I live in Pentagon City. Well, I take that back. I pass out in Pentagon City. I actually spend most of my life in the District. As such, I never, ever venture to Clarendon or Ballston, because doing so would require switching Metro trains (the horror). And if I’m going to be taking two Metro trains somewhere, it’s going to be somewhere in the city.
But that anti-Orange-line tune of mine has been changing recently with the discovery of some mighty fantastic food over yonder. The thought of Ray’s Hellburger, for instance, has actually motivated me enough to hunt for my long-lost car, dig it out from whatever snow or months’ worth of leaves it’s under, and drive it to my Virginia neighbors.
And then, through a fluke girls’ dinner with no set plans or reservations (and someone else was driving), I discovered Rustico in Ballston. And I was in love. It’s not that it was super posh or gourmet. No, Rustico is actually quite a laid back joint. It’s just that every dish was perfection. The service was fantastic. The wine was delicious. There wasn’t a hitch to the entire meal. It was one of the best dining experiences I have had in the last year. But in Ballston? Mmkay.
So when the restaurant announced that it was serving brunch last month, I nearly wept. Could it be anything like that dinner that I now-constantly fantasize about? And when is the next possible Brunch O’Clock that I can get myself over there? Not even their Alexandria location serves brunch. This is gonna be great!
Turns out, it’s not your typical brunch. But that sort of creativity was to be expected (required, even) from chef Steve Mannino. For starters, there isn’t a brunch cocktail menu. It’s a full bar, so you can get your mimosas or Marys if you please, but the focus in this Belgian joint is on the beer, of course. Their beer menu has some 400 brews, curated by the great Greg Engert. The selection rivals some of the largest wine menus I’ve seen in restaurants. It’s truly impressive.
The brunch menu isn’t that big. There are starters, main dishes, salads, and of course, their hearth-fired artisan pizzas with a big selection of toppings … But it’s a solid, if small, selection that’s completely thought out. One thing to note is this is definitely not the place for a vegetarian brunch. There are only one or two options, and most of our veggimen went for the meat dishes sans the meat.
We started with Mama Mannino’s doughnuts (how can you not?). They arrived still warm, tasting of gorgeous ricotta, and doused in powdered sugar. They were small donut puffs, but so tasty for their size. Definitely the perfect appetizer, if you like to start with something sweet.
Another winner from the starter menu was the smoked salmon tart, topped with spicy cabbage slaw, crème fraiche, and crispy capers. Really, it’s not a tart at all; it’s a smoked salmon pizza—a misrepresentation from the description on the menu. The “tart” was versatile: it could be someone’s sole brunch dish, or a starter to share. It was light and healthy, but still tasty and rich. It’s also very pretty, to boot.
From the brunch options, it was unanimously agreed that the favorite dish was the brisket beef hash. Topped with an egg, sunny side up, and with black pepper biscuits on the side, the hash was set atop a bed of home fries. The meat was tender and full of flavor. It was simple, but delicious. Totally a winter brunch dish.
The truffled couscous carbonara was also a winner. The dish came with bacon and ham bits mixed in with other seasonings, and a poached egg floating in the middle. The couscous had a lovely, delicate mix of spices. It seemed odd to eat couscous with a breakfast spin—a poached egg in the middle, no less—but it worked. The enormous breakfast pizza was also great. Classic country breakfast, topped with sausage, potatoes, peppers, onions, cheese, two eggs, and bacon. Too huge for just one person.
From there, the dishes went downhill a smidge. The croissant sandwich was just okay. A bit too greasy, it came with bacon, egg, lettuce, cheddar cheese and breakfast potatoes on the side, though we ordered it without the bacon (why don’t more places offer turkey bacon?). Missing the bacon probably took away that much-needed salty touch. The egg was oddly not scrambled, which made it a bit hard to eat.
The eggs Benedict comes with Virginia ham, spinach, crab hollandaise, and breakfast potatoes. We ordered it without the ham (yet another veggiman at the table), and the verdict was, “meh.” We’ve had better Bennys. But, we’re Bitches.
The service was excellent. Our waitress was spunky and quick and finished our thoughts before we even expressed what we needed. I had the same experience at dinner. Each server knew the menu inside out and was able to recommend appropriate dishes, beer, and wine. We were a bit late (per usual), and the lovely hostess had no problem bumping our rezzie another half-hour, and then still seating us as soon as we arrived, which I always appreciate.
Plus, the décor is fantastic at Rustico. It wasn’t too loud at brunch, and there’s plenty of seating. Brunch was almost as great as my foodie-orgasmic dinner there. But it was brunch, which is always better than dinner, of course.
The Bitches say: A. Delicious food, great service, comforting setting. Turns out you don’t need the bells and whistles.
4075 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22203