Sometimes the new restaurants with the loudest early buzz are the ones that settle most quickly into a dull hum. So I was only warily optimistic about the Rustic Goat -- Anchorage's shiniest new culinary toy. The buzz is strong with this one and I was anxious to see if it was earning it in the kitchen.
The restaurant, set in the almost entirely residential neighborhood of Turnagain, is one part contemporary design and, because it's largely constructed from repurposed wood from an old Kenai cannery, one part Alaska nostalgia. Conceived as a walkable/bikeable spot for the West Anchorage set, it has cast a net that goes far beyond the neighborhood -- so much that some of the early buzz has been about parking problems. (Note: visit the map on the restaurant's website for advice on nearby parking that might not be obvious when driving up).
I took a party of local friends and out-of-town visitors for dinner on a recent Tuesday. A late-afternoon attempt at a reservation was fruitless (9:30 p.m. was the earliest they could guarantee), so we showed up at around 8 p.m. and took our chances. Our group of five was quoted a 25-minute wait, so we found a comfortable spot at the bar. Service was quick and we ordered a round of drinks and a couple of appetizers to tide us over.
We ordered the pulled pork nachos ($14), the fries tossed with gran padano and garlic oil ($4) and the steamed clams ($16). I've already reviewed the clams (in a recent article about local restaurant patios) but they were memorable enough for a redux. They were citrusy and sea-salty, with a lively hit of red chili flakes. My only complaint about this dish is the portion size -- it was a scant-seeming bowl in relation to the cost (this was the only dish on the menu that didn't seem like a good value).
The french fries are traditional enough to scratch your fried-comfort-food itch but interesting enough, with the hint of cheese and a dipping sauce of sun-dried tomato aioli, to set them apart from the usual burger-side heap. The pulled pork nachos were a hit -- the generous portion of tender, smoky pork was in good company with the fresh mozzarella, a liberal drizzle of creme fraiche and our favorite part: candied jalapenos. Hot, sweet and spicy, these little pepper slices packed an enormous flavor punch.
By this time, we were so pleasantly ensconced in our corner of the bar that we canceled our spot on the dining room wait list. For our next course, we shared the potato and reindeer sausage pizza ($12). A subtle garlicky cream sauce provided a base for thinly sliced meat, potatoes, onions and leeks -- a nice departure from the traditionally saucy variety of pie. We also enjoyed the rib-eye and sausage skewers ($19), which boasted perfectly cooked meat in an earthy rub that seemed strong on the cumin (not a complaint). We were less crazy about the overly sweet honey-mustard sauce -- it seemed a touch off-balance, though I tend to shy away from sweeter flavor profiles. I was happy, however, to see Israeli couscous on the plate, a neglected starch in my humble opinion.
Less successful was the stuffed pork chop ($24), which was ordered medium but arrived quite well done and very tough. All of the elements -- figs, cheese, quinoa -- looked beautiful on the plate, but the execution just wasn't there.
For me, the dish of the night was the shrimp boil ($26), a beautiful melange of tiny, sweet shrimp, sweet corn, spicy sausage and potato, all swimming together in a fresh fish broth that smelled and tasted of the ocean. A nice twist on an East Coast classic, this dish was both hearty and refined.
Later that week, I stopped in for lunch with my daughter. We arrived on the later side, around 1:30 p.m., and while we were seated right away, the place was doing business at a fair clip. A table of firefighters rubbed elbows with a table full of multitasking moms with strollers. A few prominent politicians were enjoying lunch without ever putting down their cellphones. We were seated at the edge of the upstairs loft, giving us an entertaining view of the busy lunchtime barroom.
We ordered the kale salad ($7), to which we added a skewer of grilled shrimp ($7) and a margherita pizza ($14) to split. In addition, I ordered the chicken, bacon and avocado sandwich ($12) to bring home to my husband.
The sandwich was nicely made but not something I'd necessarily order again. The Cajun seasoning on the chicken breast was lost on me -- it just couldn't compete with the strong flavor of the glazed bacon. But the kale salad was perfect. The kale was fresh, crisp and perfectly bite-sized (I so appreciate a salad that is easy to eat!) and the bright garlic dressing was the perfect complement. As for the anchovy-bacon crumble? I want to sprinkle it on everything: soups, salads, macaroni and cheese, ice cream. I polished off more than my half and was resentful when my daughter ate the last few bites.
Our pizza came to the table in an unusual shape -- that is to say, not round. I was not overly bothered by this oddball of a pie (though you could argue that some of the pie was "missing"). After all, the word "rustic" is right there in the name. But the pizza also came with a message from the kitchen. "They weren't happy with the appearance of this pie," our server explained. "So they're making you another one to take home." When a place goes out of its way to solve a problem that you didn't even know you have, it makes you happy. And a $14 pizza is a small price to pay for happiness.
A dynamic, distinctly local atmosphere, creative, unpretentious food, on-point service and a few perfectionists in the kitchen overpowered my initial cynicism. The Rustic Goat has a happy, exciting buzz because it's a happy, exciting restaurant.
4 out of 5 stars | $$-$$$$
Location: 2800 Turnagain St.
Hours: 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs, 6 a.m.-12 a.m. Fri., 7 a.m.-12 a.m. Sat., 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.
Contact: 334-8100 and rusticgoatak.com
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent