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R Place off Main

Big flavors and perfectionism in a tiny Waltham storefront

by Charlotte Bruce Harvey R Place off Main
53 Prospect Street
Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.;
Tues-Thurs, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.;
Sat, 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. seatings
Beer and wine
Credit cards: AE, Visa, MC
Handicap access:
street level

Glimpsed from the street, R Place does not look promising. It's located next door to a sub shop in one of those Waltham strips whose main industry seems to be the dismantling and re-marketing of automobile carcasses. The grim surroundings, though, give no hint of the environment chef and owner Russell Thiel has created behind his plate-glass windows. Sparsely decorated with wooden wainscoting, fresh paint, a row of black tiles, and a few framed wine posters, R Place is not exactly stylish, but in many ways it's an ideal little restaurant. The hearty, inventive food and unaffected service make it the kind of place you want to keep coming back to. It's casual enough to be hassle-free, special enough to be a treat, and reasonably priced enough to feel like a very good value.

Although R Place's decor is simple, Thiel's attention to detail comes through in subtle extravagances: delicate crystal wine glasses, for instance, and stainless-steel cutlery that's a pleasure to hold. Each dish comes on a distinctive plate, ranging from dainty antique bone china to chunky contemporary stoneware. The breads in the bread basket -- an airy focaccia, a light cheese bread, and corn bread -- are all made on the premises, and served with a tub of fresh herb butter. (On one visit, though, that butter made pretty strange company with a sweet bread flavored with raisins and molasses.) Thiel goes so far as to smoke his own trout and even his own jalapeños, which he uses in subtly smoky-spicy chipotle sauces.

The menu at R Place circles the globe but avoids the pitfalls of the current fusion fad. Thiel's juxtapositions make sense, and they taste good, which is something overambitious chefs have forgotten about in these days of anything-goes experimentation. One of the most exciting dishes on the menu is a take on the Chinese classic, clams with black-bean sauce. Thiel serves a large appetizer of cherrystone clams in ginger broth ($7.50), scattered with black beans and crispy-fried noodles made from wonton skins (which, of course, he makes in-house). The dish is not entirely traditional -- it lacks the briny taste of fermented beans, and using wonton skins is an inspired touch -- but it works: the moment you finish it you want another bowl.

R Place's customers won't let Thiel take his southwestern Caesar salad ($6.50) off the menu, according to our waiter -- and with good reason. It's made with hearts of romaine lettuce, quartered lengthwise and lightly grilled. Croutons are made from slices of cornbread spiked with jalapeños. The salad is served with a Caesar dressing sparked up with Key lime juice and chipotle chilies, and dusted with chili powder. R Place started serving lunch just before the holidays, and the salad is on both the lunch and dinner menus. It's an outstanding choice for those who like big, complex flavors.

Also noteworthy is the arugula salad with lightly smoked trout and roasted sweet red peppers ($7.50). It's tossed in a wonderful vinaigrette made with puréed grilled tomatoes.

Pork medallions with black-bean sauce are available both for lunch and dinner ($8.50 at lunch, $15 at dinner). Thiel pairs tender slices of pork tenderloin with a fresh mango relish and outstanding sweet-potato fries. At lunch he serves roasted potatoes with grilled steak tips in a heady Jack Daniels sauce ($9.50). For dinner, he matches a spicy blackened steak with a honey-mustard sauce and a gorgeous array of roasted and grilled vegetables that practically glisten on a glossy black plate ($19); it's a big dish with strong flavors, like many of the best on the menu.

Less successful, to my taste, was a fillet of salmon roasted on a bed of shredded potatoes, like a latke with salmon on top. While the potato cake was crisp and buttery, the fish was dry. The sauces, however, were a surprising match: a fairly traditional pesto, drizzled on the plate alongside an incredibly subtle, complex sauce made with chipotle chilies. The combination sounded iffy, but it worked.

Spaghetti with grilled shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil oil ($8 on the lunch menu) was flavorful, but not exceptional; while the ingredients were well prepared, the dish never managed to pull itself together.

For a small restaurant, R Place has a remarkable wine list -- one that's both reasonably priced and inventive. In addition to the solid standard list, the restaurant offers specials -- bottles available in smaller numbers until the supply runs out. They represent an excellent chance to test small California vineyards. R Place's mark-up is minimal -- close to retail in many cases -- and Thiel lists vineyards you're unlikely to find elsewhere, with a sizable number of offerings from $20 to $40. On one visit, Thiel recommended a Nelson Cabernet Franc that we've been looking for (unsuccessfully) ever since. And given the prevalence of spicy foods on his menu, it's perhaps not surprising that he lists several fine red zinfandels. (You won't find a white zinfandel on the list.)

Desserts may be the weakest link at R Place. The puff-pastry crust to an apple tart was soggy -- though the spiced whipped cream accompanying it was a great idea -- as was the crust to a Key lime and white chocolate pie. The white chocolate tasted stale, as though it had been left uncovered in the fridge with too many other flavors. A chocolate espresso torte, however -- layers of dark chocolate cake with a light coffee mousse -- had us fighting for the last bite. And a Snickers pie -- peanuts, chocolate, caramel -- was a simple, homey favorite. The coffee at R Place was fresh-ground and strong -- a coffee-lover's cup of coffee, made with the same attention to detail that Thiel puts into his wine list, his smoked fish, and his chilies.

When asked how the restaurant is doing, Thiel answered cryptically, "It won't be my last." Let's hope not, because his devotion to excellence is too rare in the food business. R Place is worth a trip to Waltham -- and some repeat visits as well.