Rustic Kitchen: Lights, camera, grotto!

Email|Print| Text size + By Wesley Morris
April 6, 2007

Ah, Park Plaza. Nice place for dinner, then a show. And the choices! Rock Bottom , Tantric Bar & Grill , California Pizza Kitchen , Bennigan's , Davio's, Legal Sea Foods , Fleming's , Maggiano's , Avila, P.F. Chang's , and -- for theater queens with box-seat money -- Pigalle : Welcome to the city's biggest food court. Get your blinking, vibrating pager now.

Recently, Jim Cafarelli's Rustic Kitchen joined the fray. This used to be a pleasant bistro attached to the Porter Exchange building in Cambridge. Now, it's a theme park attached to the Radisson. The theme appears to be "more is more."

Located just below street level, Rustic Kitchen is a large grotto obese with Italian affectation. Assorted pastas hang, dusty and desiccated, on wood racks (be gentle with them; they break easily). The walls are stone, and a brick oven prominently juts out at the back of the main dining room. The lighting (soft, softer, softest) isn't unlike that of the stage. This is a theatrical and regionalist prelude to whatever's playing on and near Tremont Street . The space actually answers a question you've no doubt had: "What if Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a show about the Batcave of Bruce Wayne's old Italian uncle?"

If, in fact, you get a whiff of showbiz at Rustic Kitchen, it's probably because tepid steak and cold mashed potatoes (more about them later) aren't all that's being served. The restaurant hosts a weekly cooking show in a television studio adjacent to the second dining room. It's called "In the Kitchen," and it plays on hotel TVs. The host is Alissa Bigelow , who, according to this newspaper, is "equal parts Rachael Ray and Mary Tyler Moore ." If that's even half true, Ted Baxter must have been manning the kitchen on a recent Thursday night.

Actually, the executive chef is Tom Holloway , and it's difficult to believe he'd allow his meatballs appetizer to arrive at a table less than warm or that he'd permit the fish in his block of tuna tartare to marinate to the point of tasting faintly carbonated. But someone has. (Ordering the tuna is a foolish choice, anyway; what's rustic about tartare?)

The sweet Italian sausage pizza is the most delicious arrival. The least is a toss-up: It could have been the plastic baked mac-and-cheese, "baked" being a nominal description -- unless by baked, the kitchen means "cooked under a lamp." It could have been the heatless, double-well-done, flat-iron steak that comes with an unappetizing tomato relish. (At least that glass of Montepulciano was warm. Hey, wait a minute!) The accompanying bulb of roasted garlic gives a stellar performance as the Bloomin' Onion from Outback Steakhouse .

The pickled grapes that tag along with the hunk of pork "rib eye" and the aforementioned cold potatoes are the only snap of inspiration. The pork itself is pretty edible.

But at $23, is edible enough? One veteran diner, displaying unprecedented exasperation and unknown aplomb with expletives, didn't care about the money. "It's not worth the calories," she sighed, almost refusing to touch the crème brulée and making bewildered faces at the bland sorbet. Under typical circumstances, she'd at least have a play to watch afterward . Instead, it's just the drive home.

She was also annoyed that the tip would go not to the elegant and accommodating waitress who started the meal but to the team of overeager staffers who wanted to take away half-full plates of food.

The Rustic Kitchen enterprise is certainly ambitious (there's another one in Hingham). It wants to be a destination for shoppers, businesspeople, theatergoers, culinary aspirants, the money bags who live in the condos across the way, and whoever else wants to spend a night in the Italian Batcave.

The multiuse aspect of the space is a little dubious. What's the focus again? But who knows? The place just might succeed in this theater-district incarnation -- though its odds might improve considerably if the food didn't seem like props.

Rustic Kitchen, 210 Stuart St., 617-423-5700, Entrées $16-$29; wine by the glass $6.50-$12.50.


Cuisine: Italian/Pizza

Address: 210 Stuart St., Boston

Phone: 617-617-6334

Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner: Sun. 3-10 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4-11 p.m.; late-night menu until 12:30 a.m.; Sat.-Sun. brunch 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Reservations accepted.

Prices: Appetizers, salads $7-$14; pizzas $10-$19; entrees $14-$22; desserts $6-$8.

Comments: Reservations encouraged for six or more. No smoking inside; smoking on patio.

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