There's a palpable energy at R. Kitchen, some controlled and some unbridled. It starts with a phone call for a reservation. Unlike the impersonal response of Open Table, a call to the restaurant goes directly to chef and owner Ross Webb's cell and he answers. He courteously works me into his full reservation list and his excitement over the phone serves as a great welcome. I soon learn Webb does everything. He answers the phone, takes the reservations, does the grocery shopping, and preps for dinner all by himself. He also cooks directly in front of diners.
After departing Leaf restaurant, Webb rented the space across from Fuel in April 2014 and did all the manual labor and wood work to refurbish it himself. The intimate setting, with guests seated at a wooden bar bordering the kitchen, has minimal décor — shelves hold bulk ingredients and the walls have a few whimsical Nathan Durfee paintings. This interactive space allows the diner to be an arm's length away as Webb cooks on his line (open range, stove, and flat top) and turns to face the guests as he plates on his cutting board above the refrigerated low boys, talking with patrons the entire time and answering any questions they may have. The tasting menu changes daily and consists of four courses plus dessert. The al la carte menu is rather vague, allowing the kitchen to improvise as needed with items like a daily salad for $7, airline chicken for $18, and smoked cheese macaroni for $5. The camaraderie in the experience, however, comes from the tasting menu option: $25 per person for five courses, with wine an additional $5 dollars a glass or $25 for the bottle. The idea is to keep it financially accessible to everyone.
On the evening we arrived, the kitchen was literally smoking, and the windows were cracked to release the excessive heat. We closed the window and with little fanfare or much description about the evenings offerings, our first course arrived — a wedge salad with bacon vinaigrette, smoked salmon mousse, roasted tomatoes, and bacon bits. Iceberg lettuce is just crunchy water to me, so this wasn't my favorite, but the vinaigrette had a good tang and the mousse added a twist. As we started our first few bites, our server brought over a Grenache to try and filled our plastic glasses with water. Not completely satisfied with the first bottle as it was too jammy for our tastes, a different bottle was opened, no questions asked, and left for us to enjoy — a very accommodating and relaxed wine presentation.
We found ourselves without silverware for the second course, but this was an easy fix. We flagged down the server and requested two forks (and made sure to keep our silverware between courses moving forward). As R. Kitchen's tagline accurately states, "This is not a restaurant, this is a kitchen," and we weren't fazed by it. When we wanted to know more about a dish, we simply grabbed Webb as he took a break from the line and he happily described our dishes, like the seared jumbo scallops over Anson Mill's grits, topped with homemade Boursin cheese and finished with Annatto oil and scallions. While monochromatic in color and texture, the scallop had a good sear to it and the creamy homemade Boursin cheese added a delicate flavor balance to the dish.
The third course was the hit of the evening and an example of how the tasting menu can evolve from the first seating to the last. Duck confit mascarpone ravioli in duck ragout sauce with mushrooms, mirepoix, thyme, and Marsala was served. The reason for more duck in the sauce? R. Kitchen had leftovers from the filling. While homemade noodles from Bertolini's were used earlier in the night, we were dining on the substitute wonton wrappers. They worked, but added an unwelcome chewier consistency. Fortunately, the ragout made up for the change and I appreciated the full disclosure from the kitchen, as it brought us into the process and evolution of the meal.
The guests enjoyed the spectacle of an open flame demonstration for the fourth course of sliced heart of ribeye over creamed spinach with bruleed Hollandaise (hence, the torch). While my Le Cordon Bleu professors would agree it was cooked precisely, it was a bit uninspired. That said, the engaging, entrepreneurial spirit that Webb literally brings to the table, sucks you in and I found myself cheering for his success from my sideline seat.
By the time the dessert rolled around, all the guests were chatty and learning about the history of the restaurant from Webb, his sous chef, and the sweet if not always efficient server. There was little description of the goat cheese "cake" other than Webb saying it didn't quite turn out as expected. That said, I enjoyed the warm, tangy bite of cheese balanced with a touch of sweet, syrup on top and found this to be the most creative dish of the evening.
On a second visit, the meal was done entirely by the sous chef and Webb was not in the kitchen. While the evening was executed properly and we had excellent service, the entire room had a different feel and lacked the energy and charisma that Webb imbues. The sous chef seemed overwhelmed on the line by himself and didn't interact much with the guests. However, in keeping in the idea of hosting visiting chefs, this is a part of what one could experience here. And given all that Webb does do, it would be impossible to expect him present every night.
We ate coconut-creamed spinach with a few crab chunks, which left us wanting some coconut flavor and something that highlighted the crab. A second dish of brisket Shepherd's pie over whipped potatoes served in a glass tumbler was an approachable comfort treat. The lightness of the potatoes balanced the braised meat in the rich gravy. Yuengling mussels with Thai noodles and mustard seeds followed, which sounded creative but the execution was dry, under-flavored, and overwhelmed with noodles. The best dish by far was the smoked pork belly with mole over polenta. Complimented by the congruence of spices in the mole, the pork belly was tender, and the smoke flavor subtle. The final dish, seared tilefish over spaghetti squash with fried capers, seemed excessive and hard to eat after the preceeding hearty meat dishes. The fish was overcooked but the delicate nature of the simply sautéed spaghetti squash was a good balance to what was missing from earlier dishes, namely a simple finesse in allowing ingredients to speak for themselves without masking them in too many "techniques" or spices. Overall, two of the five dishes worked, and I didn't leave hungry.
And this is part of the gamble in going to R. Kitchen. This is about a fun, unpretentious community experience around the kitchen, both behind the line and at the table with visiting guests. Not every dish may hit its mark, but at this price point, that's to be expected. If you focus on those aspects, you're missing the point entirely. R. Kitchen is a casual cooking party and with an affable and entertaining host. Here the R. is really "Our" Kitchen and includes you, the diner, in the process — that's the whole idea behind this energetic kitchen.