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Rustic Gourmet

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"What exactly does the writing on the wall mean?"

We're settling into a cozy corner table at Rustic Gourmet when my friend asks this cryptic puzzler. I throw her a "Are you getting deep on me before we've had our first glass of wine?" look, at which point she rolls her eyes and gestures toward the string of French words in lipstick red that trails around the top edges of the dining room walls.

"Oh, hmmm," I finally reply. "My French is sort of rusty, but the phrases don't seem to make too much sense. Something about millionaires and the taste of a peach andhow food is like love."

Random Gallic bon mots are just one of the welcome oddities that seem to fit right in at this eccentric spot located down industrial Zonolite Road in the Floataway Building. Tables are placed at an angle in the shoebox-shaped room. Walls are decorated with antique kitchen utensils and earthy still-lifes of pears and lemons. Candles flicker on the bar. It's a simple and oddly romantic little boite that feels like a discovery, even though it's been open a little over two years (many folks still know it as "that little place before you round the bend to Floataway Cafe").

The menu concept is a big part of the restaurant's charm. Here's the gist: The prix-fixe menu changes every night. Everyone gets the same soup and salad to start, and there are usually four or five entree selections that cover the gamut of tastes. You've got a vegetarian dish, a seafood choice, a chicken creation and a heartier meat or two from which to choose.

I find the minimal decisions to be made here downright relaxing, particularly on weekday nights when my brain is fried from working all day. No wringing of the hands about ordering well. While munching on a warm piece of baguette or slathering sesame seed-covered crackers with butter like you did at Howard Johnson's as a kid, the evening's offerings are presented to you on a small blackboard. "I'll have the chicken, he'll have the pork" is all you need to mutter to one of the friendly, casual servers to get the ball rolling.

You face more arduous decisions when it comes to the wine list, however, which is full of lesser-known and enticingly affordable selections. Spicy, jammy Pfenix Syrah and plucky Wild Hog Pinot Noir are two favorites I tried here. There are lots of bottles priced under $30, and hello! Wines by the glass are $5 to $7. How refreshingly retro -- I'd almost forgotten you don't have to pay 12 bucks for a decent glass of Merlot.

As is often the case in restaurants where the menu changes constantly, the success of the food can vary from night to night. You can always count on chef/owner Cynthia Holt's soups, which are intense liquid essays on the taste of one specific vegetable. I had a chunky, sweet corn chowder at the end of summer, and more recently thin but piercingly pure watercress and asparagus soups, though my seasonal inclinations make me question whether I want a spring vegetable like asparagus in autumn. It's time to bust out the butternut squash.

Salads can be hit or miss. One night you may find placed before you an intriguing jumble of baby spinach with roasted beets, generous chunks of mild blue cheese and pistachios with a pleasantly bracing dressing. On another visit, you could get a ho-hum bowl of mixed greens with halved cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices tossed with done-to-death balsamic vinaigrette.

I've had similar experiences with entrees. Hawaiian Ono, a firm-fleshed fish, is wonderful in a light tomato sauce jazzed with tarragon. A tangy beurre rouge tastefully complements blushing slices of tender pork. Juicy lamb chops come in a thick reduction of fig-port sauce so scrumptiously complex you work to sop up every drop.

Then again, chicken breasts thickly breaded with herbed crumbs draped in marinara seem straight out of a '70s-era Betty Crocker cookbook. Mushroom ravioli in a light cream sauce are lovely at first but quickly become monotonous without other vegetables or flavors to lend variety. And in most cases you can expect a pile of rice on your plate -- sometimes a sticky pilaf, sometimes perfectly fluffy, separate grains.

And dessert? You guessed it -- one visit up, one visit down. Dull Key lime pie and a pineapple-upside down cake with a skimpy topping of caramelized fruit made me swear I'd never order sweets here again. Then I came back to find an irresistibly buttery raspberry tart and a malted chocolate cheesecake oozing with caramel that comes off as a gloppy yet sophisticated candy bar you eat with a fork.

Obviously, inconsistency is an issue at Rustic Gourmet. And yet I can't help but root for a chef/owner who challenges herself to constantly tackle new dishes. And I never walk out of this restaurant without genuinely savoring at least one of the courses served to me. Ultimately, it's like being invited to a dinner party at the house of a talented but wacky friend who loves to cook: You're never quite sure what sort of imaginative meal she'll be concocting, but you're curious enough to show up and find out, even if you can't quite decipher the writing on the wall.

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