Chowing down with John Batchelor at Rascals Tavern
Starters get high marks, good sandwiches and burgers, but not enamored with the entrée specials.
Casual, tavern concept.
Pleasant and well informed.
Lower price range for entrée specials, mid to upper for menu items.
Ratings range from Not Recommended to Acceptable, one (satisfactory), two (good), three (very good), four (excellent) or five (truly exceptional) stars.
“Do you want a new bottom?” the waitress asked my wife. I wouldn’t touch that line even by long distance, but the query was appropriate. At issue was the sub roll hosting The New Yorker, an aptly named assembly of sliced capicola ham, salami, and mortadella (Italian sausage), augmented with smoked Gouda cheese, all placed in shredded lettuce with hot pepper slices. On the one hand, there’s a lot of flavor in those meats, and they are all quality products. But the balsamic vinaigrette that dressed the lettuce had been over applied, resulting in a soggy lower half. Wet bread is not palatable, and a dry half was, in fact, provided — a good sandwich, when repaired.
Rascals does many things well. Chef-owner Jessica Borgione is implementing a casual, tavern concept, decorated in patterned wood walls, fresh flowers on the tables. She uses quality, fresh ingredients, the servers are well versed and highly personable, and live music is performed most weekends. Open about a year, the property exudes a pleasant, neighborhood bar ambience.
I am especially fond of the starters section of the menu. Scotch Eggs are constructed from a center of a hard-boiled egg surrounded by crisp fried sausage, spread with Dijon mustard blended mayonnaise. A winner.
To make Fried Deviled Eggs, the kitchen divides a boiled egg, removes and devils the yolk, coats the whites with panko bread crumbs and fries them, then fills the now crisp white host with deviled yolk and tops them with hollandaise sauce sprinkled with dill and crisp crumbled bacon (real, not “bits”). The presentation of six halves on mixed lettuces is entertaining as well as satisfying.
Fresh cut French fries form the foundation for Poutine, in this version decorated with crisp steak strips and clumps of sausage, interspersed with fried cheese curds. This is a very large portion, presented in a bucket. I love the look, and the flavor, to me, is more satisfying. The overall impact just less messy than most other versions I’ve tried.
I am also a fan of the Fried Green Tomatoes here. Three slices, firm and tart, are covered with homemade pimento cheese, ladled with warm, sweet raspberry jam, the whole assembly scattered with pieces of crisp bacon. The sweetness of the jam is an able foil for the tartness of the tomatoes.
These are hearty and heavy, and could easily constitute a meal by themselves. The set menu consists of salads and sandwiches.
Strips of grilled breast meat are placed on a bed of mixed lettuces to form Grilled Chicken Salad, with crumbled goat cheese, diced tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh croutons. The ranch dressing is pleasantly mellow.
The Greek Salad earns a little less praise. It’s not bad, it just seems expensive ($12) for what you get- a large helping of mixed lettuces, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, banana peppers and croutons. The dressing is vinaigrette augmented with herbs- OK, but not as flavorful as the ones I’ve had in some Greek restaurants around town (where the price is lower).
The Philly Steak Sandwich boasts a lot of thin-sliced beef, emitting solid flavor, albeit dark, and to my taste, overcooked. The impact intensified with sliced bell peppers, onions, hot peppers and a dollop of Cheez Wiz. Enjoyment was undermined by excessive salt.
The Burger provides a solid depth of beef flavor. If you are seeking a vegetarian alternative, a vegetable patty is also offered. The main ingredient is augmented with lettuce, tomato and smoked cheddar cheese, plus jalapeño aioli. A caution: The latter ingredient is pretty intense. You might consider asking for it on the side and adding to your personal taste.
Sandwiches come with a choice of a side. The fresh cut French fries are very good, indeed. But the thin-sliced sweet potato fries were either crisp but almost burned (very dark brown) or not crisp at all. Potato salad is a straightforward preparation with appropriate sized chunks of potato; my wife and I both liked it.
The kitchen produces off-menu special entrées on Wednesday through Saturday nights. Four large, deveined shrimp, tender, cooked just right, perched atop Asian Stir Fry- a pile of red and yellow bell pepper slices, asparagus, red cabbage, and Portobello mushrooms over rice noodles, surrounded by an orange sweetish sauce of the sort that appears in lots of area Asian restaurants. This struck me as one of those occasions when restraint or focus would have served the conception- there was just too much going on, and again, so much salt that it was difficult for me to eat.
Another special, Beef Ribs, looked spectacular. The beef itself was rather firm in texture, and it provided a moderate level of flavor in its own right. A house made barbecue sauce was rendered more complex with blueberries and a blueberry reduction, plus pineapple chunks. These are not ingredients I usually associate with beef, and I did not think they constituted a particularly good match in this case, either. Mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus were the vegetables, and they seemed well chosen.
Absent the entrée specials, the overall rating and the score for food would have been higher. But when the most expensive items are the least enjoyable, numbers get hurt.
We noted a problem with one check. The set menu is the same at lunch and dinner, but lower prices are available at lunch. My charge for a salad, however, was the full dinner price. I was informed that you have to ask for a smaller, lower-priced portion; default goes to full price — caveat emptor.
I would return to Rascals for the bar and the casual food. Perhaps other entrée specials would be more pleasing.
John Batchelor has been writing about eating and drinking since 1981. Over a thousand of his articles have been published. He is also author of two travel/cookbooks: Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes from the North Carolina Coast, and Chefs of the Mountains: Restaurants and Recipes from Western North Carolina. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or see his blog, johnbatchelordiningandtravel.blogspot.com