The folks at Rack & Rye Gastropub probably know perfectly well what they’re doing, but I can’t say I do. This place has me bamboozled.
First, there’s the name. Obviously it’s a pun on the rock & rye—a reemerging blast from our Progressive Era past consisting of candy-sweetened rye whiskey. But why? What’s the point of the pun? When I first heard the name, I thought maybe it was going to be a cool pool hall, but no. Wine rack? But it’s not a wine bar per se either (unless they’re going to use that perforated back wall for storage at some point—an interesting but unlikely thought). No clue.
Which brings me to the second puzzlement, the space itself. As I’ve said before, I’ve got no beef with the term “gastropub” so long as the word is accurately applied. But “pub” implies a modicum of rustic comfort, which the rather elegant Rack & Rye in no way exudes (see aforelinked photos). In fact, the design elements most meant to encourage conviviality strike me as the least comfortable. Take the long communal table: narrow & lined with elegant chairs, it’s more conducive to a formal dinner party than to strangers spontaneously kicking back & mingling. There’s nothing casual about the straight-backed banquette either—especially in the context of the color scheme: sleek black & cream. The fact that, on the night I was there with pal L, it was completely empty but for one other table the entire time only added to the underlying feeling of unease.
Third, of course, is the menu. On paper, it’s a whole lot of fun—so fun it’s almost silly. I agree with 5280’s assessment that at this point the chef is just throwing trends against the wall & seeing what sticks. Which is okay, so long as enough does in fact stick to form a coherent whole. And that’s what remains to be seen. Though I liked most of what I tried, I didn’t trust it—the little things that didn’t work added up to suggest it could go either way, jelling into a repertoire with real flair or skewing completely off-kilter. Here’s hoping for the former.
Consider the Spam fries. The fact that they were clearly conceived as a shameless ploy to establish instant notoriety/hipster cred doesn’t make them any less worth a try. After all, they’re just deep-fried strips of chopped, pressed, salt-&-sugar-cured pork, i.e., triggers to fire every neuron in the brain’s reward center one by one. It hardly mattered that the chili oil was apparently omitted from the chili oil aioli, leaving glorified mayo. (As there was no hint of garlic either, we’re using the word “aioli” loosely here, presumably.) Well, it mattered a little. Capsaicin would have provided a tingling bit of balance.
The only thing wrong with the maple-bacon peanuts, meanwhile, was my glary snap thereof. But, like my camera, they did flash bright that night.
So far, so enjoyably trashy. Ditto the cheddar cornbread sticks with jalapeno jelly dipping sauce.
If the order looks skimpy, it’s to their credit that even before our server set it down he assured us 2 more sticks were on their way. And if it’s kinda ugly, well, that’s better than being too pretty to eat. Lighter in flavor as well as texture than I expected, they were just corny & cheesy enough to play well with the dipping sauce—which tasted like nothing so much as sweetened green chile, odd but not unpleasant.
I’m still conflicted about the sliders we tried—pork belly with mustard soy glaze
In both cases, the filling was much better than it had a right to be. I guess the word “glaze” didn’t register when I read the description of the former, because I was expecting something spicier & saltier; instead, the sweetness of the condiment, likely brown sugar, put the meat in a mellow mood. Spoiled as I am by dishes like Rioja’s in which fresh pork belly is given the deluxe treatment, I’m still ambivalent about the use of it here as opposed to some other fatty cut—did it get its due or was it compromised for the sake of its current status? I wish now I’d pulled a chunk out to taste it all by its lonesome to know for sure.
As for the latter, before tasting it I was confident the pairing of duck & swiss was a bad idea, that they had nothing in common & they’d both just sit there awkwardly & sullenly. And they might have, but for the pear that, complementing them both, brought them tenderly together; fruitiness proved the missing link. Too bad about the no-account French rolls.
Too bad, too, that a similar risk in the form of a special—char siu tacos—didn’t pay off.
For all its blessings, cheese does not in fact make everything taste better. Even the haphazard, never-the-twain-shall-meet presentation went to show that provolone—never mind deli-grade provolone—can’t do anything for Asian-style barbecued pork other than throw it into disarray. I couldn’t even tell you if the meat was truly char-siu-esque (a little hoisin, a little soy & rice wine, etc. etc.); it pretty much just disappeared between the cheese & the room-temperature flour tortilla.
So how does all that bode for the Korean reuben sliders with grilled rib eye, swiss & kimchi slaw, the short rib rendang, the PB&J sliders & all their future ilk? I’m willing to find out. After all, one of my favorite chefs ever, David Nevins now of Osetra Sono in Connecticut, long ago convinced me that with the right touch, anything was possible—even caramel-fried lobster with warm cheddar, chiles & green onions. Rack & Rye could convince me someday too.
But it’ll never get me to call it a pub.