455 Tenth Avenue, East Village
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” I say to no-one in particular.
Sigh. Actually, no chance of a bottle in front of me. Not tonight. Gotta work. Came in here to lament the passing of the Café Paris. Saw from the bus it’s gone. Brave attempt at a bistro. Closed last December.
Now, in its place: outfit called Rustic Tapas & Meatballs. I swear, “rustic” is the word of the month. Last week I was at Rustic Kitchen, five blocks from here. There’s a Blue Ribbon Rustic Kitchen up in Hillcrest.
I’m sitting at a varnished wood table in this blue-and-cream-walled space on Tenth, in the heart of East Village. I’m thinking how this little place won’t be the same without Loris, the young Parisian guy who started it, and all the French kids he seemed to hire, and all the party-at-any-price condoïstas who would bulge out of here Friday nights, wine glasses in hand.
I raise my water glass. “Here’s to you, mon brave. Thanks a lot for walking out on us.”
This is about the precise moment Loris himself pops out from the kitchen.
“It’s still my place!” he says. “I just decided to go cheaper, make it more bistro-like. Change the name. There was a problem with ‘Café Paris.’ People expected a more important, sophisticated restaurant. A more frou-frou place. So, I started trying to meet their expectations: make more sophisticated foods to please them, and that meant I had to put my prices up, and so I started losing my regular customers. They couldn’t afford me. So, I decided to start over.”
He says he closed Café Paris December 21 and reopened January 18 as the Rustic. Today he’s wearing a black T-shirt with a big “R” and a grizzly bear as the logo, and the words “If you like meatballs, follow the bear!”
Wow. From frou-frou to Bigfoot. Quite an image switch.
Okay, but what’s this meatball deal? Meatballs don’t sound exactly French, even at bistros.
This is when he’s called away. “Here, check this out,” he says as he leaves.
It’s the menu. Two pieces of paper stapled to either side of a board. Lessee now. One side has tapas and drinks, the other has the meatball menu. Oh, yes. Prices are definitely lower. Think I’ll start off with a tapa.
Actually, before I have a chance to decide, Loris arrives back with a plate of six bruschettas. “I’m having this for my dinner, but you’re welcome to have one.”
Can’t resist. Turns out this whole plate goes for $6. You get two with mozzarella, prosciutto and grilled tomatoes, two with brie and slices of bacon on top and honey dribbled over the top of that, and the last two with goat cheese plus cranberries and walnuts and honey. It’s one of these that I attack. Dee-lish. But also such a filling plate for six bucks.
I check the rest of the tapas. Hmm... Marinated black mussels in a white wine, garlic, and cream sauce. Anika and Ashley, two gals sitting up to the bar, are having that. Looks great. Especially for $7. Potato wedges with parsley, garlic, and aioli, are $3. They have a baked brie cheese with jam and baguette for $10, and a salami, sausage, and cheese plate for $8.
In the end I go for the baked-artichoke tapa with parmesan, bacon, and eggplant cream. It’s $6.
Loris comes back and takes down my order. “No meatballs?” he says. Hmm...thinking. Carla and I could pig out later with most of this.
But on the meatball side you have to work things out for yourself.
“Step one,” the menu says. “Choose your meatball style.” Meaning, slider ($3), burrito ($8), sub ($7), naked ($8), spaghetti ($10), or paella ($10). Even with the three-buck slider, you have a bunch of decisions. First, choose your meatball. Beef, (with garlic, basil, onion, parmesan mixed in)? Chorizo? Soy chorizo? Turkey?
Then you’ve gotta choose your sauce: Aioli? Marinara? Pesto? Spicy marinara?
Then cheeses: Provolone? Manchego? Smoked gouda? Parmesan?
And all that, just for the $3 slider.
I decide to go with the paella. You get to choose two meatballs, plus one kind of cheese and one sauce.
Bottom line: I choose beef and the chorizo meatballs, the pesto and the spicy marinara, the gouda and the parmesan cheeses.
And I’ve still got that baked-artichoke tapa coming.
’Course, it’s all too much. If I had time and wine to help it down I could made a decent dent in it. The paella is great, but the surprise is the artichoke. The eggplant cream, the bacon, and the parmesan-cheesy flavor make it so savory and addictive. Oh, for a glass of one of Loris’s famous Bordeaux ($8).
“But, Loris,” I have to ask. “Why specialize in meatballs? You’re from Paris. Meatballs don’t even sound French.”
“Well I’m from Paris, but my family is from Sicily. My grandmother, who brought me up in Paris, would always give me meatballs she had made. They’re very Italian, very Sicilian. And so am I. When I called her and asked if I could use her recipes, she was thrilled.”
When I get the paella home, there’s no battle over meatballs. I dig the herby, garlicky flavor of the beef. Carla, a registered chorizo freak, says the paella-chorizo combo is one of the best she can remember.
Me, I want to go back and keep it simple: a $3 meatball slider. And maybe a bottle in front of me. Okay, an $8 glass of Bordeaux would do.
- Prices: Marinated black mussels in a white wine and cream sauce, $7; potato wedges with parsley, garlic, and aioli, $3; baked brie cheese with jam and baguette, $10; salami, sausage, and cheese plate, $8; baked artichoke with parmesan, bacon, and eggplant cream, $6; meatball slider, $3; meatball burrito, $8; spaghetti meatball, $10; paella meatball, $10
- Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
- Buses: 3, 11, 901, 929
- Nearest bus stops: Tenth and Market (3, 11); 11th and Market (901, 929, northbound); Tenth and Island (901, 929 southbound)
- Trolley: Blue Line, Orange Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: Park and Market