My entree could have auditioned for a featured role on the Food Network’s “Ginormous Food.”
“It’s really a dish for two,” said our server, tallying the other items we had ordered. We persisted and she gave us a teasing you’ve been warned look.
Turns out, she wasn’t exaggerating. But buried under its artless plus-size proportions was some honest-to-goodness nuance.
What arrived was a plate weighed down with not one but two 6-ounce chicken breasts, pounded thin. They were given a finely tuned breaded coating — along with parsley, it’s seasoned with sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano — then fried, creating a pronounced crackle on the outside but still managing to maintain the chicken’s tender and juicy bona fides.
The next step? A lively tomato sauce, and plenty of it, brightened with capers and a reduction of shallots and white wine. That one-two acidic punch (boosted by a final squeeze of a grilled lemon) helped to minimize the blanket of fontina and Parmesan that was draped across the top.
Italian schnitzel, right? It was a lot to take in, and I figured I’d be in and out in a bite. That turned to two, then three, and then I stopped counting, until I reached the point where even “Ginormous” host Josh Denny would have cried “Uncle.” Thankfully, our server very politely skipped the whole I-told-you-so routine.
Crunching the numbers, I was even more impressed. Had we listened to our server’s sage advice and gone the entree-for-two route, we would have each invested just $9 for our main course. That’s a steal.
It’s also indicative of the whole Red Rabbit experience, which gift-wraps cooking acumen in a populist package. As he’s already demonstrated with his growing Red Cow operation, owner Luke Shimp has an uncanny grasp of mainstream tastes. For this first foray away from that burger-centric mini-chain, he enlisted chef Todd Macdonald — a Minneapolis native with invaluable experience in some serious New York City and Boston kitchens — to tap his Italian cooking background.
What has resulted isn’t a daring new approach to Italian cuisine. Far from it. Instead, Macdonald delivers on all kinds of levels by quietly subverting our expectations regarding crowd-pleasing standards.
A place for pizza
For starters, he’s showing himself to be a pizzamaker to watch.
The dough has its roots in Parella, his short-lived Calhoun Square restaurant, and was fashioned by Khanh Tran, the gifted pastry chef best known for her long and distinguished work at Cosmos. At Red Rabbit, Macdonald has tweaked Tran’s original formula, bumping up the yeast content and fermenting it a bit longer.
Baked in a wood-fortified gas oven, the resulting crust is interesting and offbeat, in a good way: sturdy enough to hold up to the toppings heaped upon it, but still tender enough to chew, with a slightly bready rolled edge that’s puffed up but fairly pale and bears a gentle brewer’s yeast cast.
The other foundational ingredient, a notably lively red sauce, bears all the trappings of tender loving care. It’s a concoction of California-raised canned tomatoes, lots of garlic browned in olive oil, chile flakes, basil, thyme and other herbs that’s cooked for just 30 minutes to keep the flavors — and the colors — bright and punchy. It has a lovely texture, too — thin, rather than paste-like.
There’s a build-your-own component, and those who ignore Macdonald’s lean, fennel-seed-packed pork sausage miss out. (It’s paired with polenta twice: during weekend brunch, with a poached egg, and on the starters menu, served with peppers. Both are worth ordering.) Out of the menu’s nine pizzas, the definite gateway is the one that features hefty pops of that sausage, with plenty of thinly shaved fennel and fragrant snips of the green tops of green onions.
The Margherita subs in burrata for mozzarella — such a great idea — and anyone who loves a runny egg on a pizza will flip for the combination that pairs it with red onion, pancetta and Yukon Gold potatoes. Another don’t miss is the feisty salami cooled with a drizzle of chile-infused honey. I know, honey, on a pizza? It works.
Another reason to admire: The plate-size pizzas are more than enough for a meal, but also make for a highly shareable snack.
The fresh pork sausage is also the star of the show in a pasta: thick, chewy shells, with pops of fennel pollen and lemon acting in contrast to the jolt of that flavorful pork butt.
Speaking of pasta, I’m crazy about the lasagna, which, like so much of Macdonald’s cooking, appears simple but turns out to be anything but. It starts with a generous stack of golden egg pasta sheets, imported from Italy (for home cooks, it’s the Rustichella d’Abruzzo brand, and worth the price) and sturdy enough to maintain their toothy texture after spending an hour in the oven.
