First Look: Blue Ribbon Rustic Kitchen

Freshly opened in Hillcrest, Blue Ribbon enters the "craft foods" fray short on hype and long on skill.

Blue Ribbon Rustic Kitchen (530 University Avenue, 619-501-6795) is open in Hillcrest, right where Bayu’s Ethiopian closed up shop months ago. The new restau grew out of successful North County enterprises Blue Ribbon Pizza and the Craftsman Tavern. Branding itself friendly to the cause of Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking hipsters marks the Rustic Kitchen lagging in the quest for coolness. Celebrating weak beer, even ironically, is just so 2008; even if a vestige of charm remains in tugging on a tallboy of PBR at an otherwise expensive restaurant.

Since crafty-rustic-farm-to-table restaurants seem almost de rigueur, the concept at the Rustic Kitchen fails to set off alarm bells. There’s nothing wrong with that, however, since the kitchen already manages a degree of excellence in execution impressive for any restaurant, more so for one that’s freshly opened. The menu lacks linguistic pretension, using the real language of cooking in place of empty modifiers. That cooking is straightforward and driven by fine technique, as with the calamari and clams starter ($12), where delicate shellfish floated simply in a slurry of butter and chili flakes.

For the caprese salad ($12), the Kitchen had the bright idea to deep-fry the mozzarella. Eat it while the cheese is still hot, otherwise the salad becomes ponderous, despite the excellent heirloom tomatoes stacked throughout.

Pasta dishes ($15-$19) featured bone marrow, braised beef, butter and cream sauces, truffles, mascarpone cheese, and other heavy ingredients. Curious for a summer menu, but not without merit. A bold hand on the saute pan gave the gnocchi with black truffle sauce ($17) a fine crunch on the otherwise pillowy dumplings. A labor-intensive bowl of baked parmesan cheese to house the fettuccine dish made, if nothing else, an impressive statement.

Looking at the entree options (salmon, steak, short ribs, chicken, and scallops), there were no surprises. Salmon “en papillote” ($22) was good for no other reason than that the fish was cooked perfectly and that there was lots of beurre blanc with it. That’s reason enough to like a dish and it goes to show that simplicity rules the day with the menu.

Even the dessert, a butterscotch pudding that’s made it’s way down the coast from Blue Ribbon Pizza, was good because well made. The silky smooth custard, topped with a splash of caramel and some Chantilly cream, wasn’t fancy. It was just perfectly cooked.

At first glance, Blue Ribbon Rustic Kitchen looks expensive. But there is substance there, beneath the Edison bulbs and the casual use of chicken wire to convey farmhouse provincialism. The restaurant can pride itself on good cooking instead of cool ideas, and that’s saying something. Hillcrest is a tough market, and Blue Ribbon’s location is tough spot, but the new restaurant is very promising.

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