Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rookie RUCOLA Gets a Rough Start, while PRIME MEATS Maintains

Word to the wise: Perhaps it's not such a good idea to visit a restaurant on their second day open. I learned this the hard way when I showed up at Rucola in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. The anticipation of the opening of this new spot that touts northern-Italian cuisine was palpable when I arrived on Friday to a swarm of patrons outside the door. (Guess I wasn't the only one following the restaurant on Twitter.) Why the buzz? Probably because it's the baby of alums of the Prime Meats (remember that name), Death & Co., and Cafe Boulud "restaurant titan trifecta." And I fell for it. I even waited for over two hours to be seated, which I would never do! This time was an exception, as the hours pass pleasantly when you have a friend who works at a bar down the street and you're not yet famished. Unexpectedly, we met the acquaintance of a Rucola-prospective in our same situation, who was a mutual friend of said bartender. Cut to us merrily merging forces and sitting at a table for three at 10:15 pm.
Rucola's edifice
With some trifecta power of our own and a short listed offering of 5 plates and 2 desserts, it was only natural to order the whole menu. Turns out even that was not enough and we wound up having to double up on items. In one instance because they had run out of a dish, and the others because we were still just plain hungry. It also would have been considerate if they had mentioned one minor  detail (sense the sarcasm): They had no power! What? How? Excuse me? How could you confidently invite patrons to spend a pretty penny (yeah, it wasn't cheap) on what they think is a fully supported menu of food worth a 2-hour plus wait, and you don't have a functioning fridge and burner? Well it didn't go unnoticed, as our food left much to be desired - and we ordered everything!
Peek inside

Before I delve into the details of an outright boring spread, I will commend Rucola for the ambiance set by perfectly placed rustic wooden tables, romantic candle-lighting, and an extremely genial front of the house. Our server was genuinely bubbly and Julian Brizzi, managing partner and "name-taker" of the night, was all smiles and enthusiasm as he jotted our phone number and nonchalantly mentioned it's a 2-hour wait for 2 - which couldn't help beget the "don't call us, we'll call you" sentiment.

Meat and Cheese
If you still feel hungry after a meal out, there is a screw loose somewhere. I don't appreciate dishes overpriced for their portions, but can give a pass if the food is at the least thoughtful and tasty. But the leave-you- feeling-hungry, uninteresting, pricey fare doesn't jive with me. And this was Rucola in a nutshell. Two bottles of wine made this pill easier to swallow, but my party was still all too aware of our disappointment. We wound up with two meat and cheese plates - the second, one of those duplications that came at the end of the meal when we still needed more to put in our mouths. These were acceptably edible and as interesting as a charcuterie board might be, showcasing three of each, but in a portion that did not reflect the $19 a pop price.

Squid Salad
Dandelion and Radish Salad
Move to the two salads on the menu that looked almost identical. (You would think they would take pride in these, their namesake being a leafy green and all). One presented itself as an octopus salad, but had more tasteless arugula than the thread-thin fish. The other with radishes and dandelion greens was as robust and intricate as it sounds: not. Whatever else was in them to contribute some sort of flavor failed. It was unfortunate that the octopus was another repeat dish. But excitement abounded when the pasta plate approached, as surely this was fail-safe. (Fresh pasta at an Italian joint with such culinary clout; who would expect it to be anything but excellent, right?) We were so confident in this homemade fettuccine carbonara with ramps that we doubled up on this dish right from the start - only to be informed post-ordering they only had one left (hence the second, but unfulfilling helping of octopus salad.) Well, we found it wouldn't have been worth the carb consumption. A blessing in disguise? 

Fettuccine Carbonara
Having worked in restaurants I know the biggest mistake any chef can make is not tasting the food before sending it out. How do I know this pasta did not meet anyone's tongue in the kitchen? Because they would have dumped the whole batch had the overload of salt assaulted them as it did us. If we had not been ravenous by this point, there is no way we could have finished that plate. The resulting taste was akin to the all too familiar experience of merrily salting along when the loose cap of the shaker demonically flies off, a flood of salt crystals rushing out like a broken dam. When it comes to salting, a heavy hand can be a bad, bad thing - and it was. (Not to beat a dead horse, but the pasta did not even offer up other flavors or contributing ingredients to save it, salty or not.)

Fish and Clams
The only thing that was notable by comparison was the whole fish on the bone, decorated with clams and a simple lemon, oilve oil, and basil pesto. This was good as far as these things go, but nothing outstanding, as one might hope for with such a hefty price. I've had the same (if not better) fish experience (at Taverna Kyclades for example) for much less loot. Usher in the desserts, because we must; there is still so much more negative space in our bellies to fill. Coffee? Nope, sorry. No power remember?

Cookies
Chocolate Cake
Rice Pudding
An assorted cookie platter was not a comprehensive dessert by any stretch but the hodge podge sufficed as little sugary nibbles. The chocolate cake tasted like it was compliments of Betty Crocker, living up to the after-thought it probably was without an appearance menu. And the soupy rice pudding - ah, make that two. Oh right, hungry still - was the best of the three options, with a rhubarb compote that added a spruce of color if not a benign sweetness. Up to this point my jaw moved in a continuous chewing motion. Who knew it could also drop so low with the presence of a fat check - reality check. Hmm, some how things don't add up. Hunger plus mediocrity equals over $80 per person? I did too well in math to accept that. So I guess we won't be doing that again - not unless I can be assured that all the electrical appliances are powered and there is a salt patrol on duty. Even with these things, the thought put into the dishes needs to be more deliberate, focused and creative. Not to mention better supported by substantial ingredients, which I can only hope will be a priority for them. I am optimistic that this is the direction Rucola is moving in, as they are reporting to maintain a changing menu of local ingredients. It's safe to nix the one I sampled. And I cannot ignore the name Prime Meats, one of the stellar seeds from which they sprouted.

Pinot Noir sparkling and some Stumptown caffeine
How interesting that Prime Meats could not have delivered a more polar experience. Its powerful aura looms over Brooklyn, as the solid team behind it spreads it empire to include Frankies Spuntino and Cafe Pedlar, both in Manhattan as well. Having been on our brunch list for some time, the Court Street festival this Sunday led us there on its yellow brick road. Can I get an Amen?! Besides the perfectly dry rose sparkling wine, local Brooklyn Sixpoint selection, and wondrously robust Stumptown coffee, suffice it to say the German-inspired, hipster-old-fashiony Prime Meats knows their meat. 
Now that's a cow - still mooing.
The best form of it came in their ground Angus beef burger: a rotund juicy hockey puck, seared to a supple medium rare. No need for cheese or garnishes, just a little spicy mustard and some beautifully seasoned fries will do the trick. Now this is farm-to-table quintessence. The second best for the carnivore was the link-long Bratwurst, which accompanied my very brunch-ish poached egg on top of sauteed wild mushrooms. Perfectly simple. Perfectly direct. Perfectly German. You got your meat, your eggs, and your bread. Now eat it. 
Brat and Bread and Poached all over

I do like my meat but lightened up the spread with six Blue Point oysters they had on special and an inconspicuously tasty arugula and radish salad with a delightful anchovy-infused lemon dressing. Even Germans need their greens.
Radish and Arugula Salad, kissed with Anchovy
Oysters on the half shell: Mollusk Power




















It may not be entirely fair to compare a novice with a vet, but with such close ties, Rucola has a high standard to live up to, and needs strengthening to battle with the big boys of Brooklyn restaurants. Even standing on its own, its pillars are unstable and in need of some extreme reinforcements. When Rucola is ready to take off its training wheels, only then will I be ready to ride again - albeit with a helmet.