was all vanilla oak in the bouquet and flavor, very drinkable if not exactly the right zin for steak.
Cappuccino ($3.75) is entirely competent, and tea ($1.75) is served as a bag alongside a china pot of water. Memo to waitrons: put the bag in right away so it brews.
The dessert course is rather plain, which makes me wonder if Rustic Kitchen is between pastry chefs, as this was a previous hallmark. My favorite of the current lot was a free-form apple tart ($8) with excellent vanilla ice cream. Tiramisu ($8) was like all others, except for the use of delicious chocolate ice cream. Chocolate cake ($8) was a small but effective version of bitter chocolate cake with amolten center. And the crème brûlée ($8) had no tricky flavors; it’s a good standard version with shortbread cookies.
Cafarelli has done some of his best work on what was a large and rather nondescript space. There is a golden dome in the main dining room, a smaller wine room for large parties, and abar with a large plasma TV.
The most innovative part of the restaurant is a TV studio, where the restaurant tapes a cooking show with Alissa Bigelow and sells limited tickets for spectators to enjoy the dinner she cooks. You can eat in that room when the show is not filming, although the feature is popular, so they may do reruns on other nights.
Email the author