By Jackie Burrell
Lafayette may be a small city, but its restaurant scene is exploding in the most satisfactory way. What began with Chow, Artisan Bistro, Yankee Pier and Pizza Antica is rapidly turning tree-lined Mt. Diablo Boulevard into an East Bay foodie hot spot. With the opening of Rustic Tavern this spring and more restaurants -- including the eagerly awaited Cooperage and Roam Artisan Burger -- on their way, Lamorinda gourmets may soon find themselves with little reason to go through the Caldecott.
We swung by Lafayette's new Rustic Tavern on a recent weeknight and managed to score a table, after having been turned away reservationless the previous weekend. Our bad -- but very good for the Lark Creek alums -- Chris Amsden and Gary and Tressa Rust -- behind the new enterprise, which is drawing crowds for weekend brunch, al fresco lunch, cocktails and chic dining.
Rustic Tavern took over the space previously occupied by the short-lived Knoxx and then Roya's Garlic Garden, a restaurant whose food was so terrible we nixed the review altogether. (Some newspapers seem to glory in witty, scathing reviews. We believe readers would rather know about great restaurants.)
Clearly, the Amsden-Rust trust is doing something right. The inviting sidewalk patio brims with fresh flowers and happy diners. The interior, with its rustic reclaimed barn siding and wooden tables, offers a laid-back but stylish vibe. And there's plenty of temptation on the small, locally sourced, seasonal menu, crafted by executive chef Gary Rust, who hails from San Jose's Yankee Pier and San Francisco's One Market.
We started with the house-cured salmon ($14) from Canada's Skuna Bay, served on crostini. We made rather a mess of it -- we weren't quite sure how to eat it, fingers or knife and fork? -- but the salmon was tender and flavorful. A little less of the caper-studded, puckery sauce would have made the salmon shine even more.
You'll find the usual salad suspects on the menu -- including a Caesar and a kale -- but we opted for the seasonal special, an arugula and nectarine salad ($9) that was lovely: crisp, bright and summery. Fingers crossed that it remains a "special" for the entirety of nectarine season.
Entrees vary from casual -- a house burger, for example, and a lunch menu with crispy cod and various sandwiches -- to upscale items, such as a tempting salmon filet over artichoke hash. Having just enjoyed a salmon appetizer, we chose the New York steak ($28) instead. It arrived a perfect medium-rare, with a flavorful demi-glace that complemented the mushrooms and potatoes beneath.
Rustic Tavern's riff on pasta carbonara ($19) was a winner, with great flavor, texture and visual appeal. I adore carbonara, but done badly -- or with wimpy pasta -- it can be a gloppy mess. Here, house-made fettuccine offered enough structural integrity to marry beautifully with crispy bits of pork belly, bright green English peas, Parmesan and the signature egg-based sauce. It was topped with a softly poached egg, whose vivid orange yolk melted into the general deliciousness.
By the time the excellent coffee -- French press, $3.50 -- and dessert rolled around, the restaurant had mostly emptied out. The sidewalks roll up early in Lamorinda, so if you have trouble getting a prime-time reservation at Rustic Tavern, chances are good that tables will be available after 8 p.m.
The small dessert menu ($8 each) emphasizes the seasonal, with three options that can vary from day to day -- lemon curd and rhubarb napoleon, for example, or the seasonal cheesecake we ordered.
Served in a small Mason jar, the cheesecake was topped with macerated berries and a raw almond-toasted quinoa crumble. The creamy cheesecake was a little too sweet for my taste, especially with the berries, but the crumble was amazing -- crunchy, toasty and addictive.
If there is any weakness here, it lies in the service, which is friendly and warm but needs polish -- or perhaps just more time. The host was welcoming and affable, but looked like a last-minute fill-in, his rumpled Ted Danson-esque plaid flannel shirt a stark contrast to the crisply attired wait staff -- and to the impeccably dressed hostess we'd met a few days before.
Cocktails ($10 each) took more than 20 minutes to arrive, not because it was particularly busy, but because one of the two bartenders was schmoozing with guests. Our server delivered my gin-based Rustic Collins with the comment that the bartender didn't think I'd like it. (He was wrong.) Actually, that was one of the few comments our server directed at me. He seemed far more comfortable making sure my husband had everything he needed.
But everyone else here is trying really hard. There are some terrific dishes on this menu and given time -- and a bit more polish -- Rustic Tavern will be a great place.
* * ½
FOOD: * * ½
AMBIENCE: * * ½
SERVICE: * *
WHERE: 3576 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
CONTACT: 925-385-0559, www.rustictavernlafayette.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
CUISINE: New American
VEGETARIAN: A couple of options, including a vegetarian pasta and a veggie sandwich
BEVERAGES: Full bar, wines by the bottle and the glass
RESERVATIONS: Recommended, especially on weekends; call the restaurant.
NOISE LEVEL: Medium-loud
PARKING: Small lot adjacent to the restaurant
KIDS: Kids menu has grilled cheese sandwiches, plain pasta and other kid-friendly fare.
PLUSES: Rustic chic atmosphere and many tasty dishes
MINUSES: The service lacks polish.
DATE OPENED: May
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40