It’s hard to say which came first: a natural interest on the part of Rhode Islanders, many from diverse ethnic groups, in good food and good restaurants, or a steady supply of Johnson & Wales grads to open and staff new restaurants. Whatever the source, Rhode Island’s culinary reputation has soared over the past two decades. Many local chefs and restaurants have garnered national acclaim and won numerous awards.
What follows is a bare-bones outline, totally subjective, of suggestions for an inexpensive and an upscale restaurant outing (in that order) in several categories. There are certainly many more classifications to explore, based on ocean vistas or harbor views; "the scene," the "cool" quotient, dress code, noise level, etc.; not to mention the regional specialties of this tiny state, from family-style chicken dinners in the Blackstone Valley to homemade soppressata salami in Westerly. We’ve opted for categories that recognize types of food or ethnicity, and I’ve tried to list special favorites within those duos, though there are many, many more that could be mentioned.
Flo’s Clam Shack, 4 Wave Avenue, Middletown, 401.847.8141; and Big Fish, 370 Richmond Street, Providence, 401.751.FISH
For cheap seafood, we’re talking fried clams, stuffies, chowder and clam cakes, and some of the best in the state are found at Flo’s, with a top-deck view of Newport’s First Beach. The batter on the clams is light as a feather, the bellies are fat, there’s no grease to speak of — delish! There are also nightly baked fish and lobster specials, and a raw bar to boot.
Big Fish offers one of Providence’s hottest dining scenes, with imaginative dˇcor, "crazy cocktails," and a twist on fish dishes that includes clam pizza, Bahamian fish chowder, Thai-spiced cod, plantain-crusted shrimp, Buffalo catfish, and sesame-poppyseed tuna. There are menu items for South Beach dieters; Maine lobsters, steamed, broiled or in a roll; and oysters from far and wide (Prince Edward Island to the Pacific Northwest). All are served up with a wild and wacky panache (check out the scratch-and-sniff dessert menu).
Though the Texas Roadhouse chain started in Indiana, they got the name right. There’s a very Texas-style emphasis on ribs and slabs of beef, especially steaks. Sirloins range from a $6.95 six-ouncer to a "cowboy-cut," plus there are Fort Worth rib eyes, Dallas fillets, Texas T-bones, and prime ribs. Roadhouse cooks pride themselves on hand-cutting their steaks, and taking extra care in preparing them, describing "rare" as "cool, red center," and "well done" as "no pink."
Steak temperatures at 10 Steak & Sushi are similarly described, with one rare exception: "Pittsburgh, charred outside, cold center." Their steaks are selected from Midwestern beef and aged five to six weeks. There are Delmonicos, New York sirloins, filet mignons, and Porterhouses. The restaurant’s moniker comes from cooking a steak to a perfect 10, and there are 10 interesting sides to accompany your boeuf.
Spirito’s, 99 Hicks Street, East Providence, 401.434.4435; and L’Epicureo, 311 Westminster Street, Providence, 401.861.8000, www.thehotelprovidence.com
The smell of fresh garlic as you enter Spirito’s primes the pump for their amazing Italian-kitchen classics, such as clams zuppa, snail salad, fried smelts, or the "farmer’s special," cannellini beans with red onion and cappicola. Favorites with the regulars are veal spitzatta (simmered in marinara with peas or mushrooms), squid sauce over linguine, and veal marsala. Chicken is served in several variations — francaise, marsala, parmigiana, saltimbocca, rosemary, and sometimes cacciatore ("hunter-style," bone-in).
L'Epicureo started out on Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy, but moved into the relatively new Hotel Providence. It still features impeccable Italian dishes, including grilled veal chop, veal osso bucco, homemade lobster ravioli (with wood-grilled scallops), and memorable risottos and gnocchi. And then there are the definitive desserts, also house-made, such as fruit crostadas, cheesecakes, chocolate tarts, and refreshing sorbets.
