It's a good rule that if your work polarizes the critics, you are probably doing something right. Which would suggest that Rook is doing a lot right. Ever since this solid little eatery opened on Virginia Avenue last spring, the verdict has been split roughly down the middle, with professional critics and bloggers lined up on one side, vociferous Yelpers lined up on the other. From the former, the praise has been well considered and balanced; from the latter, less so. I recently decided it was time for go back for a visit to find out what all the fuss was about.
Starting life as a straightforward (but very cool) Tom Waits-themed lunch joint, Rook has broadened its horizons and spread its wings over the past few months with the addition of dinner service. New chef and co-owner Carlos Salazar, for several years sous-chef at Oakley's, has brought with him a number of very strong dishes from the Far East (especially his native Philippines), expanding upon the excellent selection of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and introducing a more varied selection of Asian street food.
Two of Carlos' new additions are already on my short list for this year's favorites, and it's still only February. The steamed pork buns, little sandwiches made from essentially the same sort of dough that dim sum restaurants use for char sui, are quite addictive. The belly meat, braised in soy, garlic and ginger, with a rich glaze rendered down from the cooking juices is sticky and meltingly tender, and is augmented by some house-made pickles and peanut crumbs for texture and contrast.
Outstanding also is the Pig Face Hash ($10), a generous bowl of finely chopped pig cheeks, ears, tongue and, essentially, all the meat you can get off the head. Given texture and crunch with the addition of pickled peppers and pork crackling, this is truly the pork-lover's dream dish. A fried egg tops things off perfectly, and if one egg isn't sufficient, you can always order another one. This dish won Chef Carlos the recent Taste of Elegance Award last week, and is on its own well worth the visit.
Also of note is a very fine Karaage: a dish of deep-fried chicken thigh meat, served with rice and sweet chili sauce. Garnished with cilantro and mint, the simple ingredients combine with explosive effect, the mint in particular lending a uniquely cooling counterpoint to the savory heat. This is not your greasy strip mall carry-out food, and in spite of many comments to the contrary, is very fairly priced. As are the steamed dumplings, which are clearly hand made from good ingredients.
I particularly like the Thai sour sausage, which, at $5 for a half dozen, is very competitively priced. Perhaps Chef Carlos should raise his prices to remain in line with the rest of the marketplace?
If you have been persuaded by negative reviews to avoid Rook, I strongly recommend a visit. This is high-quality, reasonably priced food, and it deserves our support. And they now have a beer license.