Rustler's Country Grill
Fall River Plaza
320 Torbay Rd., St. John’s
A friend of mine was in New York this winter and stepped into one of the city’s countless Irish pubs with a group of friends. She asked if they served wine. The bartender answered in the affirmative. “What types of red do you have?” she asked. He replied, “Lady, this isn’t the Ritz. We’ve got red wine and white wine, period.”
I tell this little story because it illustrates that it helps to know what kind of establishment you’re entering, and what the limitations of the place might be. Don’t expect to find a bottle of Château La Commanderie 2005 in a Broadway Irish pub in New York. And, if you choose to dine in a greasy spoon restaurant, don’t think you’re going to find bouillabaisse on the menu.
When I took a friend to lunch at Rustler’s Country Grill recently, she hesitated at the threshold, as if a force field were preventing her from going further. She’d caught a glimpse of the tired interior
“Are you sure you want to review this place?” she asked.
Of course I did. People eat in all kinds of restaurants and I believe it’s good to know what all have to offer. I’ve learned, however, that it’s important not to compare a restaurant like Rustler’s to Raymonds.
Basics are comparable. Is the service friendly? Is the food hot? Is the beer cold? But price determines everything else. Dine in an expensive restaurant and, justifiably, your expectations are high; dine in a cheap restaurant and your expectations are lower, or they should be.
The last time I wrote about Rustler’s was in 2007. It was recently taken over by new owners.
Craig O’Brien, who is also the chef, told me they plan to completely renovate the restaurant. He said that eventually folks would not recognize it as the same space.
Right now it looks like a faded, tired version of the place I reviewed seven years ago. I’m glad to hear about the decision to renovate.
Rustler’s adopted a Wild West theme, so it’s decorated with lots of wood paneling. Vinyl upholstered booth seating dominates, and cheesy reproductions of wanted posters sparsely decorate the walls. A nook in the back is filled with VLTs and gamblers.
It gives me pause when I see a menu that’s extremely long or filled with dozens of items that don’t appear to be tied together by any particular theme. Rustler’s menu is like that. Apart from the usual Newfoundland family restaurant items like fish and chips, hot turkey sandwich and pork chop dinner, there are pastas, donairs, stir-fries, crêpes, taquitos and quesadillas.
If you’ve ever watched Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” you’ll know that it is possible to prepare several items on a large menu well, but it is rarely the case where all items are executed perfectly all the time. It’s far better to pare down your menu to the most popular dishes and do them really well. This might be an idea for Rustler’s to mull over.
We began with a round of appetizers brought by our amiable server. Rustler’s French onion soup delivered a payload of good tastes. A dark beef and onion broth, that had obviously been simmered at length to develop maximum flavour, was topped with croutons and browned mozzarella cheese.
A generous serving of 10 or 11 cod tongues came with a dish of freshly made coleslaw — the creamy kind, but not overly so. The tongues were medium size, lightly dusted with flour and pan fried. They were mostly soft and tender, as opposed to crisp and chewy. I like them both ways.
Rustler’s sliders were smashing. Wow. Between three soft buns was a handmade patty of fresh ground beef, grilled until moderate charring appeared. That little detail means so much in terms of extra flavour. The juicy patty was topped with romaine lettuce and a slice of tomato. Usual hamburger condiments were provided.
Cajun chicken linguini was advertised on Rustler’s menu, but the pasta was broad enough to be called fettuccine. Swirls of pasta (cooked till just al dente) arrived in a large, wide rimmed bowl that was decorated with sprinklings of Cajun spice. The dish also had plenty of sliced chicken and a light sauce with good bite.
The hot turkey sandwich must be the Newfoundland family restaurant’s most popular and most heavenly menu item. Bread and gravy is just the best, isn’t it? Rustler’s provides the option of having dark or white meat between the bread. I chose dark because it has more flavour.
I also asked for white bread because it’s the classic choice. There was no whole wheat bread when this sandwich was invented. (It was all white flour, white bread, white fridges, white stoves, everything white, white, white.) A thoroughly delicious sandwich was complemented by some of the best french fries I’ve had in ages.
I thought I’d enjoy Rustler’s half rack of ribs with barbecue sauce, but unfortunately I didn’t. Fries and coleslaw were as good as ever. The pork ribs, alas, had the slight taste of freezer on them, and they were somewhat dry, with only a modest amount of juiciness at the edges.
Don’t expect to get mom’s Sunday turkey dinner when you order the turkey dinner at Rustler’s. (You’re much better off going there on Sundays for their regular Jiggs’ dinner.)
The plate was essentially sliced turkey with gravy, on breadcrumbs seasoned with savoury. Scooped loaded mashed potato (mashed with sour cream, bits of bacon), broccoli florets and cauliflower came as sides. It had cafeteria and not homemade taste.
Rustler’s gives good value for money. What it does well, it does really well. It isn’t Raymonds, but I knew that going in.
Lunch for two with beer, tax and tip: $74 (approximately)
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent
* * * * Exceptional
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com. Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells