The paper is still up at Rustico in Ballston when I arrive just a few minutes early for the evening’s events. The block of Wilson Boulevard is mostly in transition and Rustico sits in the center of the restaurant cocoons, looking like it will be first to arrive. Across the plaza is the next NRG project, the second location of Buzz Bakery, and next door to Rustico is an early-in-build-out Sweetgreen slated for the end of the year. Our guide for the evening opens up the side door, and a few workers follow her out, showing that this is still a restaurant in the final phases of being constructed.
The entryway floor is covered in paper to protect the surface from the boots and construction dust, and some of the interior work is in progress, including a beautiful beer bottle and mirror mosaic. A fireplace sits dormant on a night that would otherwise call for it. Shepherded past the construction and into the bar, beer sommelier par none Greg Engert is waiting for us, and hands me a small glass of a California Imperial IPA that has notes of just about every possible hop and floral. While Greg will continue his focus on Church Key, it’s impossible to separate the man from his first home, at Alexandria’s Rustico, and he’s been integrally involved in training the Arlington staff. Neighborhood Restaurant Group believes strongly that passionate people make the best employees, and have continued that trend forward in the new Rustico. Andy Carlson will be helming the bar for Rustico Ballston, which will feature 400 bottled beers, 40 taps and 3 cask-conditioned ales, making it a formidable presence in DC’s already expansive beer scene. Last night’s dinner was certainly a festival of great beer paired with great food that left me thinking that we’re in for a real treat.
While the decor was still in process last night, what we did see had me thinking that DC finally had its own Steampunk-influenced restaurant. The bar area features a large curved metal decorative touch, complete with giant rivets, and the first of many industrially-influenced light fixtures, designed by Rick Singleton, who has a deep and abiding love for Erector Sets. Talking with owner Michael Babin, they’ve just hit what they hope is the last hurdle, a dispute with the county about the parking lines outside, something that appears to be a longstanding issue with the building that they’ll be fixing overnight, and they’ll be ready for the world next Tuesday.
I’m handed a flute of Rosée d’Hibiscus, a french beer brewed with hibiscus flowers, and a delightful tuna tartare with pine nuts and apples on a pasta cracker. These two are a microcosm of the three hours to follow, a complex and endearing flavor with just enough texture, and a beer that you’ve never heard of, that’s been conjured out of thin air to match the food experience precisely. The menu is standard fare with unique twists. A rich carbonara that might normally be reserved for pasta is done with couscous; hummus made with carrots, and served with lamb sausage and feta cheese; strip loin served with french onion soup that is reduced to barest sweet and savory onions, served with a gruyere bread pudding. And the beer pairings, as much as wine is used to contrast against flavor, beer is used here to complement the same notes in the food. The Aventinus, served with the strip loin, was nothing short of a joy.
The restaurant opens on Tuesday the 26th, and I recommend it. There’s something that I heard Michael Babin say last night that resonated with me, and that was that they look for people with a real passion, almost an obsession, and let them put their signature on what they’re doing. They’re focused on people, and not spaces, as part of their projects. Now, that’s not to say that the space wasn’t impeccable at Rustico, but that the people were the focus. Chef Steve Mannino was a constant presence at our table last night, not just in his person, but in the food we were eating. This was clearly what he loved doing, and for one, the butternut squash agnolotti showed it. Bar Manager Andy Carlson spoke in loving tones about the various beer pairings, from the light Sofie to the rich barleywine.
The new Rustico will be an excellent addition to the burgeoning family of strong restaurants from Babin, accessible but sophisticated, and a strong beer presence for the ever-growing craft beer appreciation society that is in DC.
4075 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22201
Opens October 26th