Thursday, February 18, 2010

Around Town and ...

Restaurant Reviews for Providence & the Plantation
Ocean State Eats: On the search for perfect oysters, juicy burgers, heart-stopping doughnuts and just-right puttanesca in Providence and the whole plantation. The writer is restive and makes forays across nearby borders and side trips to New York and beyond.

Rhode Island is tiny. Breakfast at one end of the state and dinner at the other doesn't take a lot of driving. And, it seems, everyone in the state likes to eat. Since Providence is barely a footnote in Zagat's, Rhode Island is my Oyster thinks there's room for opinions. NOTES OF A COLD MONTH
Cold, windy weeks in January and February only made NEW RIVERS (7 Steeple St, Providence 401-751-0350) more appealing than ever. This tiny, charming restaurant has been reconfigured and the new bar (with many more seats) has a generous expanse of windows framing historic First Baptist Church. Service at New Rivers is just about perfect. The always-evolving menu is small, which I know can cause non-adventurous diners to worry (Will I have to eat a quail?) but really it's a pleasure. The special prix fixe menu is fine by me though a chain-stream eater might find it odd. One recent evening I ordered a wild mushroom and faro salad as a first course, delicious fall-off-the-bone pork ribs for the main, and a successful concoction of fruit and hannabells cheese (from nearby Westport) for dessert. The prix fixe is a bargain and I admit I am happy to enjoy a poirtini followed by a glass of red wine (by-the-glass choices are good here) to spend enough money to make the whole thing fair.

Lots of restaurants are offering prix fixe dinners to keep people coming in this iffy economic environment. Obviously, as an owner, you're happy if people skip over the prix fixe and order a la carte instead. But, BUT, if a restaurant offers a deal I think it should, figuratively and literally, smile while it's offering it. We haven't set foot in MILLS TAVERN (101 North Main St, Providence 401-272-3331) since last fall, when on three successive occasions we had to seek out the prix fixe menu even though the restaurant advertises it. The first night, our waiter hesitated, said "Oh," and reluctantly produced it. After we made our selections Mr. Haughty noted that people who ordered from the "value menu" often added side dishes. No kidding. True Story. Dinner was very good (no sides needed - except maybe to supplement one teeny dessert) all three nights. One colleague, however, refuses to return.

While New Rivers and Mills Tavern offer warmly-designed rooms for winter, HEMENWAYS (121 South Main St, Providence 401-351-8570) is all crisp and bright. It is part of the small Newport Restaurant Group chain of restaurants. We recently went with a group of six for a late Sunday lunch. Not having visited since Hemenways changed hands (confession: I didn't much like it under the old owners - service was too loud and chatty for me) my friend thought we should check it out. I want it to be excellent because fish options in Providence are limited and the location is attractive. One of our party was being feted so I couldn't take a true pulse of the diners but here's my note: service was very, very very slow, making it even more of a disappointment when the seafood caesar salad was a tasteless clump of over-chilled and under-dressed shellfish and my partner's trio of fishes was part hit, more miss. Alas. But the oysters were met with high praise, especially the Poppaquash locals.

This is fun: two of us just visited GAVI (99 Hicks St, East Providence 401-490-0618), a small restaurant recently opened in the basement of the Sons of Italy hall. Less than successful in our search for a not-too-noisy trattoria with satisfying Italian comfort food, we read about Gavi and paid a visit. My friend had an appetizer of warm goat cheese sandwiched between slices of fried eggplant (enough to share) which got us off to a decent, if indulgent, start. Then came the spicy pasta with sausage and the utterly satisfying veal parmigiana. Happiness. Service is friendly, timely but not rushed. Don't look for a giant wine list - the liquor comes from the Sons of Italy bar, also in the basement - but the chianti works. Frank Sinatra, and maybe Dean Martin, croon on the mellow audio mix (played very softly, this is a quiet place - you can carry on a conversation). Hip it's not, so The Sons of Italy hall won't be everybody's idea of a swell location but I think it's perfect.

New Bedford needs all the dining action it can get so I'm cheering on the success of CORK (90 Front St, New Bedord, MA 508-914-9463), snug and good-looking in its historic building across from the Martha's Vineyard ferry. Its entire name is Cork Restaurant and Tapas Bar and it's the latter which best describes it. Think of it as a high-end bar. The tapas are where to focus - it's a long list of small dishes from olives to empanadas. The wine flights are well-priced and fun. In the cozy lower level you can have real conversation about the wine flights; upstairs the noise of exuberance can be overwhelming.
While visiting the winter farmer's market in Pawtucket one recent Saturday we paid a visit to CHEWTIN'S DOGS MOBILE, a venture of CHEZ PASCAL (960 Hope St, Providence 401-421-4422). My friend had a bacon-wrapped meatloaf sandwich and raved about it all day. And again the next day. The van goes way further than the summer hot dog stand in the park (across from Chez Pascal's) - the sandwich list is short and beautiful. For more information go to the Chez Pascal site ( and find out where the van is spending its weekdays. And the farmers' market, it's a must-do Saturday activity. I bought the practical (carrots, potatoes, sausage, spinach, pickles and a ham hock) and the frivolous (a grasshopper cupcake). It's fun and the selection is vast. WINTERTIME FARMERS MARKET at the Hope Artiste Village, 1005 Main St, Pawtucket, Saturdays 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Don't eat your heart out, eat oysters

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