Talk about signs a place is gonna be good:

If the portrait at the entrance to Rackhouse Pub on site at the Stranahan’s distillery doesn’t indicate the fun to be had amid the whiskey barrels & sheet metal

lining the dining room in a nod to so-called steampunk style, I don’t know what does. Unless it’s the flatscreens tuned into the Celtics game, thank you very much. Or the rotation on the iPod: Beastie Boys & Girl Talk, thank you even more.

Or the menu, a compendium of pub grub done right—with quality ingredients & just enough creative flair to keep it interesting yet real. If there’s 1 thing the gastropub movement has done for the better—besides bring back deviled eggs—it’s up the ante on the neighborhood grill; had Rackhouse opened 10 years ago, it might have been your average corners-cutting, Sysco-sourcing sports bar (minus, of course, the artisanal spirits), but on the much savvier current scene, even a modestly ambitious kitchen had better know its pesto from its panko—& Rackhouse’s seems to be working it, for all the Duderinian (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) vibe the front of the house emits.

The steamed mussels listed as “Blacks,” for instance, are a promising start.

Though the bowl—piled with plump shellfish & thick, juicy coins of chorizo—didn’t contain enough broth, let’s look at it as a sixth full rather than 5 sixths empty; what there was was heady. Made with Great Divide’s Hades Ale, a Belgian-style strong pale ale, it boasted a refreshingly bitter midpalate laced with a downright bracing amount of red pepper; I had to ask for a spoon (which, word to service, should have been offered to begin with) to slurp it up to my satisfaction. After all, the accompanying flatbread, thin as it was, wasn’t going to suffice as a sopping tool—which, really, was to its credit; hot, crisp & bubbly, not dry & crackery, & sprinkled evenly with parmesan & herbs, it boded well for the pizza—which, in turn, actually surpassed my moderately positive expectations.

The white Rustica’s topped with chunks of locally made sausage, mushrooms (mostly portobello & button, I think), & whole cloves of roast garlic, along with decent mozz; it’s a hearty mess atop that crunchy thin crust, perhaps a little too charred at the edges for some, but I’m all for the burnt bits.

No burnt bits on the slab of ribs—not surprisingly, since they’re oven-roasted rather than slow-smoked,

but hey, Rackhouse doesn’t pretend to be a hardcore BBQ pit, & as roasted ribs go they were fine, especially where the hoisin sauce was glazed rather than glopped on. The whole shebang I’d call sloppy but generous: the molasses baked beans were too sweet (nothing a little salt pork couldn’t cure), while the coleslaw was disappointingly bland (nothing more cider vinegar, S&P & some caraway couldn’t cure); the corn muffin, however, was a treat above all for being a freebie, unlisted in the dish description.

Anyway, if the worst Rackhouse can do is halfway decent, then it’s doing all right indeed. Three-quarters decent is the Cajun dip,

which would’ve been all-the-way decent if the garlic bread hadn’t been dry. My rule of thumb is, if it’s going to be crunchy throughout, it shouldn’t be too thick; if it’s going to be thick-cut, it should be soft in the middle. In short, there’s a distinction to be maintained here between toasted bread & flat-out toast. But the dip itself was something else; the portion struck me as a bit small until I tasted it, all tangy cream & gruyère with chunks of shrimp, crawfish, tomato & mushroom. A little went far, quick.

In hopes of mitigating at least some of the caloric damage the Director & I were doing over the course of some killer Celtics action, a couple of salads called to me.

One of them was lying.

The literally named 3-Cup Salad is about 1/3-part lettuce, sprouts & roasted tomato to 1 part egg, feta & black olive to 2 parts good, strong Genoa salami & herb toast in punchy tomato vinaigrette. (That may not add up, but neither does the salad.) It’s a bit petty to complain about error on the side of generosity, & I’m not; it’s a nice take on a chef’s salad, but a few more leaves &/or a slice less salami would solve the math problem & take the guilt out of what was basically a guilty pleasure.

As for the Caesar, Caesars are Caesars, except when they’re extraordinary;

this one’s just fine, with a couple of anchovies, nice croutons, & a slightly too mild (but still housemade & basically Caesary) dressing. The crab cake, however, is terrific: almost no filler, barely any seasoning, even, it’s all sweet pan-browned crab—for a measly $2 extra, no less.

I’m sorely tempted to postpone publishing this until I can get back to try a burger or other sandwich, comprising as they do half the menu; certainly the upgraded trimmings read winningly, from challah to “whiskey onions,” cracked eggs & cambozola. But better to do an update then & get word out now, because the place is relatively new, with an affable & committed 1st-time owner who’s still finding his way through this bitch of a business. I don’t have too many useful suggestions for him beyond 1) opening a patio (he’s working on it) & 2) improving the wine selection: right now there are only 4 or 5 house wines, & while a) the heavy emphasis on craft beer & spirits is obviously concept-appropriate & b) the price is right for the not-bad grape juice they do have—good-sized pours are $5—I can’t think of a reason not to invest in a couple of easy-drinking but non-generic bottles, say a viñho verde & a carménère or even a dry rosé, whether as additions or replacements. Rackhouse may not be a wine bar, but it’s not a dive either, & throwing us winos a bone only ensures the beer & whiskey contingent will have an easier time dragging us there on a regular basis.

Not that I need dragging yet: until I get sick of the cabernet, I see myself stopping in quite a bit, not least for the free Wifi. Heck, maybe it’s time for that grilled cheese on parmesan-crusted white right now.

***Nota bene: They’re pretty good about Tweeting daily specials @RackhousePub; we were told the chef’s getting softshell crabs in this week, a rarity around here, so keep your eyes peeled.

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