Olga’s Cup & Saucer, 103 Point Street, Providence, 401.831.6666; and Mill’s Tavern, 101 North Main Street, Providence, 401.272.3331
Though it’s only a breakfast and lunch spot, Olga’s has maintained its rep for unusually imaginative recipes, beginning with their widely distributed artisan breads that use stone-ground flours and sourdough leavening (my favorite remains the golden raisin/fennel). We’ve also loved the following: basil, corn, and plum tomato pizza; roasted beet, Clementine, and spearmint salad; curried tomato and basmati soup; dense tortes, imaginative bread puddings, and amazing fruit pies.
Mill’s Tavern has a bit of everything on its menu, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, and updates of local classics, such as calamari with fried lemons, littlenecks in a tomato and beer broth, and Mill’s twist on a sausage and peppers grinder. Menu items run the gamut, from an exotic grilled octopus salad to a peasant-style eight-hour Barolo-braised short rib. Rabbit pops up in several dishes; sides include Mill’s mac ‘n cheese. Seafood makeovers are common, such as monkfish "osso bucco" or herb-marinated swordfish with a fried egg.
Four Seasons, 361 Reservoir Avenue, Providence, 401.461.5651; and Neath’s, 262 South Water Street, Providence, 401.751.3700, www.neaths.com
Four Seasons suggests the four major sources of its cuisine: Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but that doesn’t tell you how excellently each of these are accomplished or how family-friendly the prices are. Beginning with the ever-popular nime chow — Vietnamese spring rolls — or choosing from 10 kinds of chicken wings, you can then savor the Vietnamese sweet and sour (and hot!) soup, mussels with ginger, a "home-style" bean curd dish, perhaps a Vietnamese bee boong salad, or the signature pad Thai noodles.
Born in Cambodia, trained in French cooking schools, Neath Pal is a fantastically nuanced chef, whose Asian touches on familiar entrees have won a loyal following for Neath’s. Working backward from the chocolate wontons with kitchen-made gelato, you will dream about the lobster atop chow foon noodles in a coconut-milk-laced broth, or the shrimp sparked by lime and pineapple. An opener of littlenecks even sits in a sesame-oil miso broth with snow peas and shiitakes. Scrumptious.
Cafˇ Central, 171 Bradford Street, Bristol, 401.254.6164; and Madeira Restaurant, 288 Warren Avenue, East Providence, 401.431.1322
Portuguese cuisine may be second only to Italian in its frequency on Rhode Island menus. Sure, it may just be the sausage (linguica or chourico), the kale soup, or the sweet bread, but it permeates restaurant fare throughout the state. One of the most modest spots to indulge in some Portuguese dishes is Cafˇ Central, where the codfish cakes are delicate and delicious; the littlenecks come with marinated chicken as well as pork (Alentejana-style); and the garlic-lemon-paprika sauce on the shrimp Mozambique is good to the last drop.
Madeira has expanded its pink building along Warren Avenue to accommodate its ever-growing clientele. Though some dishes are not much more expensive than those at Cafˇ Central, Madeira has the elegance of table linens and some fancier dishes, such as paella — with the aforementioned chourico, seven kinds of seafood and pork — and sirloin or filet mignon shish kebobs hung from a skewer at your table. Another Portuguese classic is a steak (here an eight-ounce sirloin) with a fried egg on top.
Bolivian Restaurant, 1040 Chalkstone Avenue, Providence, 401.521.0000; and Don Josˇ Tequilas, 351 Atwells Avenue, Providence, 401.454.8951
Though all of the Latin-American restaurants in the state — Brazilian, Mexican, Bolivian, Columbian, Dominican, Salvadoran, or Guatemalan — are a supper bargain, the modestly named Bolivian Restaurant stands out for its huge portions at rock-bottom prices. Many beef, pork, fish, and chicken dinners are under $10, and the starches and veggies that accompany the entrˇes will feed you for days afterward. Or you could fill up on one of the soups, thick with meat and grains, for under $3.
