Restaurateur Qui Qui Musarra expands her culinary footprint in Midtown Harrisburg
Rubicon is described as “French-inspired,” but don’t think for one second it means it isn’t the real deal – there are plenty of French themes going on at this beautiful new Harrisburg restaurant.
It’s a good idea to come to Rubicon prepared with a shortlist of French vocabulary – at the bare minimum, fromage (cheese), pommes frites (French fries) and, of course, vin (wine). To be honest, though, there are so many French words on the menu that you’ll inevitably need more than three to get by. But that’s what your helpful waiter is for, so don’t be intimidated; just ask as many questions as you need to.
Just don’t get smart about a French restaurant being named after an Italian river. Co-owner and chef Qui Qui Musarra explains that the name is more or less a testament to her dedication to opening the restaurant, coming from the expression “crossing the Rubicon.”
“If [Caesar] crossed the river, he’d have no choice but to engage in this huge battle,” Musarra says. “The die was cast, and once we purchased the building, there was no turning back.”
“We built a place that was comfortable for eating and drinking, and then we looked for a concentration for the menu,” she says. “You create a feeling to a place by how you write your menu; how you build your drink list. It’s like a movie or a play. You have to build it to evoke a certain feeling. And that’s what we did.”
As French was the selected concentration, the menu items are mainly classic French dishes, and all the wines offered are French – but nothing is overdone, stuffy or inaccessible.
“If it was really French-French, I’d have 95-year-old waiters in little black jackets,” says Musarra. “This has its own personality.”
The food isn’t just copy-pasted from across the pond, either – the menu is creatively French. Take the cassoulet, which is supposed to be a crusty baked bean dish prepared one at a time. Since the Rubicon kitchen doesn’t allow for that individual approach, Musarra got creative.
“You take the essence of the dish and then build it in a way to be accessible to people [and] for ease of preparation,” she says. So the cassoulet is missing its crusty bits, but the flavors hold true to its origins. Or check out the faux pho – one of the more interesting dishes on the menu – which is composed of Franco-Vietnamese broth, root vegetables, foie gras, beef and noodles. And creative menu items are still being added, like one dish I wish I hadn’t missed: absinthe-cured salmon topped with slivered green apples, Belgian endive and sweet-and-sour Dijon sauce. Even someone familiar with French cuisine can be surprised at Rubicon.
The restaurant mixes locally grown produce, farm-raised meats and imported items to achieve an interesting gourmet dining experience with an eco-conscious flair. But the gourmet feel is present in the atmosphere, too, not just in the food.
After picking your entrees, take a moment — if you didn’t already — to admire the stunning result of a massive renovation to the former Neptune Lounge that took more than a year to complete. What used to be three separate floors have become a ground floor and a second-floor circular mezzanine with views up to the white-raftered ceiling, hindered only by the striking wrought-iron-englobed crystal chandeliers. Blue paint and brown wood complement one another throughout the restaurant, with accents of comfortable red leather cushioning. A grand wrought-iron staircase takes you up to the mezzanine, and huge windows let in amazing light in the early evening.
This open layout is important to the atmosphere, explains Musarra.
“I wanted people to visually see each other,” she says. “When you’re upstairs, you don’t feel like you’re separate. And the bar in the center is for interaction. Instead of facing a wall of bottles, you’re looking at people.”
The bar – a large horseshoe in the center of the first floor – is a focal point of the restaurant not only physically, but philosophically. The drinks on the menu far outnumber the food items. You can feast your eyes on a wall of wines upstairs, or just wander through the many special cocktails offered, such as the Chunnel, which a gin-lover in my dining party ordered. Made with Bluecoat American Dry Gin, the drink had a strong kick and a dominant taste of orange juice, but the addition of St. Germain, lavender water and several other ingredients gave it more breadth.
When one of our appetizers, the KoKi bufflé, arrived, I learned something new: frog legs are my favorite when they come tempura-battered with a date and tamarind sauce, a bit of a spicy kick and some whipped fromage St. Agur on the side. Musarra informs me that she got the name for this dish from the French word for buffalo and something from her childhood: thumb-sized tree frogs.
“The coquís were little frogs that I grew up with in Puerto Rico,” Musarra says. “You wouldn’t be eating their legs!”
When our second appetizer arrived, I learned something else: a little cheese goes a long way. At first I was dismayed at the small portions of the three fancy French cheeses we selected from five of the day’s options, but I had forgotten what a punch some cheeses can pack – especially the fondue d’Ambert we picked.
After the satisfying appetizers, we were ready for our entrees, with portion sizes that didn’t disappoint. My cassoulet featured a big duck leg, chunks of sausage and white beans, all in a savory, satisfying sauce. One of my dining companions went with the steak frites – shallot-topped hanger steak that, cooked medium, had a great texture and flavor.
As for my third dining partner, well, let’s just say that Rubicon is not a place for a strict vegetarian. She ended up selecting an appetizer for her main course – the Ravioli de Betterave, which was the most stunningly displayed dish on our table that night. It consists of roasted candy cane beets in a brilliant shade of purple cleverly layered with fromage Bucheron, set on a bed of amaranth greens and spritzed with a sherry-walnut vinaigrette.
For dessert, we enjoyed a large crème brûlée, though we could have selected baked Alaska or several other appealing options.
If you visit and end up loving Rubicon, you can always pop right next door to Mangia Qui (Italian) or Suba (Spanish), both operated by the same restaurateurs who own Rubicon. Or you can stick with French and drop by for Rubicon’s happy hour on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 5-7 p.m.
By the time we left at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, the place was really starting to hop, so if you want less calm refinement and more fun bustle, come later. Brunch will also be introduced before the year is out.
Whenever you decide to come by, just know that you’ll see the same great array of playful, quality French cuisine. And you’ll probably enjoy it just as much as I did – even if you don’t have the French vocab under your belt.
• 270 North Street, Harrisburg; 317-9027
• Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-12 a.m.