A&E

Happiness on the half shell

Comforting seafood menu takes center stage at convivial Rustic House

It is Friday night at the year-old Rustic House Oyster Bar and Grill in downtown Los Altos. Couples sip cocktails next to parents grabbing a night out with their kids and nobody but me seems annoyed by the muted TV screens flashing frenetically around the massive, U-shaped bar at the center of the action. But aside from the screen overload and an uninspired dessert menu, Rustic House is a self-assured restaurant that makes few other missteps.

Rustic House offers seafood standards, including oysters, along with artisan pizzas, excellent beers on tap and tasty cocktails. Its friendly service takes diners to an easy-going place that is at once down home and upmarket. It has brought a vibrant, something-for-everyone vibe to the corner of Main and Second streets.

The Los Altos location is the little sister to a 3-year-old Rustic House in San Carlos. The new owners took over the spot that was vacated abruptly by Turn Bar and Grill last August. Half Moon Bay resident Jerry Beltramo and his son-in-law Dave Parks own both Rustic Houses while Parks also operates two other San Carlos restaurants: The Office Bar and Grill, site of Parks' former real estate office, and 3 Pigs BBQ.

"One of our goals with the Los Altos Rustic House is to offer something for the whole community, to be a place where everyone feels welcome," said Beltramo (no relation to Menlo Park's famed, now-retired, liquor store family). "We already know so many familiar faces and that actually feels very emotional."

Some customer loyalty may be inspired by the fact that Rustic House charges no corkage fee for the first bottle of wine, increasingly a rarity at local restaurants, given how tempting it must be for owners to squeeze some of their often-narrow profits out of wine sales and markups. (Plus, the bar stays open an hour later than the kitchen, until 11 p.m. on weekends.)

Rustic House brings in oysters daily from a variety of purveyors, offering at least three selections on the changing raw menu. Flavorful Hood Canal oysters from Puget Sound, Kumamoto, originally from Japan but long cultivated on the West Coast, and the diminutive Kusshi were on offer during my visits. Prices range from $8.95 for three of the Hood Canal variety to $42.95 for a dozen of the Kumamoto or Kusshi.

Even the most ardent connoisseurs of the bivalve have to admit that raw or grilled oysters are, on some level, a pricey vehicle for accompanying sauces and enhancing flavors. Rustic House gets it, offering four excellent sauces with each order from the raw bar, including a light Rustic wash (vinegar, shallots and jalapeños) and a tangy and peppery chipotle mignonette. The grilled bourbon oysters (three for $10, six for $18 and a dozen for $32) were my favorite: good-sized, non-briny beauties dropped on the grill for a few minutes and bathed in a decadent sauce of chipotle chilies, garlic, butter, brown sugar and a dash of bourbon.

The ceviche ($12.95) was an ample serving of lemon and lime juice-cured shrimp, tomatoes, onions and jalapeño served with a mountain of house-made tortilla chips. A heavy hand with the diced tomatoes made this starter too reminiscent of salsa but the tangy heat was nicely balanced and the copious shrimp were fresh and plump. A grilled artichoke ($10.95) had a nice smoky flavor and the accompanying lemon-garlic aioli was tangy and on point. The sautéed prawns ($15.95) made for an intensely flavored, savory appetizer comprised of five medium-sized shrimp in a slightly sweet bourbon-butter sauce studded with pancetta and diced shallots.

The lobster roll ($23.95) is the Maine variety, served chilled with a mayonnaise-and-herb dressing. I am partial to a Connecticut-style roll -- warm lobster meat unadulterated with anything but butter -- but Rustic House's sandwich, bursting with hunks of sweet lobster and very lightly dressed, won me over. The accompanying steak fries were fresh-from-the-fryer perfection: crispy and piping hot. Also crispy and delicious were the beer-battered fish and chips ($16.95), which evidenced just the right ratio of batter to flakey cod.

The grilled mahi mahi entrée ($27.95) arrived with a large dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and a side of flavorful roasted carrots. A few seconds too long on the grill can quickly dry out this firm, sweet fish, but Rustic House's chef perfectly executed our moist piece of line-caught mahi mahi, made citrusy with a lime glaze and a salsa of tropical fruits.

We also ordered a trio of tacos, one wild Alaskan cod and two grilled shrimp ($15.95 for two; $6.95 for an add-on). The large soft tacos were served in cute little holders, with each taco standing at attention and drizzled with yummy chipotle aioli. Crunchy-cool cabbage, avocado salsa and a generous serving of seafood inside each corn tortilla made these my new favorite seafood tacos (sorry, Sancho's).

We were less taken by the pricey Rustic House pasta ($24.95), a surprisingly smallish-bowl of linguine, prawns, clams and sun-dried tomatoes in a bland white wine sauce.

On each of my three visits, enthusiastic young servers checked in frequently, cheerfully answered questions and brought out food and drinks in record time. On one visit, my dining companion and I sat at the bar, near the kitchen, and ended up being the lucky recipients of an extra shrimp appetizer, which the server said he preferred to see eaten rather than thrown away. A nice, neighborly gesture.

Rustic House's dessert menu is basically a list of the most over-offered, yawn-inducing desserts in modern America: s'mores, New York-style cheesecake, key lime pie, flourless chocolate cake and, of course, tiramisu. The key lime pie ($6.95) wasn't bad, with the right balance of sweetness and tartness, and a generous serving of vanilla-tinged whipped cream on the side.

This restaurant won't win any awards for innovative cuisine, but it offers well-executed seafood comfort food and American standards in a fun and friendly atmosphere. Bonus tip: Costco sells 20-percent-off gift cards good at both Rustic Houses and the other San Carlos restaurants owned by the family.

Rustic House Oyster Bar and Grill

295 Main St., Los Altos

rustichouselosaltos.com

Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Credit cards: Yes

Reservations: Yes

Catering: Yes

Outdoor seating: Yes

Parking: No

Alcohol: Full bar

Bathroom: Excellent

Wheelchair access: Yes

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