Cafe Reviews

Diff'rent Toques

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After such perfection, it's almost a relief to find Rubin's remaining appetizers just marvelous. I feel like the classic moth and the light; surely too much beauty would cause me to burst into flames. My dining companion and I happily share moist, slightly chewy squab ($9), its dark baby pigeon meat rubbed with curry, its edges ringed with a pleasing ribbon of fat. The bird is splayed on a highly peppery potato pancake, stuffed with graceful apple sauce and chive sour cream.

Yet even Rubin's most predictable appetizer, blackened shrimp ($9), is impressive. Three large crustaceans are perfectly seasoned, imparting a slow burn on the tongue. I'm intrigued by the textures of the white bean hummus base -- its nougat firm in one bite, mashed smooth in another. A mango olive salsa is magic: exotically sweet fruit jostling with tart olive over the lemon-apple punch of charbroiled tomatillo sauce.

I'm curious how many customers order Medizona's grilled lobster and veal cheek minaret ($11), though; even the waitress seems a bit surprised that I want it. Certainly there's nothing wrong with the designer meat -- in fact, it's a favorite selection of chefs at James Beard events. It's simply that many palates -- mine included -- may not appreciate the mushy texture. I find it to be one-dimensional, especially when stacked with soft lobster, slippery avocado and pasty black olive tapenade. Horseradish beet sauce is an inspired accompaniment, but even the pungent root vegetables wilt under this heavy canopy.

Veggies return in fighting force in Rubin's delightful baby green salad ($7). If you think frou-frou lettuces can't excite you anymore, you haven't tried them dressed with lots of honey-caramelized almond brittle, spicy sun-dried pears and salty toasted goat cheese with balsamic cactus vinaigrette. Even a simple watercress salad ($6) excites. These vibrant, dark green leaves unleash their peppery snap against mild-mannered cucumber, tomato and roasted pepper, while briny feta cheese finishes in a one-two punch. Do as I do: Grab a slice of warm Italian bread to chase every drop of ancho chile-preserved lemon vinaigrette.

Here is where I feel the need to confess a dirty secret. As the sumptuous parade of dishes continues, I've found myself searching for mistakes. It's ungrateful, I know, but I have to wonder how Rubin's art can be so flawless. Would-be critics will be disappointed. The only blemish I uncover is tiny: The cream of cauliflower and potato soup ($8) is, on one evening, too heavily seasoned with great chunks of peppercorn. But on another night, the finely blended pottage is, yes, perfect. I love the slow heat of the dish's cute radish sprout and crab "gondola" and delight in the hidden treat of a giant crouton at the base of the bowl.

I can live with perfect. While Floyd's "Shine On" warns its protagonist, "well, you wore out your welcome with random precision," my companion and I are absolutely thrilled to see Rubin return with our entrees. All the basics are covered, with standard beef, fish, chicken, veal and lamb offerings. But you'll never pigeonhole Rubin's presentation of exciting sauces, spices and sides.

Consider the salmon ($24), rubbed to crusty greatness with musky achiote seed. I've eaten a river of this fish, but rarely so joyously. This is firm, juicy, and brought to brilliance under a morel and baby clam sauce. The spongy morel cap, prized by gourmets for its smoky nuttiness, brings such depth to the simple fish. A side of crayfish-corn risotto hits bright notes, too, studded with its baby shrimp, sweet kernel corn and fresh herbs.

I've also consumed more than my share of swordfish. I like its excellent flesh and mild flavor. Rubin keeps it simple ($23), nicely grilled with baby carrot, matchstick-thin crisp haricot verts (green beans) and capers in a sweet orange sauce. And I can't get enough of his crunchy-topped chorizo and potato cake. The highly seasoned ground pork sausage adds a thoughtful whip of heat to the mellow entree.

My dining companion is equally smitten with her potato leek gratin, a hefty portion of broiler-crusted, cheesy nirvana. It's a wonderful side to the healthy chunk of charbroiled beef tenderloin ($26), cooked rarer than requested on one visit but still so flavorful in a sun-dried cherry barbecue sauce. Our Southwestern staple, the green chile, puts on its Sunday best here, stuffed with butternut squash, smoked bacon and provolone cheese.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet