Diners at The Rook

Whenever I go out to dinner I bring a takeout container in a cotton canvas bag. The washable containers I own have transparent tops that snap securely into the bottoms. I don’t really have a weight problem, but I normally plan to eat about half of my entrée and bring the other half home. This provides me with a professionally cooked lunch for the following day, and I’m happy to know I’m not contributing to landfills. I’ve noticed, however, that whenever I eat at The Rook I never use my containers because, even though the portions are generous, I enjoy the food so much that I have always finished it at the table.

The Rook is the latest incarnation of restaurants at the same site that started on the west end of State Street as a pizzeria in 1964. The space is long, narrow and small with the kitchen near the entrance. The previous owners of Fine Line Bistro opened the kitchen to public view and put some chairs at a counter so patrons could eat while watching the cooks do their thing. The owners of The Rook eliminated that option, which makes the restaurant a bit roomier.

The small kitchen necessitates a limited menu. When I visit a restaurant with a limited menu, I expect the food to be extra special because the cooks don’t have to work with copious amounts of ingredients and recipes and can focus on doing everything well. I am not disappointed here.

I think of The Rook as a bistro. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s the long brick wall, track lighting, and lack of linen tablecloths and napkins. Whenever I ordered a glass of water, it was served cool and without ice however servers were always happy to bring me ice when I requested it. I also found the music to be at an elevated level but, again, servers were always happy to turn it down.

The menu changes frequently, however you can always depend on a fish, poultry, steak, pasta, cheeseburger and a vegan entrée in some form. The cheeseburger comes with a grilled onion, iceberg lettuce, and fries and might allow adults to enjoy gourmet food while children enjoy something more mundane for themselves.

The poultry item has been, and will be for a while, Fried Chicken. It is so popular that the owners dare not replace it. It’s one of the best fried chicken dishes I’ve ever had. One reason is that it’s not the usual over-breaded, deep-fried version that so many eateries serve. Another reason is that the portion is large and unusual. It’s all in one piece: part wing, breast, thigh, and leg. Most of the bones have been removed and, to tell the truth, I am unable to figure out where one part of the anatomy begins and the other ends. Frankly, I don’t care. The chicken is precooked in duck fat – to reduce the time it spends in the deep fryer – and then slow-cooked at a low temperature. When it’s ready, it’s plated on top of juicy, tender (they are cooked for four hours) collard greens and local ham hocks and honey.

Another of the seven entrées I enjoy is the Whole Trout. It’s served eviscerated and filleted with head, tail, and skin intact. That’s exactly the way fish should be served to offer the maximum taste complexity. The fish is grilled and served with juicy braised fennel, leeks, and slices of Yukon potatoes, and is perfectly seasoned with citrus salt. The flesh is tender and slides easily onto the fork from inside the skin. I wish the fish was wild caught instead of farmed however it is tasty. Chefs change the accompaniments often, e.g. this week it’s fennel and potatoes, soon it will be cauliflower and leeks.

I don’t normally order desserts but I have had two of their three offerings – all homemade. Lemon Bundt Cake features berries macerated in house and topped with homemade whipped cream. Recently the homemade Donut du jour was made from a buttermilk blueberry flour with a sugary blueberry glaze.

The wine list is adequate, beers are unique and interesting, and original house cocktails are featured. Any of these should be welcome to accompany the half dozen dishes on their late-night menu (10 p.m. - 12 a.m.) The Rook does not accept reservations – call ahead a half hour before arrival to indicate you’re really coming (not my favorite protocol, but understandable for a small restaurant).

The Rook offers a special dining experience with quality food and service in the West End. I recommend it enthusiastically.

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