For a bit more atmosphere (and a full bar), Don Josˇ Tequilas fits the bill. Tequilas of many kinds can be sampled in a variety of margaritas, or you can catch its tang in an orange-tequila sauce over shrimp. The tostadas, burritos, and even goat shanks are modestly priced, but two more ambitious dishes inch close to $20: the paella a la Mexicana, and the molcajete Azteca, a black clay mortar filled with strips or sirloin, chicken breast, shrimp, chorizo sausage, a hunk of cheese, and tortillas. A smorgasbord in a pot!
Crazy Burger, 144 Boon Street, Narragansett, 401.783.1810, www.crazyburger.com; White Horse Tavern, 26 Marlborough Street, Newport, 401.849.3600
Crazy Burger is one of those places where you almost always see a line out front. But it’s worth it all the way. Dietary options abound for meat-eaters and vegans alike: scrambled Mexi-tofu served in a tortilla shell; eggs Florentine, with artichoke hearts and spinach under a terrific Hollandaise; crepes Marie, with goat cheese and roasted red peppers; multi-grain pancakes; sweet-potato fries; and even homemade ketchup. It would take more than a year of Sunday brunches to eat your way through this menu. And don’t miss the fresh-squeezed pear-ginger-apple juice.
White Horse Tavern doesn’t coast on its historicity, being the oldest surviving tavern in the country (circa 1687), but it still has the low-beamed look of a Colonial-era building in its downstairs dining room, and the romantic elegance of crisp white linens, candles, and free mimosas or Champagne with its Sunday a la carte brunch/lunch menu. The bouillabaisse is always a winner, the grilled seafood or chicken are excellent, and the Benedict and its variation, over crab cakes, are also good.
It might take you a while to decipher Pizza Pie-er’s menu, because there are so many choices: "fancy," "gourmet," or "premium" toppings; four crust options — white, whole wheat, seven-grain, and veggie; six kinds of sauce — red, white, pesto, walnut, puttanesca, and Alfredo; and a line of "specialty pizzas," where the decisions have been made for you, such as Cajun chicken (BBQ sauce, topped with chicken, green olives, and mozzarella); or pizza al noci (whole wheat crust with walnut sauce, mushrooms, mozzarella, and spinach).
Many places serve grilled pizza, but George Germon and Johanne Killeen originated this approach at their world-renowned Al Forno. Inspired by a friend’s description of a Florentine "grilled pizza," Germon decided to put the dough right over the embers of a wood-fired grill. The resulting smoky crust made history and cultivated scores of fans. The pizza is a free-form ellipse, cracker-thin, with dollops of seasonal goodies, such as asparagus or pumpkin, swirls of scallions, dots of Gorgonzola, slices of prosciutto, plenty of fresh herbs, garlic and olive oil, sometimes a tomato sauce, and sometimes a Tuscan bean puree or olive tapenade.
Pick Pockets, 231 Old Tower Hill Road, Wakefield, 401.792.3360; Cafˇ Choklad, 2 Thomas Street at North Main, Providence, 401.383.4764
In picking favorite sandwich places, the price differentials are not that great, but the ambiance can make a place feel more upscale. Not that Pick Pockets suffers in any way from its scaled down dˇcor. Far be it from me to make suggestions about the best falafel and grilled chicken sandwiches in the state. The former (with add-ons of tahini, hummus, and/or tabouleh) makes this a haven for veg-heads; the latter for anyone who loves the possibility of gilding a chicken sandwich with roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, and/or fried eggplant rounds. These sandwiches are so hearty, they feed you for two meals.
Cafˇ Choklad may not accomplish that, but their Old World charm and their creative use of chocolate is the draw: S’more panini, grilled with semi-sweet chocolate and marshmallow fluff; a sandwich with cocoa and mission figs tucked into caponata (eggplant relish); or "wicked chocolate," laced with cayenne, topped with real whipped cream and plenty of dark chocolate shavings. Need any more inducement? There are also creative salads, decadent pastries, and handmade truffles.
Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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