Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Neighborhood Restaurant: Cafe Noir

Most people have a neighborhood spot, maybe not their favorite place on earth, but reliable and, significantly, there. In NYC, once upon a time, there was a local bar where we could count on a good burger, a pitcher of beer, and a big horseshoe-shaped booth to settle in with friends. An evening stretched out for a small cash outlay. One night it was open as usual, the next day chained closed. We mourned. Still, there was another favored spot, halfway between the apartment and the parking garage (total distance: five blocks), where the pasta fagioli was cheap and filling and, if you were feeling flush, the veal francese was close to good. It closed, we moved. The next address came with a restaurant I loved; I took its closing personally. So here we are.

CAFE NOIR (125 North Main Street, Providence 401-272-2116) is a few blocks away and I/we end up there by a combination of choice and default. The restaurant is part of the Chow Fun Group (10 Steak & Sushi, Luxe, Roadhouse and the new Harry's Burgers & Beer next door) and was, in its prior life at the same address, a once hot, then not, overpriced place called XO. Chow Fun did a restaurant-in-a-box do-over two years ago and re-opened as a French bistro. One side of Cafe Noir is a narrowish room with a long bar and a banquette row of tables.  The second side is a larger dining room, the quieter place to be at 7:00 on a Friday. I prefer the bar side. The menu is a modified version of the "bistro" menu which seems to come with restaurant-in-a-box plans. What Cafe Noir has done differently is refine the menu and cut the prices. The offering list is simple and it doesn't vary. There is a plats du jour menu so you know, for instance, that leg of lamb is available Saturday and Basque cod on Wednesday. 

I like Cafe Noir. Steak and frites (there are a few variations) is a solid option, as is the hanger steak or salmon with lentils. Most of the main menu items my friends and I have tried have been good, sometimes very good. It's the salads I'm less impressed with, especially the frisee, which was recently served with stringy asparagus, low-end proscuitto, and the previously mentioned saltless egg. The tartes flambees sound better than they taste. Desserts fare better with votes going for the cinnamon raisin bread pudding. But I'm not dissing too much. It's a very comfy place - the prices are good, there's a television over the bar, the atmosphere is relaxed, the waitstaff is excellent, they're happy to see you, and it's close to my house. The bill arrives with a stick of cotton candy in a glass. My friends and I eat the trashy fluff; nobody else does.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Downtown: Red Fez

RED FEZ (49 Peck Street, Providence 401-272-1212) has a certain aura, a coolness factor promoted by its very lack of promotion - no sign, etc. It's easy to see why it's popular - the menu is short and cheap, the beer list extensive, the fresh-ingredients cocktails interesting. It's dark but not cavelike in the first floor bar; black and white lino floors, red lights hanging over the bar and red art define the space.The second floor bar/dining room is larger, great stuff on the walls. It's a small plates menu of burgers, quesadillas, soups, pulled pork and the popular macaroni and cheese. Recent entries on the special board included charred Cape Judith squid (tarted up with too many extras unfortunately) and a good curried corn soup. Most dishes, and desserts, have a little twist to dress them up but it's simple fare, and, I would guess, that's the way everybody wants it. It's not really about the food. It's about being Red Fez. That's okay.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hewtin's Dog Mobile

Most Wednesdays and Thursdays you can catch HEWTIN"S DOG MOBILE  on the Roger Williams Memorial side of North Main at the foot of Howland Street (one tiny block beyond Bowen). People start to arrive at 11:30 and the truck stays until after 2:00. Fans come on foot and by car. The park provides the seating. The menu is a luscious list of porky sandwiches and hot dogs with the best relishes around.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pruneaux D'Agen

Before you say ""Yuk, who wants prunes?" consider the French prune. I went to a great party in NYC  - a cooking demonstration by David Bouley at his office/kitchen. Bouley ( is a talker and much as he likes to speak about what he's already doing, he's excited to relate what's new to him and why he's interested. A friend had just given him a tin of pruneaux d'Agen fourres, plump prunes stuffed with sweetened puree of prune. If you are a Paris walker who examines window displays you will recognize them; they are in pretty tins and are very expensive. Bouley thought the prunes were amazing and gave us samples. I was sold. But these prunes are candy and I was interested in what I was seeing on service bars in little Paris restaurants, tall jars of prunes soaking in something, Armagnac it turns out, which make an appearance on the dessert menu.  

