Close your eyes. Oh no wait, open them so that you can read this.
Okay, now imagine you’re hiking in the hills of Italy. The calm bluer-than-blue ocean is on your right and lush greener-than-green trees flank your left. A small old woman with deep wrinkles and grey hair emerges from the bushes. She invites you into her home and then feeds you. For hours. And hours.
That woman is this man:
He’s Chef David Rushing and little-old-lady-feeds-you-like-family was the feel at The Rusty Spoon, his pop-up restaurant. The Rusty Spoon was the first of five WU Restaurant dinners, which is a Dining Services series that highlights a different campus chef every two weeks.
Chef Rushing is the Chef de Cuisine at Ibby’s but he’s in the midst of moving to the South 40. His sous chef for the night was Tom Dixon, General Manager at the DUC. The Rusty Spoon concept, Chef Rushing explained, is a celebration of tradition.
In truth, the meal was a celebration of everything from ingredients to family to Italy to food to beauty.
Chef Rushing set the scene perfectly. One long table stretched across the demonstration kitchen. A rustic plank of wood collected by Rushing stretched across the table. Our menus were attached to thick block of woods with nails crafted by Rushing himself. Our silverware was wrapped in towels that were held together by old bent spoons (also collected by Rushing).
Multiple mason jars filled with different vegetables sat on the centerplank (hehe, get it?).
The meal began with the contents of those jars. Red beets in spiced apple cider. Yellow beets. Carrots in sweet vinegar. Green beans sprinkled with spicy pepper flakes. Turnips in a white wine vinegar. Mushrooms in what I think was olive oil and stuff. I should’ve brought a paper and pen. In fact, I should’ve brought an entire notebook.
Every time I took a bite of one thing, three other items magically appeared. There was bread with locally made butter. Marinated olives. Artisan salami. Celery root covered in farm egg mayo. Chicken liver mousse. Cauliflower and white bean hummus. Lamb sausage with an apricot and mint spread.
Everything was delicious. The yellow beets were memorable because I’ve never had yellow beets before. They were less earthy and slightly sweeter than the red beets. But the red beets weren’t overly beet-y either. The apple cider they’d been marinated in took the edge off. The mushrooms were dancing on the line between mushy and hard, which is exactly where they should be. The mayo-coated celery root was both rich and refreshing.
Chef Rushing truly paid homage to winter and the vegetables that manage to grow in it. The acidic items opened up our palates, preparing them for the awesomeness that loomed ahead.
The merguez lamb sausage was part of that awesomeness. I love lamb with all of my heart but do understand that some people are turned off by how gamey it can be. Rushing mitigated the gaminess of the meat by adding some beef (I think?) and spices and then balanced it out with an apricot and mint jelly. The combination of the sweet apricot, bright mint, and rich lamb would convert haters.
Despite its deliciousness, the lamb sausage couldn’t compete with the chicken liver pate. Seriously, it was a jar of everything that’s good in this world. Rich and flavorful beyond belief. Two of my friends and I once ate $40 of pate in 10 minutes (I know: gross). If it’d been Rushing’s pate, we would’ve finished in 3.
But wait. The dinner wasn’t even close to over yet. Next up: handmade pastas.
According to Rushing, “strozzapreti” means “strangled priest” and it’s hand-twisted noodles. The non-uniformity of the noodles matched The Rusty Spoon’s authentic, homely feel. The pesto noodles pictured above were good but the beef and mushroom noodles pictured below were excellent.
The classic combination of rich and tender beef with mushrooms did the strozzapreti more than justice. It was simple enough to highlight the noodles but flavorful enough to be interesting. Interesting and comforting.
Beautiful, shiny rectangles of sage carmel butternut squash arrived with the pasta. They were insanely sweet and wonderfully soft rectangles of fantastic. Pure candy. I had to stop myself from inhaling the entire plate.
Fingerling potatoes with smoked mayo also arrived with the pasta.
I heard someone say “whoa these potatoes” when she bit into one. That whoa was well deserved. The comforting roasted potatoes were bumped up a notch to whoa-tastic by the addition of the rich (I’ve used that word a lot in this post) and slightly smoky mayo.
The savory part of the meal ended with Tom Dixon’s mussels.
The sauce was subtle enough to let the delicate flavor of the mussels come through. It was also delicious enough to be downed on its own. I soaked piece after piece of grilled bread into the white wine and cream sauce. If there weren’t 18 other people in the room, I would’ve grabbed the bowl and chugged it.
Okay… not chugged. That’s gross. But you get my point.
When we returned from a tour of the South 40 kitchen (did you know that Dining Services has the largest refrigerator in the state of Missouri?), two cheese plates featuring three local cheeses and these adorable cans awaited us:
The cans were filled with a chocolate hazelnut cake, a cherry and blueberry trifle, and whipped cream.
When mixed, the contents of each can became bites of decadence. The sweet cherries cut through the richness of the chocolate and cream. I couldn’t stop eating even though I’ve never been fuller in my life.
Chef Rushing’s dinner is the one too beat. And that’s not only because he went first. He left no detail unconsidered while actualizing a coherent and consistent concept. That something beautiful and delicious can be and is created in one room for one night for sixteen students on a college campus is a testament to the passion of both Dining Services and Chef Rushing. It’ll be difficult to match the ambiance, the decor, and the authenticity, much less the food.
I look forward to seeing what the remaining four chefs do. If you’re sitting at your computer screen drooling, then make sure to like the WUSTL Dining Services Facebook page so that you can sign up when they release the event for the raffle for the next WU Restaurant dinner. I’ll also be covering it on Fooducated and sharing the info on the Fooducated Facebook page.