With San Diego arguably the microbrew capital of the country, if not the world, I suppose it’s inevitable that we would eventually arrive at a saturation point of gastropubs like Rustic Root in the Gaslamp, meant to be high end bars that also serve, at least conceptually, refined, upscale cuisine. These places are designed to cater to the semi-“haute”, so styled because a dive bar doesn’t make for a great date, usually, and fine, sit down dining with classic table service may feel a little too stuffy and mainstream for that casual date night vibe you’re shooting for.
Enter the gastropub – you can wear your cool, casual clothes, sit in the restaurant which is actually the bar, shout at conversational level to be heard, sip on not just any beer, but your favorite local microbrew or “craft, handmade” cocktail and impress your date by ordering something other than chicken wings, even if you’ve never heard of half the ingredients on the menu.
The only problem is, at most of these places lately, the chicken wings are the best thing on the menu.
A dog-loving buddy of mine once told me, “When you have one dog, you have a whole dog. When you have two dogs, you have half a dog.” In other words, one dog will be your best friend. With two dogs, they will be each other’s best friend and pay attention to you when they feel like it.
That’s what the gastropub concept, when poorly executed, feels like. It’s hard to run a successful bar or restaurant in their own rights as independent entities. To do both well under one roof at the same time requires absolute attention to every detail and an incredible amount of self and imposed discipline to ensure that all runs smoothly.
When it’s not done right, well, you have exactly what we are experiencing now – a local epidemic, with gastropub tragedies abounding as the latest example of the San Diego food scene taking a wrong turn and continuing down the wrong track, even as everyone on the train is hollering for it to stop. And, if they aren’t yelling now, they will be when they find themselves continuously staring at the business end of the runaway train called Overpriced, Subpar Food.
However, I had heard a few whispers about Rustic Root and thought that, maybe, finally, perhaps, for the first time in awhile, someone was doing something special with the gastropub concept (in other words, serving good food). And, if not special, maybe at least good. A quick lookup of the Rustic Root website showed a dinner menu with some interesting, classic dining options and, better yet, a good looking cocktail menu with takes on some of my favorites.
Oh, and no chicken wings…portents of good things to come?
For this meal at Rustic Root, I was with good friends, having a ton of fun, lots of laughs and looking forward to some good cocktails and dinner prior to the festivities at a recent Saturday evening concert.
I know. Saturdays are the busiest time for a restaurant in the Gaslamp – for pretty much any restaurant, probably. In fact, the first thing our server told us when he arrived at our table several minutes after we were seated was, “Your food and drinks may take awhile. We’re slammed because of the concert.”
Let me catch my breath before I start huffing and puffing here…
…Okay. You’ve decided to open a restaurant in arguably the most expensive, highest traffic district in San Diego. And you’re opening it there because of the volume of potential customers that will walk through your doors not just because you’re located in a cool, happening district, but also because Petco Park is right around the corner and you get to reap the profits of being exposed to tens of thousand of event-goers on a pretty regular basis. And most, if not all, of these events are usually sold out months in advance, so it’s not a big surprise that the area is going to be brimming with people on any given night, particularly a Saturday.
In fact, I could probably throw a rock underhanded and hit 20 restaurant owners and 100 chefs in town that would love to have that exact “problem,” because, let’s face it, a full house equals volume, volume equals cash flow, and if you’re any type of decent business person, volume and cash flow equal profits, an increased customer base and job security for all.
Let us pray…
But then you decide to understaff? And you allow your servers to start off service at a table by telling your new (and, most definitely, one-time) customer that, (insert whiny voice here), it’s just too busy for you to provide good and efficient service?
Okay. I’m done. Let me catch my breath again.
At least our server was being honest.
When we received our cocktails 15 or so minutes after we ordered them (long enough that we lost track), they tasted faintly as though they might have been something interesting had they not been served in sweaty, condensation coated glasses with half watered down contents at a temperature somewhere between balmy and clammy. They were bad enough that we switched to beer for the 2nd round.
I was actually a bit encouraged by the poor cocktails. Understanding how gastropubs usually have a strong side and a weak side, I figured with cocktails that bad, the food was gonna be pretty good.
I was wrong. In my own defense, I ordered this tartare/sashimi starter first. Had I known what was in store for us here, I would definitely have bypassed ordering any raw items. The best thing on the plate here was the quail egg. Unfortunately, we had already broken the golden yolk and let it run into the too coarsely chopped, too lightly seasoned, barely pickled, gummily textured meat paste before realizing the entire concoction was pretty much a one note wonder. The crostini served with it had been dead and sitting in the sun for awhile and don’t ask about the hamachi sashimi. I can’t bear to re-live the experience – was it supposed to taste that fishy?
