Rusty Van Hecke's restaurant, open for five months in the Mackenzie Pointe strip-mall space formerly occupied by Sukho Thai, was conceived to pay homage to the proprietor's "Gramma Jean," who, according to the menu, "hosted countless Sunday dinners featuring classic American comfort foods, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie for all." Ignore the fact that Grams served "classic American comfort foods" -- that's all there was back then. Food only became "classic" when rushed moms started nuking nightly meals so Dad could rush the offspring to any number of the extracurricular activities that we now define as childhood. Twenty years from now, "classic" American comfort food will be anything that takes more than two steps and three minutes to prepare.
But not if Rusty Van Hecke has any say in the matter. The former wholesale wine executive could be a spokesman for the nascent Slow Food Movement. Consider his signature dish: pan-fried chicken served with real mashed potatoes, real gravy and fresh green beans.
To my knowledge -- and I sample a lot of fried chicken -- Rusty's is the only place in town that doesn't deep-fry its birds. Van Hecke knows the folks who own Stroud's, the place to go for pan-fried chicken in Missouri. Unfortunately, it's located across the state, in Kansas City. Having grown up in KC, I'm familiar with the place -- right down to the long lines my father insisted were worth waiting in for one of our many Sunday dinners out. To this day, Stroud's elicits that glassy-eyed look of nostalgia in those of us who have smacked our lips and licked our fingers after finishing a meal of pan-fried chicken. So it was with high expectations that I strode into Rusty's. Before assaying the main event, I sought to soothe my eager palate with a plate of pan-fried gizzards and livers. (If you're gonna blow your diet on a plate of fried chicken, why not go all the way, after all?) Sad to say, Rusty was out of gizzards. A full plate of fried livers just seemed like too much of a good thing. As I scanned the rest of the appetizer list, I noted that a true diehard could combine a bunch of starters to form a big meal: hand-breaded onion rings, baby chicken breasts, barbecue or Buffalo-style wings, chicken fingers and spinach-and-artichoke dip. Discretion taking the better part of valor, I merely ordered the chicken.
First came a cup of house-made chicken noodle soup (I could have chosen a dinner salad, but I saw one, and it looked like any other dinner salad), prepared with homemade chicken stock. It makes a difference. The soup was flavorful, not as salty as a canned version, and chock-full of chunky white meat, sliced carrots and celery and thick, doughy noodles, the kind Gramma Jean must have used.
At this point I should note that aside from the soup-or-salad option, Rusty's offers the fried chicken dinner in several combos. There's the family-style version (a breast and two assorted pieces, for $10.95), the regular version (leg, thigh, wing and breast, for $11.95), all white meat (two breasts and two wings, $12.95), all breast (three big ones, $13.95) and all dark meat (two thighs and two legs, $11.45). For the record, I went with the family-style.
Visitors to Rusty's who've never sunk their teeth into a bona fide pan-fried chicken should take a moment to savor their first crisp bite of the bird. Perhaps I'm overly romantic about such things -- okay, I'm overly romantic about such things -- but to me, frying chicken in a cast-iron skillet elevates the flavor. Of course, the batter makes a difference, and Van Hecke's is simple but not bland. (You can, if you're fussy, request it a little spicier.) Mine was, well, perfect: not greasy or soggy -- as can be the case when frying at home in a too-crowded pan -- but beautifully crisp outside, moist within. True to the definition of comfort food, the mashed potatoes were ladled with a rich cream gravy, while the fresh green beans came with sautéed onions and bacon. The folks at Rusty's don't serve the magnificent biscuits I used to fill up on at Stroud's, but they do make their own tasty corn muffins, which sometimes are spiked with little slices of jalapeño pepper. The mini-bread loaves, however, were store-bought and dry.
Is there anything else on the menu, you might well wonder, now that we've devoted all this ink to the pan-fried chicken? Indeed, Rusty's offers other "classic" dishes -- meat loaf (topped with a pan gravy), chicken-fried steak (made with an actual, pounded slice of beef, and not with ground chuck as is now all too common), pan-fried catfish and fresh salmon (broiled or sautéed). Lunchtime brings the addition of a pretty decent burger -- thick, hand-pattied and grilled.
During one visit, a very un-Gramma Jean-sounding tilapia special came topped with a load of sautéed green and red peppers and onions. Fresh and clean-tasting, the fish had been lightly dusted with flour and pan-seared to a superb juiciness. But the vegetable topping bore down too heavily on the fillet, overpowering its delicate flavor. A rib-eye steak was hand cut (always a good sign, although mine was sliced a bit unevenly) and grilled exactly as requested, medium-rare. The fish was to be served with asparagus but came out with green beans instead, which also accompanied the steak (by design). Our waitress offered to right the wrong, but the beans looked good, so they stayed. Both meals were served with those fantastic mashed potatoes (brown gravy with the steak, cream with the fish) and a choice of salad or soup.
For those who'd expect the wine selection at a comfort-food restaurant to be an afterthought labeled "red, white, blush," Rusty's list turns out to be surprisingly varied, focused and well priced -- no doubt due to Van Hecke's previous life in the wine trade. There are twelve whites, a whopping ten of which are available by the glass, and fourteen reds (eight by the glass). I love Fess Parker wines for their humor and quality, so we enjoyed a $26 bottle of his red table wine one evening. Most bottles are modestly priced, under $25 or so -- though at the upper end a 2000 Newton chardonnay and 2001 Girard petite sirah top out at $55 and $48, respectively. And there's not a white zin among them. (There is, however, an Australian white shiraz and a Missouri St. James "velvet red" for those with a sweet tooth). Wines by the glass, incidentally, are a comparative bargain, ranging from $4 to about $7.
Desserts, too, are comforting at Rusty's. House-made apple pie was unavailable during our visit, but the peach cobbler substituted quite well: a big bowl of fruit and a flaky crust on top -- superb.
Rusty's American Kitchen may at first seem anachronistic, but keep in mind that Hamilton Beach is now cranking out crock pots at the rate of more than 7 million per year, and they're just one manufacturer of the slow cookers. If comfort food is making a comeback in this post-9/11 world, as some food writers philosophize, then Rusty's may fill a growing hunger for the traditional. The hell with all that, though: Give your own grandma a break and take her out to dinner once in a while, wouldya?