Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Fluent in Nuance

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Café Rustica has an attitude. It's subtle, but it's there. This joint is just slightly smarter than you. After all, it knows what it's up to more than you can even imagine. They're cooking up the goods and enjoying the groove on the radio and making literary/culinary jokes in the kitchen and at the bar. You are just lucky enough to stop by and dig it — but no big deal — they do this every day. And they have fun with it: Note the choice of quotations on the wine list, from Dorothy Parker to Seinfeld. And read the quiet confidence in cooking that the menu promises with its little asides.

Booths: worn as old doors. Southern exposure lights up the crenellated paper lanterns over tall tables in the window. The drapery's earthen, caramelized tones call to mind tawny port and porter, and red ale for braising short ribs. The music is a mix of instrumental ambience, more concerned with creating a mood than calling attention, much like the rest of the rustic ethos of chef Andy Howell's latest venture.

His menu is well-written, paying attention to the fact that someone is reading and making decisions based on what sounds fantastic and what sounds good — plain old poached eggs in four varieties come perfectly prepared, and entrees are well-paired even at breakfast on a weekday.

Oyster stew is made to order in a skillet with bacon, cream and spinach; the rustic breakfast skillet sizzles with spicy rope sausage and potatoes and eggs. Paella para dos consists of shrimp, sausage, chicken, fish and mussels roasted with rice, saffron and broth in an iron skillet, for two only — and it takes a while. But at $29, it's a steal; and with a good selection of European wines by the bottle in the lower price range, this makes a lot of sense for a destination on a budget.

House-made breads in the rustic tradition include a very nice, crusty focaccia-style sandwich roll for the schweineschnitzel with its zesty pickles and mustard. A savory bread pudding with ham and cheese is sliced and griddled at breakfast with maple syrup or served a la potage for lunch with a stewed tomato condiment.

Bouillabaisse, so simple and ample — shrimp, squid, mussels, clams and the lightest broth — again shows the confidence of quality ingredients.

But the revelatory dish — the one that really caught my attention and made me think, yes, I'll be back here, and often — was the Mediterranean short stack, a brilliant concoction of shrimp, scallop and crabmeat ground together into a patty, seared through to the deepest caramel, with a consistency like tenderloin, a brilliant seafood sausage with a crisp drizzle of citrus served with good roasted potatoes and homemade bread ($15).

Dishes at every meal are simple, clean pairings of natural flavors. Howell is on the scene exercising his well-proven taste, just as he did with understated, classic fare at his former Richmond ventures: Zeus Gallery (which had the best brunch in the world around the turn of the millennium) and Avenue 805 (with its date-night specials). This establishment's dedication to what's local and what's good will make it a café to watch as seasonal interpretations change the smallish menu.

Imagine… a place that's going to all that trouble to make it authentic — sauces to order, reductions patiently rendered and bread baked right in-house — and the average price point at dinner is in the low teens. Seems there are plenty of reasons to spend more time downtown. S



Café Rustica ($-$$)
414 E. Main St.
225-8811
Breakfast and lunch: Monday-Friday from 7:30 a.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Sunday brunch.
Non-smoking



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