Thursday, November 7, 2013

Figidini

A friend came by last night to pick me up for dinner at her new favorite Providence Restaurant.   Hard to believe there is another new restaurant.  But they keep coming and this one is really really good.  It is Figidini and it is downtown on Washington Street.  It is abutting Ellie’s bakery and Fratelli’s, making this a mini restaurant row.

Figidini has great ambience and a lively bar.  The interior could easily be in Manhattan although RI artistry is evident.  The owners, Frankie and Kara Cecchinelli, have lovingly designed this space with lots of personal touches and impeccable taste.  
Three large framed montages of birch branches are lined up on the wall opposite the bar.  They are reflected back in the large mirror over the bar and remind you of how an artistic eye makes almost any object interesting.  The lights over the bar are gorgeous, blown glass jugs hanging upside down with a gentle light warming the room.  A picture of  Frank’s grandfather holding a wine glass adorns the wall next to the bar.  All the wine glasses are handblown and mimic the one he is holding.

The concept at Figidini is so simple and successful it is a wonder that it is not more common.  Their food is all farm to table, all clean and simple, and served in small portions for $6 to $10 a plate.  Each plate is small, but contains more than one person would eat, so it is optimal to order several plates and share.  We started with an appetizer of speck and manchego cheese.  Speck is a German ham and is served in thin prosciutto like slices, along with three generous large slices of manchego and a dollop of pickled delights.  I had never had a pickled apricot before, but the ones on this plate were addictive, as were the pickled raisins and onions, making the experience delightfully sweet and sour .  




Figidini boasts both a wood fired grill and an authentic Neapolitan oven for the particular form of pizza they are crafting.  Frankie Cecchininelli must take a course and apply rigorous standards to qualify as one of only six people in the US who make authentic Neapolitan pizza.  The crust of this pizza is thick but delicate and they serve it with about five or six variations.  I didn’t try it last night, but I longed for it and will go back.  For dinner we shared some succulent grilled boneless chicken thighs, glazed with a fragrant spice blend.  We also split a risotto made with tomatoes and slab bacon that was a sweet soft counterpoint to the crispy juicy chicken.  We had a side of spicy zucchini slices bathed in balsamic vinegar.  Our neighbors had a grilled plum dessert that they raved about.  We didn’t have any more room.


When I eat in a place like Figidini I leave with a smile on my face.  The whole experience, the music, the atmosphere, the interesting wine list, and the great food, make me happy and amazed that I live in such a city with so many great spots.  We spent some time speaking with the owner of Figidini.  They debated which city to locate in after leaving Cape Cod and chose Providence over Boston.  They  join a group of very cutting edge chefs in the city, like those at North, or Nicks, or New Rivers.  All these folks have moved into what was a thriving culinary scene and transformed it even further.  They are all young and dedicated to fresh fine food and we are all lucky for it.
Before we left, Kara mentioned that another new chef has just opened The Barstow on Allens Avenue which she said is sensational.  So let’s hope we can support all these wonderful creative people who enhance our city.  
I am doing my level best.

Figidini Wood Fire Eatery
67 Washington Street
Providence
401 808 6886

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mile and A Quarter Becomes a Contender

Mile and a Quarter far surpassed expectations last night.  It is now one of my favorite restaurants in Providence.

Mile and a Quarter opened less than a year ago with an impressive cast of characters.  Originally managed by Mario Panagos who made his name at Cafe Paragon, owned by successful restaurateur Andrew Mitrelis, and conceptualized by Morris Nathanson Design, it had high promise.  The restaurant is on the river at the lower end of Water Street, in easy walking distance to Waterfire.  It is beautiful, with big windows facing the river, comfortable booths, flowers on white tablecloths,  and a separate dining area with warm exposed brick walls..  Plenty of artwork adorns the walls.  The bar area is handsome and separate, which keeps the noise level down in the dining room.