They’re layered with Macdonald’s fine Bolognese, a light, clean-tasting meat sauce with a cured pork undertone (his formula is three-quarters angus beef, one-quarter pancetta), and a béchamel composed of ricotta and buttermilk, the latter’s acidity cutting against those rich, eggy noodles.
What a can’t-miss combination. It’s total comfort food at its most comforting, and, at $14, it also qualifies, once again, as a total bargain.
Meanwhile, at the bar
Shimp was wise to emphasize a wide-ranging program for the handsome zinc-topped bar, produced by beverage director Ian Lowther and sommelier Jason Kallsen. Macdonald is more than doing his part, starting with oysters. The selection isn’t huge. Malpeques, pulled from the chilly waters off Canada’s Prince Edward Island, are the unofficial house go-to.
“It’s a good starter oyster,” Macdonald said, and he’s right: They have a clean, briny finish and glisten in their shells, begging to be slurped up.
Embellishments are kept to a minimum. Served raw, the oysters get classic garnishments: lemon, horseradish, a perky cocktail sauce. Pulled off the grill, the oysters receive an equally understated mix, just fresh herbs and garlic in olive oil, with a bit of Parmesan.
“There’s a reason why these are considered classics, and it’s because they’re delicious,” Macdonald said. “At some places it’s habernero mignonette, or a cilantro-long pepper cocktail sauce, and, really, enough is enough.” Agreed.
Or go vegetarian, and graze on a play on the standard caprese salad. Instead of mozzarella, Macdonald features a luscious, Wisconsin-made burrata, which was tailor-made to smear over toasted bread. Ditto the other toppings: flavor-dense oven-roasted tomatoes and a pale green pesto fashioned from broccoli.
Similarly satisfying are a handful of bruschettas that are liberally topped with well-edited goodies, from juicy tuna with pungent olives to creamy ricotta sweetened with honey and dotted with black pepper.
A few other larger plates — crispy-skinned salmon with a lusciously creamy interior, a hearty grilled steak sizzling with hints of garlic, the requisite roasted cauliflower treatment — are perfectly respectable.
Desserts are uncomplicated, and satisfying. There’s a straight-up panne cotta with lychee accents, a pleasing chocolate budino and a few inspired, 21-and-over takes on affogato. One utterly refreshing version calls upon Lowther’s wonderfully sweet-tart limoncello; another is a kind of grown-up’s root beer float.
But the topper is, without question, a date-laced cake that’s immersed in a dreamy salted caramel sauce. Cut into a rectangle, the notably moist (bordering on spongy) cake hails from a figgy puddinglike recipe so old that Macdonald said one of its original ingredients was beef suet (vegetarians, not to worry; butter clearly stands in for beef fat). Those farmhouse bakers, they knew what they were doing, didn’t they?
Attuned to its super-sweet powers, Macdonald wisely sends this cavity maker out with a dollop of whipped crème fraîche, its tangy acidity a welcome foil to all that sugar. Another smart garnish: ribbons of dried orange rinds, their tart bite also countering the cake’s toothache-inducing sweetness. I’ve made it sound semi-dreadful, but, trust me, it’s anything but, which you’ll discover on your own after you’ve scraped the plate clean and begun to contemplate ordering a second.
Red Rabbit is not without its issues. One night we encountered a server so annoying (for the love of Julia Child, enough with flinging cardboard coasters, Frisbee-like, at your guests) that we were tempted to leave, mid-meal, with a slice of that toffee cake in tow.
On early visits, dishes that impressed on one night would, on subsequent visits, appear as tepid facsimiles of their former selves, although those inconsistencies seem to have worked themselves out. The Panera-like salads felt like nods to a demographic rather than a passionate effort to feature top-flight ingredients.
The bar’s daunting 46-page menu is more novella than a useful, well-organized guide. Is there an editor in the house? The dining room is forgettably bland; ditto the roomy, character-free patio. The place to sit is that energetic, big-city bar.
What a happy change of pace to not encounter a burger at that bar. As for the curious absence of lapin on the Red Rabbit menu, Macdonald advises patience.
“When we get brunch locked down, we’ll start adding specials, the kinds of dishes that are attractive to serious foodies,” he said. “I’d like to play around with a whole suckling pig, and we’ll definitely have a rabbit pasta.”
I’m sure I’m not the only diner looking forward to that.