The Rustic Gourmet, 785 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 439-0900, the-rustic-gourmet.com. Serving lunch 11-4 Mon-Fri, dinner 4-8 Mon-Fri. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: sandwiches, soups, special entrées
Entrée price range: $5 (soup or small sandwich) to $12.50 (meatloaf)
Ambiance: elegant but simple
The strange feeling you get upon entering this restaurant is postponed by the large menu display sign just inside the door. It’s further delayed as you walk past the prep area, with its display case of desserts, and find your seat in the main dining area or in one of the smaller rooms dispersed along a hallway. Only as you’re studying the menu you’re handed, trying to figure out if you want a good old Reuben or might be persuaded to go vegetarian this time—that’s when it hits you. This is a doctor’s office. Or was. Now the arrangement of hallway and rooms makes sense.
The restaurant is located in one of those structures modestly termed a “professional building” just east of downtown Delmar, and it opened about a year and a half ago, repurposed into a still-salubrious form by Bonnie Kohl, a Westerlo resident who saw the need for an eatery at that location and, despite being completely new to the business, went into it with passion.
And flexibility. It opened as a serve-yourself eatery where you collected your food on paper plates, “but I saw that people wanted more,” says Kohl. “They wanted table service.” The menu was revamped, china and real flatware brought in, and the dining room dressed to encourage you to linger.
A simple menu of sandwiches and soup and salads is offered, touching on the favorites, suggesting the unusual, avoiding the much-traveled route of burgers and fries. Many of the hot sandwiches come in two sizes ($8 and $11), defined for me by whether I want a portion to bring home. My friend Malcolm and I went with two of the favorites: a Reuben for me (large for leftovers, please) and a chicken parmesan sandwich for him (modest $8 size).
Reubens demand a tricky balance of meat and cheese, sauerkraut and dressing, and this was an admirable example. Enough corned beef to fight back and thus prolong the experience; enough Russian dressing to wick into the toasted rye, and a restrained hand with the cheese. (A Reuben is the only place in which you can be overpowered by the Swiss.)
Chicken parm means tomato sauce and cheese, of course, but even more important is the cutlet, which was sliced into fingerling portions and breaded and fried and, while it proved slightly hard to handle, it wasn’t nearly as awkward as a single, full-sized portion can be. Again, a good balance of components made this one a winner, too.
Other sandwich choices include the rarely seen Monte Cristo, chicken Cordon Bleu, sausage, peppers and onions on ciabatta, pulled pork, grilled cheese and crab cake. Cold sandwiches include tuna salad, chicken Waldorf, roast beef and turkey (each $5, $8 or $11). Quesadillas are $8 and an unexpectedly delicious carrot burger, which I sampled on another visit, also is $8.
And there’s soup ($5). I threw dietary caution to the sea and enjoyed a fabulously rich tureen of lobster bisque, leaving Malcolm to the Portuguese soup. Because who wants to willingly ingest kale? This may be the highest praise for chef Wayne Schermerhorn. He made the kale taste terrific, in its pairing with sausage and veggies and a very nice stock.
“Wayne just gave me a scallop chowder with bacon and potatoes,” said Kohl when I spoke to her shortly after my visit. “I didn’t expect it could be good. It was delicious. We like to play with the specials. For the month of February, we’re going to be offering food from Colonial America, some of it right out of the Martha Washington Cookbook.”
Kohl comes from a career as an interior designer, and thus was able to see the unexpected potential of the space she chose. “I also used to manufacture lighting,” she says. “What you see in the back room is all mine. I tell people, ‘I do space.’ There are a million tricks to make a space warmer and more comfortable.”
She describes herself as “an L.A. girl. But when I found myself there married, with a kid, I realized that in order to be an adult, I had to live on the East Coast.” She moved to New York City “and loved it, but every day there it can seem like your biggest accomplishment is just getting through the day.” One more stop, in Westchester County, persuaded her to look farther upstate, and she says she couldn’t be happier in Westerlo, “where I have 11 neighbors and I’m good friends with 10 of them.”
The private parties and catering and take-out business continue. More recent additions are dinner hours and beer and wine. The dinner menu includes some of the lunch fare, adding entrées like Tuscan vegetable lasagna, a turkey dinner, and Wayne’s special meatloaf (each $12.50). A bowl of vegetarian chili is $12, as is the carrot loaf with potato crust.
“I want this to be a second home for people,” says Kohl, adding, “If I have any secret, it’s that I have really smart and nice people who come in here.” As to the dining experience, try it yourself. It could be just what the doctor ordered.