My first four or five visits were good enough, but with so much to choose from in Providence, good enough is not, well, good enough, and I definitely didn't love the place, I was lukewarm.  It is right down the hill from my house; it is extremely comfortable, and of increasing importance, it is quiet enough to hear your dining partner.  Something about the food was disappointing.  The menu was all right, not too much of a stretch, but with predictable appeal.  However, the food didn't quite equal the promise of the surroundings.  I stopped going.  I was watching though and heard that there was an overhaul.  And now, I am a devotee.

There is a new manager, Andrea Grenga, whose enthusiasm and professionalism raised my expectations.  The service is in keeping with her attitude.  Friendly, informed waiters immediately attend to our drinks and bring us a piping hot loaf of bread with savory garlic butter. A new menu offers expanded and tempting appetizers and entrees.  But best of all, the food is sensational. A new chef has hit it out of the park. His name is Teddy Espina and he formerly cooked at Spain.  The dinner we had was so good that my dining companion is returning tonight with her whole family.  I can't wait to go back myself.  It may be what I had hoped it would be, my regular nearby, go to restaurant.

We happily ate our warm bread while sipping our perfectly executed cocktails.   Relaxed and happy,  we waited for our dinners to arrive. My dinner partner ordered a tempting looking scallop and spinach risotto appetizer.  It looked fresh and colorful and and it was as pleasing to the taste as to the eye.    
 I ordered a Wedge Salad.  The Wedge Salad is a favorite indulgence, and hard to do wrong, but this was the best I had ever had.   The dressing was smooth and layered with savory flavor, creamy, cheesy, tangy, but subtle.  The excellent bacon was chopped finely and the ripe red tomato slices tasted like summer.  The lettuce was crisp and crunchy. I parted with the empty plate only after scraping off every remaining drop of dressing.

The special for the evening was Veal Meatballs with fresh pappardelle noodles.  This is the dish that made me sit up and rethink this restaurant.  It was delicate and rich at the same time.  The sauce accompanying the fragrant meatballs was sweet and dark, redolent with mushroom and Marsala wine overtones.  I would order this dish whenever it is offered.
My friend had a terrific steak with mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe.  I noticed a gorgeous entree going to the next table and it was a grilled salmon over a beet risotto.  Everything that was served at Mile and A Quarter was artfully presented and pleasingly colorful.

I hope this restaurant gets the attention it deserves.  It is such an appealing place, certainly a good choice for Waterfire nights. More than that, however, it is a perfect place for a delicious, quiet dinner any night.  And it is very affordable.

Mile and a Quarter
334 South Water Street
Providence RI  02904
401 351 1500


Sunday, October 20, 2013

XO Cafe Goes Local

XO Cafe has turned its attention to farm fresh ingredients.  Long a staple on the Providence dining scene, XO decided to kick it up a notch and embrace the demand for locally produced meat and produce.  The result is that this old pro of a restaurant has charmed new diners and kept its modern edge.  There has never been any question that XO stood among the best of Providence's restaurants throughout its many incarnations, but now, it seems to have its heart in the right place.

XO is a trendy spot in an historic 1799 building.  It's at once cozy and hip.  A narrow dining room with a busy bar gives way to a larger dining room that looks out on the street.  Dining room one has the above mural of luminaries and in dining room two, you are dining with relief sculptures of naked bodies.  The tables are close enough for you to check out the orders as they arrive at the tables, but not so close that you are conversing with the folks next to you.  The service is very friendly and informed.  It's noisy in here because it is packed on the night we go, which was a Waterfire Saturday.  But our waitress is working very hard to take care of everyone in her area.

The menu is "harvest to table" led by Chef Martin Lyons, who has worked at some of the city's most notable hot spots:  Nicks on Broadway, L'Epicureo and Loie Fuller.  Lyons has put together a tempting menu that showcases the season's best.
A Roasted Beet Salad with a blue cheese panna cotta, candied walnuts and apple vinaigrette is both original and familiar.  It is beautiful to behold and even better to eat.  A local green salad features roasted pears and pumpkin seed with a black pepper biscotti, fresh goat cheese and pickled cranberries.  Both of these two dishes are inventive and show the talent of the kitchen.  They let the diner know this is not a predictable meal and that the chef knows how to coax the best from his ingredients.  There are plenty of other appealing appetizers like wild harvested RI oysters and a Bento Box with lobster wontons, portobello fries, calamari and beef.