We asked our server to bring salt and pepper so that we could get a little flavor into the tartare. The salt and pepper turned out to be some of the best ingredients we tasted all evening.
The appetizer of pork belly could have been accurately called the “Pork Belly you’ve seen on 138 other menus in town, but worse.” It was a perfect example of how “pretty” food does not a good meal make. The pork belly was covered in a sweet and sticky glaze that had no counterpointing spice or acid to cut the gloppiness, which was almost a relief as the stickiness took our minds off the stringy, dull, passionless texture and flavor of the pork belly meat contained within.
I don’t know if I was more mad or sad at this dish. It looked great. It smelled good. It was presented decently enough. I was excited about it.
But, I weep for the poor lamb who gave it’s life and shank in good faith, for my enjoyment, only to be treated with such disregard.
There should be a special place in hell for chefs that take a beautiful piece of meat like this and cook it a day in advance in nothing more than a pan of water with barely a half onion, a clove of garlic and a pinch of salt, thereby rendering what should be a soft, fat bathed, melt in your mouth, taste bud tantalizing morsel of love into a mucilaginous, insipid travesty.
For God’s sake, Chef, could you throw a sprig of rosemary, an eyedropper of red wine and a grind or two of pepper at the thing? If that doesn’t work, maybe wave a magic wand and chant a few rhythmic verses to at least try and re-inject some life into it. It couldn’t possibly have any less effect than whatever it was you did to it in the first place.
Worse yet, the bed of beans that the lamb shank sat in was so deliriously underseasoned and haphazardly prepared the best thing that can be said about them is that they were at least not undercooked and they did manage to absorb an iota of flavor from the linguica. That, however, did not bode well for the linguica, since the whitewashed flavor void was transferred by osmosis.
The fried chicken entree was actually decent. By decent, I mean it had some underlying flavor and texture. The honey habanero sauce was far more honey than habanero – in fact, they may have forgotten to wave the habanero pepper over the plate before they sent it out.
But, that special place we reserved for chefs during the last course? Cancel the reservation.
Whoever decided it was a good idea to plate any course that needs to be cut with a knife and fork in anything slippery and mushy (See Exhibit A: Sweet Potato Puree) clearly has dibs. This is the least creative way of plating ever conceived. Why in the name of sweet baby Jesus would you make me cut my food in a sloppy, goopy bed of potatoes only to have it slip deeper and deeper into the morass, rendering what might have been a nice dish into nothing more than a disheveled mess?
Have you ever heard the stories of how lobster a century or more ago was considered “trash fish,” barely fit for human consumption? But they were plentiful and a cheap source of protein, so, they served it in prisons. Prisoners eventually ate so much lobster that they rioted and revolted and demanded real food.
They must have been served dishes similar to this. Limp, overcooked, lifeless pasta, tough, dry, unseasoned lobster meat and a coagulated cream sauce that was little more than an undercooked, pasty milk and flour roux with little micro-curds embedded through the entire concoction. It micro-curdles me to think about it.
Here’s the Rundown on Rustic Root:
Location/Ambience: It’s the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego. If you drive, expect traffic and $20 parking rates. Uber and Lyft are great options. It’s a roomy space at Rustic Root and I heard they had a rooftop deck/bar. Never checked it out as we rushed out after dinner to have time to make it to the concert a little early. We were still hungry.
Cuisine/Service: The menu reads well. The ingredients are present. The poor quality of the food had little to do with how busy they were. It tasted as though everything had been prepared the day before, barely heated for service and lacked any hint of imagination, inspiration or, for that matter, effective seasoning in any recognizable form. It was like someone read the recipes in a cookbook then decided to take out all the good stuff for fear of having too much flavor. Service was friendly and accommodating, but understaffing caused delays.
Cost: Entrees range from $25 – $35. Combined with $6-$13 appetizers and $11 cocktails, our party of 4 spent around $200 with tax and tip. However, it felt more like $400 since we didn’t finish eating what we ordered and we ended up paying stadium prices for our “follow-up, after dinner” food at the concert.
Recommendation: It’s a gastropub in the Gaslamp. You’re not here for great food, are you? Save yourself some money and go get insulted at Dick’s Last Resort. They ain’t great and they’re not trying to be. But, they are fun and you won’t feel like you got fleeced on 5th. Cheers, my friends!
535 5th Ave
San Diego, CA 92101