"It's really more of a kitchen than a restaurant," says my server at R. Kitchen, which opened in the former Mia Pomodori over Memorial Day weekend.
Ross Webb, who's served as Leaf's head chef since 2011, clearly had something casual in mind when he launched R. Kitchen, described on his LinkedIn page as "my pet project." There aren't any tables in the shotgun space: Patrons have their pick of brown leather stools facing the kitchen bar or a bar affixed to the opposite windowed wall. An outdoor patio is being fixed up for seating.
And while the staff is tremendously earnest about quality cooking - the front door's propped open with a stocky copy of the "Food Lover's Companion", and "Mind of a Chef" episodes are on the approved list for the small television screen on an overhead pantry shelf - they're liable to step away from their stations to enthuse over a guest chef's planned menu. The standard menu is equally whimsical, hopping from jambalaya to grape leaves to paella to Cincinnati chili.
Maybe it was the wandering focus which tamped down my expectations for R. Kitchen. Or maybe it was the eyesore of a website touting a "pre fix" menu and a guest chef "calandar." (I know, they're just words. But for folks who make their living from them, neglecting a vowel is about as defensible as forgetting the salt.) In any case, I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurant when I dropped by for lunch this week.
R. Kitchen's daytime menu is divided into sections for soups, salads, sandwiches and sides. Of the sandwiches, the duck-and-brie and steak-and-onions have emerged as early favorites; I went with the latter on a cook's recommendation, although there are lighter-sounding options, including grilled chicken on pita. Since my informant gravitated toward the sandwiches, I nixed my original plan to assemble an order solely from the sides column, which includes mac-and-cheese and Brussels sprouts.
Judging from my lunch, R. Kitchen's specialty is remarkably generous portions of food that's just a few butter pats away from filthy rich. The $8 shaved steak, ornamented with red winey onions, is seated on a slice of soft brioche that's half the thickness of the book holding the door ajar and swathed with sharp white cheese (the bitter greens and spark of mustard are a smart touch): One of the two average-sized men working the line said he routinely gets two meals out of the massive sandwich. A $4 serving of lima beans share a small bowl with five delicate, perfectly-cooked pink shrimp, submerged in a white wine cream sauce.
The most austere dish I tried - a split corn cob, restrainedly garnished with chili and cheese in an homage to Mexican street food - was the least impressive, although all might have gone well if the corn wasn't underdone.
I'm not sure how R. Kitchen will fare once it starts filling every stool in the house: It may well have to adopt some of the restaurant conventions it's trying to buck. For now, though, eating at R. Kitchen feels like showing up at a high-performing restaurant before service starts. That's a fun concept at any price - and an irresistible one when it's affordable.
R. Kitchen, 212 Rutledge Ave., is open daily from 11 a.m.-"10-ish" p.m. Lunch service ends at 3 p.m., but snacks are available until dinner begins at 5 p.m. On Monday evenings, guest chefs take over the kitchen. Call 789-4342 or visit rutledgekitchen.com for more information.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.