Who orders prunes for dessert, even with creme fraiche? Hmm, not bad. My sister asked her neighbor (my 100 nouns and verbs, all employed in the present tense, don't go far at cocktail parties) and he gave an animated response; better still, he arrived at her apartment with a sample batch. Red wine, sugar and cinnamon are more popular ingredients than Armangac and if you ask ten persons I think you will get ten recipes. Good, just vary the proportions until you get it as you like. David Tanis (A PLATTER OF FIGS) offers the

simplest recipe of all - a brief union of ingredients in the pot and your prunes are in the jar within fifteen minutes of starting. He chills them, and serves them chilled. So much for my image of the jar on the bar and I'm still trying to figure out the best Armagnac (or Calvados) method anyway. Buy French prunes. California prunes don't have good color and seem a little beat up - they don't look pretty in the bowl or on the plate. Monoprix sells bags which are easy to stash in luggage. There are higher-end pruneaux d'Agen to be had but Monoprix is a reliable source. 

As for serving, I don't think you can serve Americans a dish of prunes for dessert and get away with it so try this: three or four prunes on a plate (with a spoon of the red wine sauce on top), a few walnuts and a piece of really good hard Italian cheese with a dollop of honey.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I Demand my Rights ... Please

SALT AND PEPPER The other night at Cafe Noir I asked for salt. Cafe Noir is a middle-of-the-road kind of place (125 North Main St, Providence, but more about it later) so I am a little surprised that they won't trust me with the goods. At a hip downtown place in NYC last spring I thought the chef might appear with a carving knife if I asked, but no, salt and pepper came without incident. It wasn't like I wanted to add a coating that would do a Portuguese cod proud; I just wanted the salt for one little thing. At Cafe Noir the poached egg on the frisee salad was naked. I defend my stance. The egg needed salt, pepper too. I've seen Big Night (1996, with an excellent Stanley Tucci) - I know a good chef wants to control the experience (best scene: Tucci trying to restrain the chef, Tony Shalhoub, from excitedly telling a patron her ordering sins) but sometimes a chef 1) forgets to adjust seasonings or, 2) is wrong. Just put the salt and pepper on the table please.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Window Seat on the River: Bacaro's

Yes! BACARO (262 South Water St, Providence 401-751-3700) is a two-story restaurant housed in a renovated brick industrial building along the river - on foot, steps down from South Main. The first floor is high-ceilinged and bright, has a long bar and a display case for the cheeses and cured meats being served. Upstairs is a little more atmospheric, lots of windows and the kitchen on view. Personally, I'm partial to a first-floor table by the window where I get a catbird's view of the comings and goings.  Bacaro bills itself as a restaurant, wine bar and salumeria. I'm not the best wine judge but the wine-by-the-glass suggestions have been good. The salumeria - cured meats, cheeses and pates - combine with the cicchetteria - Italian tapas - for a long menu of small items. Check off what you want and, one after another, plates arrive. Call that Menu One. Two is a conventional dinner menu and it's been my choice for the last two visits. Starting off with the wild boar salami and burrata cheese is a good plan. Trying to decide among the pasta, fish and meat choices involves a little angst for me. I don't actually love halibut but served here on green lentils with preserved lemon, grilled cauliflower and greens, I'm liking it a lot. Pan-seared duck breast on red-wine risotto with lots of taleggio is another good choice. And, Bacaro's idea of pasta is my idea of pasta. Quality of cheese matters. Their version of carbonara (not on the menu this week but made on request) is soul satisfying.
Your waiter will likely tell you that desserts should be ordered at the start. This is definitely true if you want the Honey Tangerine Butter Cake with Sweet Meringue. And you should want it. It's fresh from the oven, and, in my not-so-humble opinion, terrific. What I don't understand is why Bacaro isn't packed every night. Expensive, yes. But you pay almost as much for faux french at Pot au Feu, aaaargh.

There was a gondola on the water the other night; Buddy Cianci holding the pole?