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RHODE ISLAND BISTROS by John Mariani and Robert Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: The Sea Grill by John Mariani
RHODE ISLAND BISTROS
by John and Robert Mariani
Rhode Island is not called "Little Rhody" for nothing: The whole state is only 1,000 square miles in area with 1.1 million residents. You can drive from one end to the other in an hour, and Newport is only half-an-hour from Providence (left), which has emerged as one of the most elegantly reclaimed cities in New England. It's full of pretty little towns like Bristol and Little Compton, has a marvelous vineyard named Sakonnet, and its own casino in Lincoln Park. It also has an increasing number of good, smart restaurants, many of them in the style of the two most famous in the state, Al Forno and New Rivers, both in Providence. Posh elegance and haute cuisine is not to be found easily in the state, and the casual bistro form has really taken hold. Here are four fine ones.
Photos by Peter Hassel
Jaime D'Oliveira has been one of Providence's more ambitious chefs, having a decade ago established his cooking credentials at Angel's, then followed up with his Providence Hospitality Group as owner of Mill’s Tavern and (since sold) the Gatehouse. Now, he also runs the new Red Stripe, with, as he told me, notions of opening others around New England.
It's not a bad idea because the casual, easy-to-like atmosphere and menu of Red Stripe--described as an all-encompassing "American Brasserie with classic French, Alsatian, Spanish influence"-- could be easily replicated as long as it does not become its own cliché. D'Oliveira is definitely hands-on: If he isn't cooking on the line with chef de cuisine Terrence Maul, he's wiping down the windows and woodwork, as I caught him outside one sunny day. The 100-seat restaurant has a bistro's charm, with dark red booths and walls, bright white tablecloths, good glassware, and black-and-white tile floor. The printed menu itself looks like a whole lot of favorite bistros in Paris (and, by intention, not a little like New York's Balthazar), and the winelist has 100 selections, with 12 by the glass.
Maul has cooked at the well-regarded Geronimo’s in
I heartily recommend starting off with a charcuterie plate, a generous assortment of pates, galantines, and sausages with traditional garnishes and country bread. For $15 this easily serves two as a starter.
Good bistros put a lot of effort into their frites, and those ay Red Stripe are paragons of form--crisp, full of fresh potato flavor, just enough oil and salt. They come with a variety of main courses, including stout-battered fish and chips with pickled jalapeño and tartare sauce that was equally crisp, with delicate juicy white meat within. Cod also came off well . . . . The real disappointment, however, was an item that gets its own category on the menu: "Moules & Frites." There are nine variations, but the two we sampled were truly lackluster. Nothing wrong with the mussels themselves, though smaller ones are always preferable to these large varieties, but the sauces in which they are cooked and served were watery and bland. Portuguese was done with garlic, cilantro, chourico, and tomato; the other we tried was called "mouclade" on the menu but bore no resemblance to the French Normandy classic cooked in a very rich, creamy sauce suffused with saffron; Red Stripe's contained, inexplicably, curry and coconut milk, which would have been better named "Moules Thailand."
You can't go wrong here with the "Retro-style hot fudge sundae," abundantly dripping over the glass, or the butterscotch crème brûlée.
The wine list is a good one for this kind of food, with about 30 whites and 35 reds, and more than a dozen half-bottles. Try the R.I. Sakonnet Estate Chardonnay ($36); I think you'll be delighted.
Dinner appetizers here run $4-$11, entrees $12.50-$18.
123 Empire Street, Providence
If ever a restaurant had a lucky prospect, Bravo is it. Located directly across from Trinity Repertory Theatre (with complimentary valet parking) draws a crowd before performances, another at 8 PM, and some after-theater guests too. The name is, therefore, an obvious one for this new restaurant, set in a downtown landmark building, and I applaud owner Mario Panagos, who also runs Mario's Paragon restaurant, for casting this casual, cheery little corner setting in the brasserie mold, with dark, polished curved wood bar, tile floors, tall windows onto the street, and Parisian-style lighting fixtures. The atmosphere might be considerably brightened by tablecloths or paper. And paper napkins are really, really cheap-o for a restaurant of any seriousness.``````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````
At lunch the fare is pretty lightweight and not very brasserie-ish--burgers, sandwiches, and such. also available at dinner. In the evening, however, the menu reverts to form, starting with a good, hearty onion soup with a nicely gratineed topping of Gruyere and good sweet onions beneath it. Pan-seared foie gras with a blueberry gastrique hit just the right note of sweetness and acid, sided with an herb salad, and a big portion of mussels, steamed in a Dijon mustard and saffron cream sauce a la mouclade was fresh and bracing, served with a portion of very good frites you may dip into assorted sauces. You can have this either as an appetizer of main course. One of the best items was a plate of sautéed with a light cheese coating and a sweet underpinning.
Duck confit came with crispy duck leg and a hefty portion of truffled sautéed potatoes, and a massive amount of mashed potatoes was the bed for what the menu lists as "sole meunière," with the requisite brown butter sauce, though the added capers makes it closer to sole grenobloise. There is also rack of lamb with Dijon mustard crust, and pan-seared sea scallops with tarragon cream on the menu. I couldn't get too excited by desserts, which included a profiterole that appeared made well in advance and stuck into the 'fridge to harden, which is the exact opposite of what the textures should be with this classic dessert.
