Kitchen Favorites: Rustico’s Frank Morales and Greg Engert

Rustico chef Frank Morales and beer director Greg Engert.

Chef Frank Morales and beer director Greg Engert are the guys behind the food and drink at Alexandria’s Rustico. Morales took over the kitchen of the pizza-and-beer spot three months ago. First order of business: revamping the menu with his own pizzas (sunchokes and sheep's milk ricotta dress up one pie). He’s also added a series of dishes he calls mosaics—tasting trios built around themes and ingredients like spring soups, air-dried beef, pork, and even potpies (fillings include beef shank, fire-roasted chicken, and wild mushroom).

Engert’s job is to pair each mosaic–and everything else on Morales’s menu–with Rustico’s 300-some brews (30 are on tap). A veteran of Dupont Circle’s famously divey Brickskeller, Engert began to appreciate “good” beer while traveling in Europe after college.

“At every other restaurant I’ve worked in, “ says Morales, who’s headed up kitchens at the Oval Room and Zola, “I had a sommelier.” Customers often ask him if there’s a difference between a sommelier and a beer director. “I say none,” says Morales.”They both have the passion. But one talks about malts, one talks about grapes. The only difference is, one has a nosering and one doesn’t.” Engert laughs – they clearly have fun at work here. Over a late-afternoon snack of mini-potpies and yellowfin tuna mosaics, Frank and Greg shared some of their kitchen favorites.

All-time favorite meal:
Frank: I grew up in Westchester County outside of New York City, but most of my younger years were spent there in the city. I’ve lived in every borough except Staten Island. So for me it’s ethnic food. A Puerto Rican meal – a very simple dish of fried plantains with cured pork. That’s pretty much the top for me.
Greg: I was traveling on an overnight train from Paris to Mainz. We got to Germany at 9 AM and started to drink wheat beer and eat sausages with sauerkraut.
Frank: That sounds like the breakfast of champions. Wheat beer and sausage.

Favorite local restaurant:
Frank: Palena.
Greg: I like Mendocino. I go there to drink wine, actually. It’s a nice refreshing change. 

Beer of choice:
Frank: Right now it’s the Ayinger Celebrator, a German beer.
Greg: It changes like every minute. I’d say Orval – it’s a Trappist beer, made at a monastery in Belgium.

What cheap beer would you go for at a dive bar?:
Frank: PBR.
Greg: Sam Adams. Does that count? It’s a good beer!

Favorite course of a meal:
Frank: I come from a classical French background. I don’t do dessert that well–I like my dessert in a glass. I think appetizers are the most intriguing, because they’re smaller and you’re not overwhelmed. I like tasting menus.
Greg: So that’s every course.
Frank: I don’t like the later, heavier courses. If I could have a pizza and a pizza was three bites, I’d be excited.
Greg: I’m not a big dessert guy either. My favorite part of a meal is the end of the entree, and the digestifs that go along with that. You’ll be finishing that last glass of the beer you’ve paired with the entree, or glass of wine, and transitioning over to espresso or an after dinner drink, Grand Marnier or something.

Favorite fast food guilty pleasure:
Frank: Dumplings. I don’t know if you can call that fast food. I love fried pork dumplings.
Greg: Popeyes. They got the heat.
Frank: You know, I’m going to have to agree with you on that. But I don’t like their spicy, I like their original. And they’ve got the red beans and rice.

Favorite dish on Rustico’s menu:
Greg: The spring pie. I'd say it's the first "Frank Morales" pizza here. It’s a roasted tomato pie, with English peas, fava beans, ramps, and Boursin cheese.
Frank:  Mine fits my favorite beer at the moment, and that’s the deep-dish Berkshire pork shoulder.

Favorite beer and food pairing:
Frank: I don't have one, because I’ve only been learning about beer for three months now. I could have told you a year and a half ago that it was like, Molson Gold and a hot dog or something like that. Now the possibilities are…well it’s changing for me.
Greg: Recently, I had tom yum chicken soup with Singha, a malty, delicious Thai lager. That was perfect. Beer goes with Asian food much better than wine.

Favorite non-alcoholic beverage:
Frank: Green tea.
Greg: Coffee. It’s still stimulating.

Favorite cocktail:
Frank: Tanqueray martini, straight up with a twist.
Greg: Johnny Walker Black on the rocks.

Preferred hangover cure
Frank:We’ve been making plum beer popsicles here. They work like a champ.
Greg: Lambic beer. It’s sweet, low alcohol. In Belgium, in the morning, that’s what they drink.

Favorite food from childhood:
Greg: Corned beef and cabbage. I'm Irish.
Frank: Chicken cutlets with apricot jam.

Favorite dish to cook at home:
Greg: I don’t cook at all. Favorite meal for my girlfriend to cook at home?
Frank: I don’t cook often at home. My favorite meal is whatever my wife is preparing. She used to always say, I’m not going out to dinner with you anymore because you always pick on everything. So I stopped. Now everything she puts in front of me is delicious. She makes a lot of tuna salad, egg salad, chicken salad. I eat lighter at home than I do at work.

Favorite vegetable:
Frank: Rhubarb. It’s one of those funny things. How do you do beer with rhubarb?
Greg: How about a flavored lambic, that’s more on the tart side? Not just total sweet lambic.
Frank: I see that. We should do that. Let’s do rhubarb profiteroles. No, rhubarb eclairs.

Least favorite vegetable
Greg: I’m not a big fan of eggplant.
Frank: Chayote. Jicama. I don’t think it does anything. They’re all the same.

Favorite food TV:
Frank: I must admit, it’s Rachael Ray for me. I like Alton Brown and all his chemistry, but I like the lighter side, the travels. Friends of mine have been on Iron Chef and I’ve spoken to them about being on the show–it’s a lot a lot of stress.
Greg: We have Food Network on in the bar often, and I catch snippets. I’ve been watching the old Jacques Pepin stuff on PBS – I’d rather watch that.
Frank: You always say to me, 'Look at what he does! He doesn’t dress it up the way that the moderns do.' It’s really true. It is what it is. It’s intrinsically right.

Favorite local pizza (besides Rustico)
Greg: I thought that would be the first question!
Frank: Each place has a different style. Peter’s place [2 Amys], it’s just a good pizza. I know what they do. There are some things that I would prefer differently, like I would prefer they cut it.
Greg: I would go there or Paradiso, in Georgetown, for the beer selection. I don’t really like their pizza. I’d go to 2 Amys for pizza, and there for the beer.

Favorite comfort food
Frank: Anything savory with pastry. I’m working on a Mosaic of Wellingtons.
Greg: Beer. It’s the ultimate comfort alcoholic beverage.