For entrees, we struggle to choose between a black trumpet crusted cod with spaghetti squash and bitter greens, lamb shanks with barley and pickled fennel, or something from the Steakhouse Grill side of the menu which features rib eyes, sirloin, or filet with a range of delectable sauces.  We settle for the roasted free range chicken with wild mushroom and bacon risotto, and a mushroom bolognese on hand cut fettucine in a parmesan cream with truffle oil.  We are not disappointed.  Doubt anyone would be.

The desserts at XO have always been a highlight and as always, diners are encourged to order their dessert first.  In keeping with the seasons, we order the apple cranberry walnut crisp with vanilla ice cream.  This means passing up two very tempting chocolate options and a butternut squash creme brûlée.  But this crisp makes me forget anything else I might have longed for.  It is bubbling hot and the ice cream melts into each bite while the cookie like top crunches with every bite.  I have had this dessert before when John Elkhay was the executive chef ( he is now the "Maestro" of the Chowfun food group which owns XO along with other successful Providence restaurants).  If you have it once, you will not be able to resist ordering it again.

I am glad XO Cafe is emphasizing local.  Add that to the polished, experienced, savvy culinary credentials that make up this place and you have an undisputed winner.

XO Cafe
125 North Main Street
Providence RI
401 273 9090
xocafe.com

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Notes on new stuff

Since I last wrote about Plum Point Bistro I have been distracted by work.  So much is happening however I have to at least give you a brief heads up.  It is always a surprise to me that new restaurants pop up with amazing regularity.  We have so many great spots that I think we are saturated, but as a populace, we must have a craving for the new.  There are so many that it is impossible to get to all of them and still be loyal to our regular favorites.  Lunch is my time to branch out when I can and here are a few options.

DOK'S DELI
146 Ives Street
Providence RI  02906
401 369 7633
doksdeli.com
Tyler Doktor opened this little shop about three months ago and it is a terrific new addition. He has filled a niche and one must ask," How did we do without it? "  In his immaculate kitchen, he serves up perfect sandwiches on great artisan bread.  The roast beef is thinly sliced and perfectly rare; the corned beef is house made, as is the pastrami, ham, cured bacon, and smoked chicken and turkey.  The toppings are all you could dream of: caramelized onions, tabasco-garlic aioli, dok's special barbecue sauce, signature herb pesto and more.  The sides always include a tasty pickle and home made potato chips.  There are options like a zingingly fresh corn and black bean salad, and dok's special slaw.  The shop also serves first rate burgers in many incarnations like Blue cheese cream, bacon onion jam, bourgeon-balsamic glaze and arugula.  The help is helpful and very nice, the food makes you think of your next sandwich as you finish your last.  Everything is fresh and local and you simply have to support him so he stays around

BEE'S THAI KITCHEN
167 Ives Street
Providence RI  
401 273 2727

This little spot opened about a month ago in the former home of THE UGLY AMERICAN.  It has been refreshed and opened up and it now offers a welcoming, warm, cleaner-than-clean dining room.
Bee's is open seven days for lunch and dinner, serving only dinner on Sundays.  I haven't tried the whole menu, but that is because what I have eaten is so good, I have to have it again and again.  For starters there is a mango fresh spring roll which is so fresh and delicious I cannot imagine ordering any meal without it.  It has mango, avocado, cucumber, carrot, mint and rice noodles wrapped in a spring roll skin and served with sweet and sour chili sauce.  There are lots of other appetizer options like steamed dumplings, steamed muscles with spicy lime sauce, calamari, but I can't get past the mango roll.  The soups are clean and light and yet very distinctive.  The Green Papaya Salad is perfect on a hot day with a sweet lime scented dressing.  I have had the Chicken Lapp which is ground chicken seasoned with lime juice, scallion, cilantro and month  The menu is extensive offering traditional Thai dishes like duck red curry, hot ginger beef, and Pad Thai.  You are welcome to bring your own wine at dinner.  The owner, Bee, is gracious and welcoming and clearly very proud of her restaurant; her mother does the cooking.  Another real draw for this is that you can satisfy your tastebuds without the heavy feeling that accompanies so many meals.  You'll feel like the poster child for healthy eating without an ounce of deprivation.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Plum Point Bistro