There's a decent winelist at decent prices, both of which go well with this kind of fare.
If Bravo breaks no real new ground, it's a happy enough place before, during or after theater with its own conviviality and commitment to hospitality.
Bravo is open for lunch and dinner every day, as well as Sunday brunch. Appetizers are $4-$14, and entrees are priced from $8 to $18.
Dinner starters range from $5.95-$6.95, pastas from $14.95-$23.95 (as main courses), and entrees $18.95-$32.95.
Just how the heck did
Under Speidel’s guidance, you can expect some truly innovative fare, but with nothing eccentric or “experimental," and note that because of Chef Speidel’s devotion to fresh ingredients, the menu is slightly different every night, depending on what the best items available that day might be.
I began with the crispy
My wife decided to explore “the Persimmon cheese experience with treats and surprises” ($12): The plate arrived looking a lot like an artist’s palette, arranged so that you can taste from the very mild and firm cow’s milk cheese to a slightly sharper blue, and then finally to an incredibly intense goat and cow’s milk cheese. In between the mouthfuls of cheese samples were a wide range of dainty accompanying tastes such as fig puree, litchi nuts, and marinated cherries.
Other starters included crispy calamari with spicy tomato condiment; butter-basted lobster risotto with sweet peas and creamy lobster froth; a warm salad of roasted beets, Camembert cheese, pickled fennel, navel oranges, and baby arugula in an African roasted peanut oil, honey and Banyuls vinegar; and pan-seared foie gras with duck confit ravioli.
Before they brought our main order, they surprised us first with a very delicate sliver of sushi-style sea bass, and then with an absolutely heavenly sample of a creamy soup of morel mushrooms, spring peas, and chive blossoms.
My main dish was a maple-and-soy glazed pork porterhouse ($24). Cooked perfectly medium rare as I’d requested, this most-tender of pork cuts was infused with a very subtle but perfectly matched sweet-and-sour rhubarb condiment. The sweetness was beautifully balanced by the subtler soy, and the rhubarb condiment just kept tasting better and better with every mouthful. The accompanying veggies were also a treat--little broccoli flowerlets, oyster mushrooms, and some wonderful tidbits of potato gnocchi the size of your thumbnail. Our other entree was braised spring lamb shank ($24) in a dark, dark “calaminth-infused sauce” accompanied by a tantalizingly soft/sweet puree of spring parsnips, and an array of tiny but really tasty spring veggies. The lamb was on the bone but fell away at the touch of a fork.
Other entrees at Persimmon include herb-crusted fluke with a creamy shellfish ragoût ($24); beef sirloin with Yukon Gold potato pancakes in a Sauce Bordelaise ($26); and pan-roasted Long Island Duck breast with ravioli of leg confit in a tarragon-infused sauce ($24). Prices here seem extremely reasonable in light of the finesse and quality of the cooking.
There is a delightfully and artfully presented "Cheese Experience" (left) at Persimmon, which is applaudable for a small restaurant like this. For dessert I chose a warm banana sponge cake, with a small dollop of banana ice cream and a sauce made from a mix of chocolate and salty peanut praline. My wife's dessert was the yogurt and vanilla panna cotta served with fresh strawberries and a sweet pie dough. Remarkably light and loaded with soft spring flavors.
As downtownPersimmon Restaurant is open for dinner every night but Monday.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
The Sea Grill
9 West 49th Street
Christmas is never really over at Rockefeller Center.
For even after the great tree (left) comes down in January, the skating rink twinkles on until April, the Center is still one of the most fabled, loveliest, celebratory spots in all of New York, and the same shops open at Christmastime line the art deco buildings year-round. And there, as in Shelley's lines, "with sleepless eyes," is the brilliantly gold statue of Prometheus, still stealing the fire from the sun each day.
The Sea Grill itself has never looked better, a shimmering space with a blue bar (below) smack up against the skating rink with a full of view of the wonderful appearance of the Zamboni. Lunch is always popular here, and there's a good pre-theater crowd, but at twilight or evening, the Sea Grill becomes truly magical as the lights go on and make the skyscrapers glow.
Executive Chef Ed Brown, joined by new chef de cuisine Jawn Chasteen, previously at Town, Payard Patisserie & Bistro, and Danube, have maintained both beloved favorites on the menu, like the justifiably renowned crab cakes, with grainy mustard, pea sprouts, and scallion sauce, and a terrific chowder of lobster, shrimp and clams, while always introducing marvelous new dishes based on the season's best finds.
It is always a splendid idea to begin with a platter of iced, raw shellfish, or perhaps a variety of caviars. And, increasingly, the sushi and sashimi offerings are impressive and inventive. A platter of both, at $38, easily feeds two as a generous starter, with tuna, yellowtail, amberjack, salmon, yellowjack, crab avocado roll, and spice tuna roll. Individual pieces are also available.
