I am greeted heartily when I walk through the door of the Rustic Spud, Kingston’s newest neighbourhood restaurant on the verge of downtown and Sydenham Ward, and asked if I prefer a seat in a booth or at the bar. Dining alone, I opt for the bar. Scott Lattimore, father of chef and owner Joel, welcomes me and asks what I’d like to drink. He points out the impressive array of beers on tap, and, after sampling a few, I choose a Skeleton Park Amber.
Eyeing the appetizers I am torn between the “ponados” (spiral-cut spuds with flavoured salts and aioli, their name a portmanteau of potato and tornado) and the fried oysters with blood-orange aioli and homemade cocktail sauce. As a native New Englander usually averse to ordering seafood without a sea nearby, in my mind I have already chosen the ponados. But looking ahead to the mains I have a change of heart. It occurs to me as an afterthought that the oysters will make a better litmus test of Joel’s skill as well.
I’ve come hungry, and after ordering my appetizer I sip my beer and savour the aromas wafting from the kitchen. Through the door I see movement and hear the clanging of pots mixed with laughter, all of which piques my appetite and creates that atmosphere of excitement that makes eating out so special.
The wait is slightly longer than I expect, but I find this reassuring. When food is whisked out of the kitchen four or five minutes after I order it, I am suspicious. Having lived and eaten for a decade in Italy, I believe firmly that food should never be rushed. Biding my time, I chat with the bartender and examine the list of spirits and their prices, thinking about how unusual this is. It’s nice to have an idea before ordering a drink whether or not you’ll have to take out a second mortgage on your house when the bill comes.
The liquor list puts me on a train of thought. Maybe it’s just me, but when the first thing I see on entering an eating establishment is the bar, something in my head says, “This is a pub,” and my expectations on the cooking staff are immediately lowered. At the Rustic Spud, the bar is just inside the door, so, even though I’m aware of Joel’s credentials as a chef, I am basically expecting to eat pub food—tasty enough but hardly inspiring.
Well the oysters are the first nail in the coffin of that prejudiced idea. While in haute cuisine subtlety is almost always a virtue, pub cookery functions on an opposite principle. Decisive flavours and textures are needed to stand up to the beer and banter. Joel, I begin to discover with the fried oysters, performs a graceful balancing act between the two camps.
The oysters are poised somewhere between seafood-shack batter-bombs and tempura délicatesse, and they’re cooked to perfection—neither rubbery nor raw. The accompanying sauces have me a little worried beforehand. You never know what’s going to sneak into a sauce. Too often they are the proving ground for a chef’s worst ideas or the hairline crack through which his or her fundamental banality seeps into an otherwise remarkable meal. I can taste the blood orange in the aioli (okay, maybe just the orange) but am not overpowered by sweet fruitiness, as I feared I might be. Even the cocktail sauce, which nearly always errs to sweetness or spiciness, is well balanced, holding its own without knocking everything else to the ground.
For my main course I choose the sweet potato gnocchi (with shallots, garlic, cream, spinach, fresh basil, and double-smoked bacon) only because it has been some time since I’ve eaten them. The truth is, when you’re used to handmade gnocchi made by an Italian mother-in-law, it’s hard to get beyond that—especially outside Italy. But I thought this too might make a good test, and I wasn’t feeling especially carnivorous.
Sweet potatoes are another one of those dangerous ingredients. Cooks often feel compelled to add something sugary to “bring out” their natural sweetness. It’s a logic that makes sense when you’re talking about dessert but otherwise not. Thankfully Joel’s gnocchi have only three ingredients: sweet potatoes, flour, and eggs. And, yes, they’re made from scratch, which I nervously confirm with Joel after surmising as much from their delightfully irregular shape.
It’s here that I am most impressed. The pleasantly doughy texture of real gnocchi, cooked to perfection, is what makes them worth holding out for—and here the Rustic Spud has hit the nail on the head. Salt can also be tricky with dense pasta like this, and on my first few bites I think maybe Joel has under-salted. But then I check my ravenous pace (I eat too fast when alone) and realize that, no, the salt is spot on. And the cream is perfect too—not so much to make the dish creamy in taste or colour, but enough to add an accent of richness. My one critique is that the bacon could have been cut smaller, to enhance the ensemble rather than sing unscored solos. At least it sang in tune.
After finishing the gnocchi I compliment Joel, who seems moved and shakes my hand. I sit for a while and talk some more with the bartender until she says, “So are you ready for some deep-fried Bounty bars?”
Now there’s a question.
I don’t know that one can ever truly be ready for a deep-fried chocolate bar, but I’m always game to give it my all. And what’s a restaurant review without dessert? The truth is I lived in Scotland for two years and am no stranger to the ménage à trois of hot oil, candy bars, and batter. I get the appeal, but in the end, what can one really say about deep-fried Bounty bars with vanilla-flake ice cream and caramel sauce? They are obscenely delicious—and if they brought me seconds, I’d eat them, and thirds, and fourths…literally ad nauseam, quite possibly ad mortem.
I confess, I have a perilously sweet tooth. But when I return to the Rustic Spud, it will be mostly for the savoury courses.
At one point during my meal the bar tender says she’s excited to try a certain dish. I almost ask how come she’s never tried it, but then I catch myself. The restaurant has only been open for a week—but that detail has somehow slipped my mind, because sitting here it feels like the place has been going for years. The diners exude the warmth of a crowd of regulars. The staff is friendly, familiar, and unawkwardly solicitous. When the waitress brings out my food, it’s as if she too has had a hand in making it.
At the Rustic Spud, you get more than a good meal.
Finally, sipping my coffee with the sweet memory of dessert lingering on my palate, I wonder how I’m going to write this up without coming across as the obnoxious jerk who won’t stop blathering about how much luckier he is than his readers to have a restaurant of this calibre exactly thirty-seven seconds from his doorstep. But in the end there’s no way around it. I have to be that guy. Sorry.
Fortunately, though, I’m not alone. Downtown Kingston is small enough that lots of readers can reach the Rustic Spud in not much more than thirty-seven seconds. For the rest of you, consider yourselves blessed you don’t live in a constant state of temptation—because seriously, it’s getting to be dinner time and the lone spud in my fridge, despite its undeniable elegance, is failing to inspire.