Rustic Cafe, where small is beautiful

You've been in shoe boxes larger than the Rustic Cafe in East Lyme. That's okay; the folks there like it that way.

Yes, with its cheery blonde wood paneling and ceiling beams, a crowd of reliably friendly regulars, an outdoor patio and firepit, an astonishing staff and chef, and the Saturday night "community guitar" open mic, the cozy Rustic Cafe is a damned habit-forming destination.

We found the place on one of those meandering Sunday afternoon drives when you're inspired by the mistaken idea that you can, through force of sheer willpower, conjure glorious springtime weather!

Hmm. Not so much.

But, like a reassuring pat on the back, the weathered Rustic Cafe sign suddenly appeared next to a quaint tavern set slightly back from Boston Post Road in East Lyme.

The steering wheel of the car, acting independently, wheeled into the parking lot. Within a minute, we were seated at the gleaming wooden bar in a room full of cheery folks. Baseball on the flat screens and not-too-loud blues from a Sirius-style subscription over the speakers - Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, for example, which is basically perfect music.

A Bloody Mary, suggested by the bartender for its spicy resorative properties and featuring a pickled green bean and piked green olive, was a further harbinger of Good Things (and, by the way, the Rustic has a full bar including seasonally-motif'd martinis and draft beer selections such as PBR, Grey Sail and Otter Creek).

The menu is modest and boasts what might be described at American pub food with designer twists. Someone in the kitchen - take a bow, Stevie Blanchard, with your reputation for taking the food at Stash's and the Bank Street Cafe to dizzying heights - is not afraid of the idea of "bar food," or the idea of doing great stuff with it.

Pay close attention, then, to the Rustic specials, which are posted on an outdoor chalkboard, just in case you are stupid enough to drive on by.

Recently, these included a shrimp and Ricotta ravioli ($13), cinnamon/chipotle spare ribs ($18 rack, $11 half-rack), Kansas City dry-rubbed beef brisket ($12 platter, $8 sandwich), and carrot-ginger soup ($7 bowl, $5 cup).

Personally - if indeed these recipes are pulled off - I could live off those specials for several weeks.

Turns out, even though it was early afternoon, the ravioli was already sold out. No worries. Bringeth forth the ribs and brisket!

The spare ribs were sizable and meaty, redolent with smoky flavor and easily pulled from the bone with mininal toothage. And, oh, yes: the cinnamon/chipotle crusting the exterior was a terrific tug-of-war between piquancies that yet didn't overwhelm the innate pork-ness of the ribs.

Brisket? Slices of tender meat, with a ribbon of fat on one edge to keep it all moist, and the outer, exterior side veneer of some sort of rub that whispered of cumin - but what do I know? It was pretty wonderful.

The platters come with a choice of two sides, and the chilled potato salad is absolutely worth noting. Toothsome chunks of well cooked potato, not too much mayo to goop it up, shards of onion and red pepper and other mysterious seasonings.

Try the cornbread, too. A pyramid-block of yellow sublimity - slightly sweet and not remotely dry, and served with a room temperature mixture of honey and butter. Magic.

Now, whilst I was carnivore-ing out, my wife, The Vegetarian Who Walks Among Us (TVWWAU), was having her own fun. She kicked the door open on her repast with an order of fried green beans ($4). It was a huge order, delicately battered and flash-fried so the core beanage still had a crisp snap. They came with a side of marinara, which was an intriguing idea. The sauce sparkled with a neat and contrasting tang - and the constuct held together well when heated up later.

She also tried the sly ginger-carrot soup, the flavor of which built with each spoonful. The piquant ginger was used in perfect proportion to the sweet flavor of the carrots, which were represented through bobbing slices in the thick, creamy stock.

The grilled cheese sandwich - once a fairly simple premise relied upon by harried June Cleavers everywhere - has conceptually exploded in recent years by the sort of chef-folks who describe themselves as "artisinal."

Well, TVWWAU regards the idea of "grilled cheese" on a menu the way some people determine the quality of any Thai restaurant on its Pad Thai or seafood shacks on their clam chowders. In this spirit, she vows to regularly revisit the Rustic for their grilled cheese: Texas toast-thick slices of bread (she chose wheat) with tons of melty, gooey cheese that lovingly touched every centimeter of the bread and (requested) tomato slices. Adherent to basic properties, but so beautifully pulled off.

There are plenty of burgers, sandwiches and seafood options on the menu, as well, and by all indications there's no reason to think these are anything other than very good.

The Rustic Cafe

516 Boston Post Road, East Lyme
(860) 691-0477, therusticcafe.com

Cuisine: Inventive spins on classic American pub food

Atmosphere: Quaint, clean, welcoming regular's bar with an outdoor fire pit

Service: Go once and you're greeted warmly; twice and you're family.

Credit cards: All majors

Reservations: No - but remember this is a tiny place and very popular

Handicap access: A few steps to get into the building and a few steps down to the outdoor area.

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