Bill Bradley (the chef, not the former politician) is an enthusiastic kind of guy. That's clear as soon as you sit down at the Rustic Kitchen in Cambridge, where you're handed a dinner menu, an oysteria menu, a cocktail menu, and a wine list, each rather heavy and lengthy. After you wrestle those into some kind of order and begin to read the list of dishes -- from the wine bar snacks called cicchetti to the raw Italian-style fish dishes to the pastas and main dishes -- you immediately sense the exuberance in the descriptions. Bradley, who had been the opening chef at Bricco in the North End years ago, revitalized the first Rustic Kitchen in Faneuil Hall Marketplace after Todd English exited. James Cafarelli, who had been English's partner, owns both Rustic Kitchens; a third is to open in Hingham.
Rustic Kitchen's Porter Square location used to be home to Metro. The interior look has been softened with lamps, wine cabinets, and other details; it looks a little like a comfortable parlor. A cook bakes pizza in an alcove with a tiny shelf so that diners can sit on stools and watch, and in another alcove a pasta maker stretches and flours dough. On a first visit, a hostess leads us to the back room, but we sit for only a minute before deciding the empty room with its heavy furniture feels like limbo, and we ask to be included in the front room's bustle. Here booths line the walls and other diners sit at high tables near a big bar. On a warm evening, the outside patio is also full.
It's an Italian scene, with everyone talking and laughing and sharing food. Very good food, too, though the waitstaff in this less-than-two-month-old restaurant can be maddeningly inept. Tom Holloway is Bradley's chef de cuisine, with Mark Uscewitz, formerly of the Independent in Somerville, as sous chef.
Bradley's pet project in this second Rustic Kitchen is the oysteria menu: raw and marinated seafood in Italian preparations, with 20 or so raw fish selections. We start one evening with slices of tuna splashed with unfermented aged grape juice and sprinkled with chopped chilies. Each bite lilts on the tongue, and since the grape juice tastes very much like the Japanese mirin, the flavors are familiar. We have wild king salmon, its color a brilliant red, in a shallow pool of bright green pesto. Anchovy fillets boast another green sauce; this one tingles on the palate from finely chopped and mashed capers, parsley, and garlic.
A little dish of portobello mushroom carpaccio qualifies as a miniature feast. The long slices of portobello taste of balsamic vinegar, and a sauce of eggplant spiked with lemon and garlic adds a second note. A fluff of greens finishes the dish. Only a plate of rather stodgy baked polenta with gorgonzola in a tomato sauce is disappointing, especially since we had ordered Apullian-style meatballs.
In a phone interview, Bradley says he wanted to offer these small, relatively inexpensive plates to appeal to the neighborhood around Porter Square. But it would be hard to pass by that pizza oven and pasta station and not want to continue into this menu. One evening we share a Sicilian-style lamb sausage and roasted pepper pizza with an appealingly crisp, thin crust.
The pastas, too, live up to anticipation. Handrolled pasta twists with potatoes, green beans, and pesto is one of Bradley's signature dishes, both refreshingly light and satisfying at the same time. Tagliatelle is sauced with just enough Bolognese sauce to gild each long strand of pasta, but the dish isn't gloppy or overdone. The quality of the sauce and the pasta shines in the dish. Shrimp with garlic, hot peppers, and a sauce of sea urchin and bottarga (dried tuna roe) is tossed with spaghettini. The flavors pack a layered intrigue, with spicy bites from the peppers, sweetness from the shrimp, and a piquant, almost pleasingly sour flavor from the sea urchin and roe. The only disappointment is that the thin pasta quickly gets soggy in the sauce.
Exuberance pops up again in the main courses. A huge double-cut pork ribeye retains its moisture through slow cooking and yet crisped on the edges. Grilled Kobe shoulder steak is another he-man portion; it's good beef, though in this cut the usual Kobe characteristics of almost fork tenderness don't apply. Well-made French fries sprinkled with truffle oil and a spritely tomato jam with hints of orange make up for any dissatisfaction.
A small whole yellowtail snapper roasted with fennel fronds inside captures the prize for both simplicity and showiness. The beautiful fish, garnished with a few roasted vegetables, has a crackle to its skin and moistness to the flesh. A gutsy bagna cauda sauce made of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies is perfect to bring out the sweet notes of the fish.
Pastry chef Heather Macdonald adds to the exuberance, and all of her desserts have little extras. Her skill gleams in a warm chocolate cake with sugared nuts and raspberries, which is almost overwhelmingly rich. A classic creme brulee sports cookies as extras, while big bowls of cherry ice cream are studded with chunks of chocolate.
As Rustic Kitchen grows, I hope it can work out some of its niggling imperfections. The multiple menus, for example, can be confusing. Also, if you park in the reasonably priced lot and enter through the back, you have to wander through the place to find the hostess stand at streetside.
Finally, the service needs some fine-tuning. One evening, I'm noticed by an aquaintance who must have alerted the chef. Suddenly, Bradley himself was serving us appetizers. The next time, though, the waiter seemed disinterested; he suggested one appetizer and brought another, and we had to repeatedly ask for silverware after forks and spoons were removed and not replaced.
We'll put up with some confusion for good food, but a smoother experience would round out the eating pleasure.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
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