HOT COMBO Bratwurst and duck.
One of the great things about an unpretentious place like Rhode Island is that every once in a while you come across an inexpensive restaurant — maybe even a pub — that serves fine food without all the fine dining folderol.
The Rathskeller modestly calls itself a tavern. It continues in that vein by being located deep in the woods of Charlestown, with only a large Germanic “R” as a sign. The capital letter could very well stand for “Resurrection.” In the 1930s, the place was an out-of-the-way speakeasy. It was operated as such by the grandfather of Ray Lenzner; the latter ran it as a restaurant, known fondly as the Rat, until his death in 1995, when his wife kept it going for a few years. It reopened last August after more than a decade, the well-known loyalty of local regulars probably an important factor in the business plan. Every restaurant would love to become a hangout, but the Rat’s effort is nicely community-oriented: they host three horseshoe pits and even a bocce court.
It was reopened by Mark and Tom Ready and Nathan Holloway after three years of extensive renovations and expansion. Such care was taken to maintain the old ambience that artist Elaine Porter was commissioned to reproduce the 80-year-old brown and sepia Art Deco murals for the added section.
Our first visit was especially impressive, food-wise. A fried oysters appetizer ($11.95), sprinkled with fresh basil, was made unique by its accompanying fennel/mint slaw. We each had a cup of the soup du jour ($2.95), puréed potato-leek, which was made appetizingly robust by truffled pecorino cheese. But what especially pleased me was that the $13.95 special was so much more careful and generous than necessary for the price: the bed of spätzle — tiny southern German dumplings — was browned, for crispness contrast, and topped not only with an intriguingly seasoned bratwurst but with a juicy baked duck leg! Geez — they had me at bratwurst.
Johnnie’s littlenecks and linguine ($17.95) included in-shell clams, of course, and the shavings of truffled pecorino on top added quiet heft. A half-dozen steaks and burgers are available for high-protein appetites.
We had to taste Rathskeller’s Famous Fries, a favorite on the original menu. They were good, well-browned, but not unusual, not Yukon gold or skin-on red bliss. What was exceptional was the portion. Listed as “mini” ($2.50) rather than small ($4.50) or large ($6.95), it nevertheless was plenty for two people to share. Never mind chili fries, you can have these babies topped with truffled cheese, short-rib gravy, or a bacon-cheddar-sour-cream-chives combo.
This was a place we obviously were going to return to on our own dime, not just to review. A Cuban sandwich ($8.95) was a special the next time I came with a pal, and since I’m in the habit of having one in Key West every year or two, that’s what we ordered. It was better than any I ever had 90 miles from Havana: mega-amounts of sliced ham and roasted pork and a reasonable amount of melted Swiss. Ay, caramba! I sure am looking forward to their Monte Christo.