By Frank Sabatini Jr.
RMD Group’s second restaurant venture in the Gaslamp Quarter holds some big surprises, starting with its newly constructed rooftop patio overlooking the bustling Fifth Avenue. If the rare sight of customers peering down from three floors above on this street doesn’t grab your attention, then the quirky design appointments flowing throughout Rustic Root’s ground-level dining room will.
Fronted by a sidewalk patio, and adjoining RMD’s Don Chido restaurant, Rustic Root stands out the moment you pass the outdoor host station. The wall to your right shows off columns of white ceramic plates, seemingly suspended in midair. Further back is a display of faux deer on Astroturf, raised and illuminated as if belonging to a prairie museum in central Montana.
On the opposite side of the room is a well-stocked bar featuring a panel of wooden rolling pins at one end. And hovering over the expansive dining room are various-sized colanders — lots of them mingling with the ceiling lights.
Should these homey visuals begin triggering your appetite for elk chops, fried chicken and bison meatballs; you’ve come to the right place.
Stairs and an elevator lead to the rooftop patio, which opens July 4 as an alternative zone for drinking and noshing by day or night. Adorned with gaslamp light posts and equipped with a large bar and separate kitchen, it’s exactly the kind of above-street perch this thriving avenue of bars and restaurants sorely lacks.
Chef and managing partner Antonio Friscia presents a succinct menu of dishes long revered in our homesteads for their warm and hearty qualities, whether they’re of American origin or not.
His bison-pork meatballs as an appetizer are lean and mean, thanks to their low-fat content (perhaps too low) and the delicious, creamy whiskey sauce lacing them. They tasted part Italian, part Swedish.
Friscia resurrects his classic Green Goddess salad that was a longstanding hit during his kitchen years at Stingaree, a Downtown nightclub that shuttered before he joined the RMD Group. The tarragon-based dressing is made from scratch, providing a sea foam-green blanket to lettuce, chopped eggs and sliced mushrooms — just like hip moms of the ’60s used to make the salad to impress company. What a treat.
We started also with carnitas bao bao sliders offering a blissful mélange of flavors and textures from Japanese pickles and crushed peanuts tucked inside puffy steamed buns. The shredded pork was teasingly sweet from red sugar, making them fierce rivals to authentic Asian buns.
We proceeded to mac ‘n cheese, which was acceptably creamy and elevated by smoky applewood bacon, a huntsman-style recipe with a Spanish kiss from manchego cheese.
While deciding on entrees, we imbibed on a couple of “timeless cocktails” from a list that names them only by the years they were invented. Their ingredients and one-line clues are stated below, leaving customers to either guess or defer to the staff for their actual names.
The 1895, for example, is a classic Presbyterian combining whiskey, ginger beer, bitters and lemon juice. The 1980, made with vodka, orange liqueur, blueberry syrup and lemon juice, is easier to figure out if you attended parties televising “Sex in the City” while sipping on none other than cosmopolitans.
We chose the 1902, which translates to a daiquiri as they were made before Ernest Hemingway brought fame to the drink with his preferred addition of pineapple juice. Using only white rum, lime juice and simple syrup, it was refreshing and no less boring.
Before eating here, the Gaslamp district was the last place I ever considered for finding good fried chicken. Friscia’s version now ranks at the top of my list.
Served with tender butter beans and ginger-spiked sweet potato puree, he brines the boneless chicken parts overnight before dredging them in buttermilk and flour. But rather than feed them to the fryers at that point, they rest another day on racks, which results in a firmer, crispier batter.
My companion’s double-cut Duroc pork chop was equally impressive. The designer knife he chose from a wooden box presented by our highly likeable waitress glided effortlessly through the chop’s shocking girth. Hickory-smoked sea salt and reduced balsamic made it all the more flavorful. Served with fried Brussels sprouts and so-so fingerling potatoes, the reigning sidekick was rhubarb chutney spiked with star anise. Think Christmas in July.
Amid several other entrée choices such as elk chops in Mexican mole, halibut encrusted in Japanese spices (furikake), and a burger comprising ground short ribs and brisket, there is hope for vegetarians in butternut squash ravioli. They’re dressed in browned butter, sage and walnuts.
Fabulously rich Grand Marnier cheesecake and butterscotch-mousse cream puffs capped off our meal. Although if you’d rather finish with lasting warmth in your belly, an aged scotch by Glenmorangie, Macallan or Highland Park will surely exemplify this playfully rustic dinner experience.