Early on a Sunday evening we drove down to Plum Point Bistro in Saunderstown.  It sits quietly on a corner bordering the entrance to the Jamestown Bridge in an ordinary looking building.  Walking in the door, you are about to learn it is far from ordinary and anything but quiet.





This is a happening spot.  I am sure the owners are overwhelmed by their success.  Plum Point Bistro is so far ahead of its competitors that it is busy all the time, with diners backed up on the weekends.  It’s no surprise given the pedigree of the owners, Ralph and Elisa Conte, who were major players in Providence for many years, turning out some of the best meals I ever experienced at Rafael’s Bar Risto in Union Square.  They own Plum Point Bistro with their children playing a significant part. Zoe Conte is General Manager and Raphael tends bar when he is not at college.  This is a restaurant family and all that experience has been brought to bear.  Ralph was responsible for the food, the crack culinary team,  and Elisa for the design, the vibe, or as she says “set the stage” for a great dining experience, right down to the music and dishes and silverware. They have been doing this, she says, for thirty years now.  I am so happy they are still young.



Plum Point Bistro is such a handsome restaurant with rich leather booths and a checkerboard floor.  It is immediately inviting and comfortable. It is divided into a bar area, which seats about 14 people, who have a clear view of the open kitchen.  The bar is divided from the adjoining the dining room, which in my experience is always bustling.  
Here is my only caveat.  The beautiful tin ceiling amplifies the noise level, which is very hard on my old ears.  It is a noisy dining room.

The ambiance perfectly matches the food, which I must confess, is exactly the kind of food I want when I go out for a casual evening.  It is not fussy at all, and yet it is perfectly executed, beautifully presented, very good food.  The octopus appetizer was grilled and twisted over crushed potatoes, celery leaves, an olive tapenade and citrus. Glorious.  The Caesar Salad was much, much better than most I have had, with dark leafy romaine, pan fried croutons and a perfect amount of luscious dressing.  Some of the appetizers we passed up were a short-rib dumpling with daikon, meyer lemon cream and chili oil, an eggplant roulade with spinach, ricotta and marinara sauce, and crepes filled with duck confit, which make for an unbeatable light dinner.


For our entrees, we struggled to choose between the appealing daily specials like whole roasted silver heard snapper with garlic, capers and lemon or a half chargrilled free range chicken with parisian gnocchi, and the house menu which is tantalizing in itself.  There are painful choices to be made: spaghetti with fruits of the sea served in a sauce flecked with olives, capers and oregano, espresso and cocoa braised short ribs, braised duck legs with white beans and pan seared local fluke.  When my dining companion inquired about the spaghetti with fruits do mer, he was offered the option of of a white sauce if he preferred it to the tomato sauce on the menu.  That says something about the restaurants service and desire to please its customers. He was thrilled with the dish as presented, but anxious to try it the other way as well. I had the charbroiled bistro steak with a garlic parsley butter and a little mug of crispy, it hurts to share, frites.  There was some other element to the steak sauce because it was slightly sweet and savory.  I could eat steak frites forever and not find a better rendition than this one.

Ralph Conte oversees the dinner menu which is executed by Peter Kielec, the Chef de Cuisine, and Elisa Conte has designed the dessert menu.  You tell me how to choose between a Plum Tarte Tatin and a Toasted Coconut Lemon Meringue Tartlet, let alone the chocolate torte or the fruit crostata, or the creme brulee and more. 


