If you have had your fill of exposed pipes and bare brick, take heart. Rust Belt Cafe is yet another converted factory, but with a difference.
Though construction lights dangle from black ceilings and tables are blackened, pebbled slabs of poured concrete covered with polyurethane, what in other restaurants seems coy or cute here becomes whimsy, a fanciful playing with motifs rather than a kitschy fantasy trip. Tables are widely spaced, booths and banquettes exceedingly comfortable, and the decibel level mercifully low. The space is snug, charming, and all of a piece. And the food is wonderful.
One enters this oversize double storefront through the bar, a large, brightly lit space that looks more like a tearoom. It provides a place for smokers to light up before, during, and after the meal; no smoking is allowed in the dining room. On one side of the dining room are booths and banquettes against a black matte wall; exposed brick and potted plants line the other; and polished steel fire doors make up the back wall.
Rich Ladd and Cheryl Corrado preside over the kitchen, and Linda Olson is responsible for desserts and the chewy, sweet briochelike rolls served during the meal. The chefs call their cuisine “postindustrial,” which as far as I have been able to gather means ingredients and techniques borrowed from different cultures and served in an industrial setting.
The menu is small, but as Spencer Tracy once said of Katharine Hepburn, it is “cherce.” Divided into “smaller” and “larger” portions rather than into appetizers and entrees, offerings encourage diners to choose according to their appetites; the waiter won’t sneer if you order a meal made up of the smaller portions.
Presentations are emphasized, and range from the merely pleasing to the exquisite. Among the latter we would include the lamb carpaccio appetizer ($5.95), five deep pink slices arched around three cylinders of savoy cabbage filled with red-pepper-flecked spinach. A sprinkling of black sesame seeds completes the arrangement, which is as lovely to eat as it is to look at. So are the black-sesame scallops ($6.50), a trio of lightly breaded, curd-tender mollusks coated with black sesame seeds. Each rests on its own emerald green cabbage leaf, and the leaves are arranged to form a triangle around a tangle of julienned carrot and cucumber. A delicate lime vinaigrette sparks this dish, which comes perilously close to perfection. Even the more mundanely presented porcini fettucine ($5.95) is garnished with three silvery sage leaves encircling a dab of bright red pepper relish. And though it may look mundane, the dish is anything but. Porcini mushrooms have been ground into the homemade noodles, which provide a pungent, chewy base for a rich cream sauce lightly kissed with sage. Also listed as a smaller portion is duck confit ($4.95), one-fourth of a savory, succulent bird reposing on a bed of curly endive surrounded by oak-leaf lettuce leaves.
Soups ($4.25) are prepared with the nonmeat-eater in mind. One evening, a smooth, rich pumpkin soup, the essence of cream and pumpkin, was served in a heated, hollowed-out pumpkin shell. Another evening featured cream of potato and leek, garnished with a crisscross of chives and loaded with cubes of still-firm tuber. Though dense, earthy, and satisfying, it did not match the pumpkin’s unctuousness, and might have benefited from a touch less salt.
Among the larger portions, poached salmon in napa ($15.95) stands out. First wrapped in napa leaves, the salmon is poached and then topped with briny flying-fish roe, bright dots of orange against the green. Placed in a pool of tangy beurre blanc and flanked by two wild-rice patties and three baby carrots, the dish is a visual and gustatory delight. For carnivores, the mixed grill of veal, quail, and sausage ($20.95) can be heartily recommended. The quail, almost scorched on the surface but buttery tender within, shares a plate with a coarse, full-flavored sausage link and a thick medallion of rosy veal wrapped in pancetta. Our waiter called the accompaniment “beet tumbleweed”; it turned out to be an airy jumble of crisply fried beet strands, a savory-sweet, crunchy counterpoint to the meat.
Carnivores should also delight in the Rust Belt rib chop ($22.95), one pound of dry-aged rib steak of impeccable pedigree, tender and tangy throughout. Roasted potatoes, slightly underdone and somewhat dry, carved in the shape of nuts and bolts kept the meat company, as did a handful of lightly sauteed baby string beans. Tuna and shrimp in a spicy basil-tomato sauce ($16.95) garnered mixed reviews. The tuna itself was shimmeringly fresh and served rare, as requested, but the shrimp, though perfectly respectable, added little to the dish. An assertive basil-scented sun-dried-tomato sauce threatened to overpower the tuna. Two triangles of deep-fried herb-flecked polenta and a small mound of baby string beans completed the presentation.
Desserts rank with some of the best in the city. Creme brulee ($5.95), a voluptuous, creamy concoction, comes to the table in white porcelain on a black marble slab; it’s flanked by a basket made from a buttery cookie dough and filled with fresh strawberries and kiwi slices and a single truffle. This is custard made in heaven. Not far behind is chocolate truffle torte ($4.50), dark, dense, bittersweet, and accompanied by a small mound of homemade prune-armagnac ice cream. Chocolate bombe ($5.95), a hemisphere of smooth whiskey-chocolate ice cream on a base of walnut-fudge brownie and coated with white chocolate latticed with dark chocolate, is a chocoholic’s dream come true. Only poached pear in puff pastry ($5.95) failed to measure up. Its superb puff pastry and delicate creme anglaise could not redeem a dull, tough fruit. If sorbets are your thing, by all means try the sorbet trio ($3.95). We tasted two–tart, intense grapefruit and deep pink, true-flavored prickly pear. A dark-roasted, winy coffee makes a satisfying finish.
The extensive wine list gives evidence of careful thought. Prices begin at $15 a bottle, but there are four whites and four reds available by the glass, making sampling easy and fun. Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare ($3.50), a dry, fruity rose, goes well with most of the viands, while Mount Pleasant Seyval Blanc ($3.50) is a citrusy white, more for sipping than serious imbibing. Among the reds, Black Opal Cabernet Sauvignon, which hails from down under, is a bargain at $3.50 a glass, but for me the prize goes to the well-rounded, full-bodied, elegant Etude Pinot Noir ($6.50). Eager, friendly service adds to a general sense of having dined well.
Rust Belt Cafe, 2747 N. Lincoln Ave., is open for dinner Tuesday 5:30 to 9, Wednesday through Saturday to 10, and Sunday to 9. Sunday brunch is served from 10:30 AM to 2 PM. Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover cards are accepted. For reservations call 880-7878.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Art Wise.