We began with a signature item here: Silky salmon tartare with slivers of truffles on them, all set in little crisp ice cream cones to be nibbled or put away in two bites. It's a fabulous item, so simple, so pure, so delicious time after time you have it.
Other current items include seared yellowfin tuna with butter bean cassoulet, roasted foie gras and Sherry glaze; okkaido sea scallops with arugula and orange-miso vinaigrette; and there are also a number of daily fish entrees like Casco Bay cod, wild-striped bass, and monkfish cooked on the “plancha,” a Spanish griddle, served with spinach and wine emulsion. King salmon cooked this way is treated to chorizo, shellfish, and braised escarole. At a recent lunch I was thoroughly enamored of an herb-crusted skate that had a remarkable, not-at-all stringy, texture, set in a pool of foie gras emulsion, with braised beluga lentils.
If you are simply not in the mood for seafood, the meat and other items are equally as appealing, including marvelous crisp potato gnocchi with a sauce of cockles and lamb bolognese. Add black truffle and you have the equivalent of the culinary sublime.
Michael Gabriel is the new executive pastry chef for The Sea Grill and Rock Center Café across the ice, and he is now serving sweets like pumpkin spice cake with rum raisin ice cream and a cranberry reduction; an almond semifreddo with candied almonds and port wine-roasted Italian plums; a double chocolate mousse bombe topped with candied-caramel popcorn; and a square of Key lime pie.
The wine list has grown in over the last year or so, though for a restaurant of this stature it could be--and should be--much better. Prices, however, are pretty reasonable, with many bottles double the retail store price.
Restaurants in settings so wonderful are not always as good as they might be. The Sea Grill has for decades now exceeded expectations and is as fine a seafood restaurant as you'll find in the U.S. right now.
Lunch and dinner prices are not far apart. Dinner appetizers run $11-$25, main course $20-$34. Sushi and sashimi are variously priced. The restaurant is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., and for dinner every day but Sunday.
HENRI, I THEENK MAYBE I LOOZE MON BAND-AID SOMEVAIR IN ZEE OIGNON SOUP POT ZEEZ MORNING
"My husband's culinary breakthrough involved French onion soup. Following a bad experience in 1973, he had been unable to so much as look at the stuff. For whatever reason, he ordered it and actually finished an entire bowlful."--Joan Remnick in a review of Paris Match restaurant in New York Newsday (Jan. 20, 2006).
AND WE THOUGHT IT WAS JUST THE MSG
Narcotics police in Guizhou Province, China, closed 215 restaurants found to be adding opium poppy to their soups, stews, noodles, and snack.
"THE SWEET LIFE" CRUISE
This fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine, will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard Silverseas's Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche. There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines, cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more. Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.
* On March 15 a Gourmet Gala will be held at the
* On March 16, The Peninsula New York pays tribute to Irish families who helped create some of the finest Old World Bordeaux wines with a special WineMaker Dinner at FIVES restaurant. Chef Gordon Maybury, a native of
* On St. Patrick’s Day in
* From March 17-26, The KitchenAid Philadelphia Book and The Cook will celebrates its 22nd edition this year, to include National TV stars from Food Network and PBS, celebrity chefs and cookbook authors, with over 67 culinary restaurant-based events, plus cooking demonstrations, food tours, and more, culminating in the Culinary Market & Kitchen Showcase, with more than 150 exhibitors featuring a variety of gourmet foods, cookware and kitchen furnishings. Visit thebookandthecook.com
* On March 18 & 19, The Napa Valley Mustard Festival will be held at COPIA in Napa, CA, incl. a celebrity chef cooking demos; Range, a KGO Newstalk AM810 live broadcast of “Dining Around with Gene Burns”; fine arts and crafts presented by juried artists and artisans; hands art projects for children presented by the Arts Council of Napa Valley; live performances. $30 in advance; $35 at the door, includes 8 food and 5 wine tasting tickets; student admission $10; children ages , $5.Visit www.mustardfestival.org.
* On March 20 NYC’s Alfama will hold a tasting dinner matching the cooking of chefs Luís Caseiro and Dan Obusan with the wines from Vértice, an award-winning producer of sparkling Portuguese wines as well as table wines. $85 pp. Call 212-645-2500 or www.alfamarestaurant.com.
* On March 21 a Benefit for the Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers Foundation featuring 6 of
* On March 24, Chef Alberto Varetto of
* From March 25-April 9 many of Washington, DC’s top chefs and favorite eateries will join in the National Cherry Blossom Festival tradition by serving up recipes inspired by the city’s famous spring blooms, incl. Citronelle, Ristorante Tosca, Ten Penh, The Oceanaire Seafood Room, American ‘Sea’ Grill, Circle Bistro, Palette, Seasons Restaurant, Zebgo, and others. Visit www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.
* L’Auberge Carmel in Carmel, CA,, has created a romance package especially for food and wine enthusiasts that incl. two-night stay in deluxe accommodations; half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne; one night’s rose petal bath service; daily European-style breakfast; one night’s dinner for two at either Restaurant L’Auberge Carmel or Bouchée. Rates begin at $929. Call 831-624-8578 or visit www.laubergecarmel.com.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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