One more word on the service at the Plum.  Our waitress, Jennifer, was well informed, helpful, courteous and attentive.  We welcomed the information she offered on the dishes she explained and elected to go with some of her favorites, despite the various temptations.  That’s is the problem with Plum Point Bistro. It is so tough to choose because everything looks and is so good.  There will be even more choices soon when the summer menu comes out.  That means, of course, that I will have to elbow my way back in whenever I can. 

Reservations are a must.  Thankfully they take them. 

Plum Point Bistro
1814 Boston Neck Road
Saunderstown RI
401 667 4999
www.plumptbistro.com

Friday, October 12, 2012

North

North is strange but special.  The food there is entirely original.  If you find the same dish listed on another menu, I guarantee the taste will be different here.  It is a tiny little restaurant on the West Side that is as cozy and inviting on the inside as it looks on the outside.  It used to be Ama’s and the decor seems unchanged:  murals of mermaids and seascapes and a ceiling made of heavy hemp ropes.  There are three tables that would seat four people and another smattering of two tops.  I describe this because the tinyness lends itself to the general ambience.

The night we went there were two other tables filled, one with Syvia Moubayed and her husband, and the other with Genie Trevor and her husband.  Sylvia is the owner of Cav restaurant and Genie is the editor of edibleRhody.  Since we all know each other from the food world, it ended up being quite convivial and embracing.  We chatted with each other about what we ordered and even tasted each other’s food.  You may not get that opportunity, but the menu is so interesting, you will want to come back to try what you didn’t have.


Sttart with the bar menu:  North offers spirits, but only the suggested drinks of the night.  Like the dinner menu, the bar menu has to do with what the chef found in the market that day.  So, we had options of Whiskey and Lemon, (which was made with Old Overholt, Lemongrass and Angostura Bitters), or Rico Hola, a mix of tequila, lemon and mint.  Other options were stranger, like Red Wine and Coca-Cola, which sounds too awful to try, and Moxie and Fernet which lists lemon and crushed ice among its ingredients.  We had the Rico Hola, which had featured Galangal the previous evening,  but was much more subdued this night.  It was delicious and my only complaint is that it was served in a stainless steel glass, which made for a splendid iciness, but stainless steel makes my fillings stand up.

The entire menu fits on a  4 x 11 inch card and offers only this:  three appetizers, three snacks, two small bowls to share as sides or appetizers, two sandwiches, two large plates meant for 2-3 to share and two desserts.  Since I was trying to get a sense of the food, we ordered  a number of dishes.  We started with the Country Ham appetizer, which the waitress says is the most popular item on the menu, along with a squash salad bowl to share and the Indian summer corn.  The Country Ham was a new presentation for me.


The succulent moist shreds of Kentucky ham were served with baguette slices and a miso mayo.  I ate alot of the mayo because I thought it was a mustard without mustard flavor.  I kept dabbing my bread on it to determine the taste and finally asked the waitress.  The miso mayo was sweet and savory and made a repeat appearance when it was slathered on the summer corn along with scallions, cilantro, cotija cheese and a heretofore unknown spice called espellette.    Again, the miso leant a sweetness to the other ingredients that was appealing.  Our Squash Salad had spaghetti and acorn squash tossed with Thai Basil and croutons.  A light dressing of vinegar and nuoc mam added that welcome sweet savory taste.

The Twice Cooked Pork for two ended up being a stuffed pork shoulder in a red curry sauce.  It was served on a bed of broccoli rabe and charred long beans with biscuit rounds on top of the red curry.  We loved it and ate quite a bit, sopping up our biscuits in the curry sauce, wanting yet one more bite.  But the portion was so generous we managed to take a full serving home to enjoy another time.   

So, we didn’t need dessert but we were curious.  Genie Trevor ordered  and loved the Buttermilk Doughnuts served with fresh and pickled soup.  We had the Palm Sugar Ice Cream and a Charred Pineapple Sorbet sprinkled with toasted coconut and topped with a coconut vinegar.  It was dense with flavor and the vinegar made the dish surprising.  It worked:  again, just enough savory with an intensely sweet base.

