rusconi’s american kitchen
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Rusconi’s American Kitchen
February, 2013, Page 127
Photos by David Moore
Kitchen wizard Michael Rusconi stages a comeback with clean, classic fare.
Rusconi’s American Kitchen isn’t what it appears to be. That’s a good thing, considering it’s sandwiched between a Panda Express and a sub shop sporting an oh-so-classy Cheez Whiz mural. But behind the wooden door, you’ll find a warm, modern dining room with a multicolored art wall, gas fireplace, antique bakery block chef’s table, and an open kitchen.
Chef Michael Rusconi was hands-on with every aspect of the restaurant (including the carpentry!), and with good reason: There’s a lot at stake, including a stellar reputation earned at Mary Elaine’s, Royal Palms, and Lon’s at the Hermosa. Rusconi left Lon’s in 2009 and spent three anonymous years bringing his first independent eatery to life. After experiencing the artful comfort food at Rusconi’s American Kitchen, you’ll be glad he’s back.
Fans will feel a rush of nostalgia at Rusconi favorites including white truffle-scented mac-n-cheese ($6-$8), strawberry salad with pulled chicken ($11-$14), and butternut squash ravioli ($15). The trumpet-shaped cornetti pasta with cheese is delicious but too soupy to enjoy outside of its cast-iron crock. (Macaroni steeped in farmstead cheddar and white truffle cream should be thicker than a boxed version). The strawberry salad is fresh and wholesome, with salty mozzarella chunks and tart prickly pear vinaigrette accenting the naturally sweet berries. The open-face design of the butternut ravioli ingeniously allows the spiced gourd to take center stage. Creamy corn jus with spinach and carrots grounds the dish firmly in savory territory; otherwise, it would be dessert-worthy.
short rib appetizer with butternut squash puree
The same can be said of pungent, velvety blue cheese and apple bread pudding that nearly steals the show from the juicy, flavorful Durham Ranch buffalo sirloin ($24). Also delectable are ancho chile chocolate boneless short ribs ($12) that melt on the tongue, and the crisp, separated skin of roasted chicken ($16) that Colonel Sanders might’ve traded his coveted 11-herbs-and-spices recipe for.
If the devil is in the details, Chef Rusconi must have Beelzebub on speed dial. A pinch of herbs elevates the fragrant Missner’s paella ($15). Fragrant basil oil drizzled atop roasted cauliflower soup ($5.50) seems at odds with the simplicity of the rustic veggie, yet its contrast makes the dish worthy of a repeat taste. Even the burger ($11) is improved with tangy goat cheese and balsamic onions.
Rusconi’s attentiveness extends beyond ingredients. Not only did the chef hand-
deliver food on two of my visits, but when I dined with online reservations, I also received a post-meal courtesy call.
Chef Rusconi has always been the type with something up his sleeve, often customizing entire off-menu meals. Here, specials make some of the most impressive offerings. Imagine tender pork chunks and chile pieces stewing in dark, rich gravy, crowned with cherry tomatoes and cheese crumbles. That was the pork green chile stew ($14) special, served with tortillas. It was so out-of-this-world good that one dining companion asked if it would be rude to lick the platter clean.
pork green chile stew
No complaints here about the perfect texture of cast iron skillet-roasted sea scallops ($24). However, even the intense brininess of the ocean critters fails to counteract the acrid spaetzle underneath.
Solid lunch options include a tangy chicken and avocado sandwich ($9) and pan-roasted salmon ($14) paired with buttery Brussels sprouts. Weekend brunch is also worth exploring. The Kitchen’s eggs Benedict ($12) makes excellent use of the aforementioned short ribs, while the hearty buckwheat and blueberry pancakes ($8) are fluffy and crammed with plump fruit.
Combining seafood and eggs is a gamble, but the three-egg omelet with shrimp ($10) pays off. Rather than toss ingredients with the eggs, Rusconi stuffs an egg “pancake” with corn, cotija crumbles, roasted peppers and shrimp for a light and savory, crêpe-like dish.
The only hitch in my Sunday afternoon delight was the smoked Bloody Mary ($8), sullied by an overwhelming campfire ash flavor. Stick with the classic, sans smoke effects.
Desserts ($6 each) are crafted with a little smoke and mirrors. The clean-tasting coconut panna cotta is more like a palate cleanser. Thick chocolate mousse masqueraded as crème brûlée. Berry empanadas – the best of the trio – boasted a flaky crust and mascarpone filling reminiscent of toaster strudel.
Rusconi’s twists on classic desserts are a reminder he isn’t just riding the latest Food Network trend. He’s more like the sleight-of-hand artist who achieves thrills with everyday objects – or, in this case, ingredients. The bottom line? You won’t find the gastronomic equivalent of tigers and showgirls at Rusconi’s American Kitchen, just subtle and sophisticated classics prepared with care.
Inside Rusconi’s American Kitchen
Rusconi’s American Kitchen
: 10637 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix
: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. daily; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
: Open-faced butternut squash ravioli ($15); strawberry salad with pulled chicken ($11-$14); Durham Ranch buffalo sirloin ($24); boneless short ribs ($12); roasted natural chicken ($16); Missner’s paella ($15); roasted cauliflower soup ($5.50); the “Kitchen” burger ($11); pork green chile stew ($14); pan-roasted salmon ($14); buckwheat and blueberry pancakes ($8); three-egg omelet with shrimp ($10); berry empanadas ($6)
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