300 bottles of beer on the wall.

May 2007

What does a restaurant do when reviews are less than glowing and the thrill of the launch has died down? Hire a new chef. Which is why Frank Morales, formerly at Zola, is now cooking at Alexandria’s beer-centric Rustico.

Morales is not a novice at rescuing restaurants. He was the “fixer” recruited several years ago by the Star Restaurant Group to put Zola on the map. Now he’s been tapped by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns the Evening Star Cafe, Vermilion, and Tallula, to inject new life into Rustico, an Italian eatery/bar that debuted to lukewarm reviews last year.

Morales has called Rustico a stop on the way to opening a place of his own. In the meantime, he’s turned the beer-and-comfort menu upside down, adding all sorts of refinements: farm-sourced organic meats and cheeses like Hudson Valley duck cracklings and Old Chatham Camembert; obscure foodstuffs like goat sour cream and Fuyu persimmons; trendy housemade condiments and sauces, such as “lemon jam” dressing on butter lettuce, clover sabayon with roast chicken, turnip butter with Colorado lamb.

The cleverest innovation is the introduction of “Mosaics”—food-and-beer pairings in which a trio of mini-dishes is mated with a flight of three six-ounce pours from among the 30 artisanal beers on tap. Mosaics are made for the let’s-have-a-drink-and-a-nibble culture. You can order them as is or mix and match; each item can be had solo, as can the beers.

A trio of lilliputian pot pies (fire-roasted chicken, wild mushroom, and beef shank) sport flaky, crisp crusts and savory fillings spiked with the beers that accompany them. The spicy, malty Belgian Maredsous 8 is the star of the lineup, which includes the nearly as good Stone Smoked Porter and Allagash Tripel.

A Mosaic called “Pork” brings a delicious grouping to the table: tender fried pork-belly grillades over a small mound of Nora Mills grits, an upmarket mini-grilled-cheese sandwich made with Edwards ham and Bandage cheddar, and crispy pig’s trotters coated with crushed chickpeas and deep fried (you’d never know they were pig’s feet). Each one is a two-biter. The brews mate beautifully with the smoky flavors of the meat— the chocolately Bluegrass Bourbon Barrel Stout from Kentucky being the standout of the three.

Not every Mosaic is as well conceived. One billed as Toasts & Rustic Spreads involves ramekins of creamed country ham, pickled vegetables, and marinated anchovy “caviar.” The anchovies are the odd man out in this otherwise Southern combo.

Morales has amped up the pizza roster with a trendy sunchoke-and sheep’s-milk-ricotta pie and an intensely flavored pizza studded with Framani salami, Tuscan marinated anchovies, and olives. A holdover from Rustico’s original menu, the robust housemade-sausage-and-pickled-pepper pie is as satisfying as ever.

Morales is taking advantage of Rustico’s wood-fired oven to grill meats and seafood. Wood-grilled octopus is pleasantly chewy and nicely charred. A Pineland Farms New York Strip benefits from the smoke, too. Not so the Rustico hamburger, which has emerged from the wood grill dry on occasion.

There are a few plates you could imagine eating at a different sort of restaurant, perhaps that small place Morales has in mind. His chicken-liver terrine is elegance itself, the silky pâté a perfect counterpoint to crisps of applewood bacon and a faintly sweet apricot-sherry dressing. Moist yet crisp-skinned rockfish over a sort of panzanella of bread, olives, cherry tomatoes, and fennel pollen eats like a dish you’d find at a pricier, chef-owned place.

On the other hand, lobster orecchiette seems like a dish you might whip up at home—not bad but not that interesting.

Desserts could use some jazzing up, too. The gooey Guinness-spiked chocolate cupcake and a rich slab of parsnip-carrot cake from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s new Buzz Bakery across the street are fun finishes. The rest of the roster is a bit ho-hum.

Rustico’s menu still seems to be evolving as Morales experiments and retools. As it stands, for a restaurant that wants to be known as much for its food as for the depth and breadth of its beer offerings, it’s a fine new beginning.