I have to admit that I didn't anticipate great things from Rustico last night, given the ups and downs of previous reviews, and the fact that I was going with a party of nine at 10 p.m. on a Friday. I figured, sure, there'd be some beers, some burgers, some pizzas, and everyone would be in a post-Iron Man 2 good mood so it wouldn't really matter if things were kind of meh.
I'm more than happy to say I was wrong. Rustico performed, and performed well.
One of the dishes of the night would have to have been the first special we tried, an asparagus and burrata bruschetta ($12). The young asparagus had just enough of a char on them to highlight the creamy, delicate cheese; other people must have taken a chance on this, too, as we tried to get two orders and instead got only one, the last of the night. We also had two starter pizzas (Roasted Mushroom, mushroom cream, goat cheese, sauteed spinach [$14] and Duck Confit and Cracklins, brie and sautéed onions [$16]) shared amongst the group -- both solid presentations from the pizza oven, with great flavors, and perhaps just a bit too much of a crust-to-topping ratio.
The Grilled Dry-Aged Cheddar Burger, toasted brioche, red wine - shallot aioli, malted fries ($12) is a burger that could have been designed specifically for the birthday boy. Good thing, too, as he had accidentally left his wallet at home and was thus prohibited from trying any of the many beers available (the primary reason he chose the spot, although also it was mere minutes from the theatre). Of course, after the starters, he had to bring half the enormous, juicy, perfectly-cooked sandwich home, along with the pile of excellent fries. Slightly less than half, actually, because hands kept snaking over to steal them when he wasn't looking -- but for once, I was not among the fry purloiners! No; that's because I was one of the three at table who ordered the special, Soft-Shell Crabs, avocado purée, cucumber salad, and shoestring potatoes ($27). At just under twice what I've been paying around town for a single soft-shell as an appetizer, these were two beautiful, meaty specimens, caught at 4 p.m. that day (our server immediately informed us*), perfectly fried with just enough crunch but not too much batter, allowing the flavor of the crabs to shine through. The shoestrings were more like matchsticks, but that was fine with me -- crunchy, salty, and just barely potato-y, they were essentially another element of crispiness to play off the softness of the puree, cucumber bites, and crabmeat.
Another member of the party couldn't resist the Grilled Bone-In Pork Chop, chorizo fried rice, cherry compote ($22). This massive portion (much of which accompanied her home as well) was described by our friend Gennaro as having "no right to be that tender and delicious" and I think he has half a mind to ask how they're brining that chop to keep it that way. The cherry was not too sweet, collaborating with instead of fighting the heat and spice of the other flavors on the plate. Gennaro described his own Half-Chicken Two Ways, creamy fregola & spring pea stew, herb chicken jus ($18) as far exceeding his expectations, a huge (I'm sensing a theme here) half-chicken that was juicy and full of spring-herb flavors -- although none of us could determine what the "two ways" were.
Probably the weakest dish was the Spinach and Ricotta Canelloni, creamy walnut sauce, confit shrimp & herb salad ($18). I didn't taste this, but it was deemed by those who did to be not bad, just underwhelming: filling a bit on the bland side, and the diner who ordered it didn't care for the texture of the shrimp, which also were very gently flavored. Nothing made this dish jump to life, and compared to the others on the table, it just felt lackluster.
I know I'm supposed to talk about the beer now, but honestly, I have no idea what beers people ordered and what they thought of them; for the most part, people were too busy talking about the food -- and other topics, of course, like how all the Louboutins the costumers put on Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie made us dislike her even more than usual** -- to comment too heavily on the libations.
Since this was a birthday celebration, there was dessert: Red Velvet Cheesecake, whipped cream, chocolate covered pretzels ($8). A rich yet light concoction from Buzz across the street, it was exactly right to end the meal, and the evening.
I'm not in that part of Alexandria that often, but I can say with confidence that I'll be back at Rustico, and before Iron Man 3 is out, for sure.
*I was reminded just how much of a neighborhood spot this is by our server's interactions with us -- or maybe it was just his personality. As you might have gathered, this was a table of self-professed sci-fi/comic book geeks, and at one point the topic of the Tauntaun sleeping bag came up. Because he was in earshot, our server dove right into the conversation. It wasn't at all unpleasant, just a bit unanticipated, as was the cartoon cow he drew on the take-out container for the burger (alas, no piggy on the pork chop's box).
**Unabashedly girly geek-out. No shoes or movie stars were harmed in the writing of this review.