North makes eating an adventure again, and I thought it was fun and very special.  The Chef/cook/owner is James Mark and he was in an out of the dining room explaining his concepts and what we were eating.  Mark did a stint at Momofuku in New York and he worked at Nicks on Broadway for three years, so he knows his food, and he clearly is personally invested in the food he places in front of his customers.  In a restaurant this size, it is likely he will remain so, not burning out with a hundred turnovers each night, but I am sure he will work hard because once this place finds its niche, it will be busy all the time.

There is no website yet for North, which means you will never know what they are serving until you get there.  There are several Oyster dishes on the menu, like a Po’Boy Sandwich, Toaster Oven Oysters and au natural on the shell.  There will surely be enough variety to please each diner, which is a big accomplishment when they only serve a dozen items altogether. 

North
3 Luongo  Memorial Square
Providence
foodbynorth.com

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What's new?

Sorry about the hiatus.  Have been traveling and taking care of plenty of business and now I have had some downtime.  I wanted to catch up with a few notes on what is going on in the restaurant world and also a new review.  Amazingly enough in this economy, new places are opening all the time. This summer saw the addition of Plum Point Bistro in Saunderstown, a great new spot opened by Providence restaurateur Ralph Conte and his wife Elise and their two kids.  Packed and noisy, charming and delicious, PPB is a welcome addition to the South County scene, where it is unrivalled in food quality.  Here in town, New Rivers started serving an astonishing lunch.  If you haven't tried it, you must, because everything is creative, fresh, seasonal, and remarkably good.  This is a special lunch, exquisitely presented and memorable, a bit pricier than most, but worth every penny.  Matt Jennings at La Laiterie is also serving an expanded and very impressive lunch.  The best restaurants used to shy away from lunch, but these two are back in and hopefully will get your support.
Mario Panagos, who used to run Paragon and Viva, and who opened Bravo Brasserie downtown and then Bravo in Warwick, where 1149 now sits, is about to open a new spot in the Barnsider location.  It will be called Mile and a Quarter House and it has been handsomely refurbished.  Also about to open, Two Pauls, at the East Providence site of Josephs/Cattails/Vineyard East.  Paul Shire, formerly of Oak and Downcity, and currently at the Roi, will take this on with his Roi partner, and promises casual ambience and comfort food.  Temple Downtown has a new manager named Vincent LoBuono, who used to work with Todd English, and he has pumped new life into the attractive restaurant at the Renaissance Hotel.  There is a new outdoor patio and a very appealing new menu.  The food is first rate and the cocktails are even better.  Chef Ryan Keogh, who made Tiverton's 524 restaurant well worth the drive, has shifted from his amazing French food to Italian rustic at Coco Pazzo at Thayer and Angell.  He is a chef who will definitely make his mark on the current culinary scene and Coco Pazzo is certainly worth a visit.  Kitchen Bar is up and running on Hope Street, with Jaime D'Oliveira at the helm.  Jaime has long been one of the greats in the Providence food community with Angell's, Capital Grille, Mill's Tavern and Red Stripe, on his resume.
Up on Federal Hill, Venda added a traditional Neopolitan pizza restaurant with a giant oven imported from Italy.  They brought in an expert who has been creating this "not like we're used to" pizza all of his professional life.  Venda Bar, which serves the pizza, is operated by Venda owner Alan Cosantino's children, who enjoyed immense popularity this summer.  Alan's son has taken over for the Napoli pizza chef and the other two Cosantino restaurants, Venda and Cosantino's, will serve the pizza during the evenings upon request.    Down the street from Venda, in the ever changing ethnicity of Atwells Avenue, French food is on the menu at The Grande.  I haven't tried it yet, but early reviews give the food a positive review.  Adesso on the Hill has reintroduced the long successful east side Adesso, using many of the same personnel, manager, owner, waitstaff.  Adesso was my all time go to restaurant when it was off Thayer so I couldn't try it fast enough.  The menu was the same and it was bustling, but, and it is a big but, it is unbearably noisy and they didn't bring in the same chef, which is a shame.  The dishes were reminiscent of the old menu, but they missed the mark.  Worth another try, but only on a quiet night.