259 Thames Street, Bristol
Open Mon-Sat, 5:30-10 pm; Sun, 5:30-9 pm [cual menu Sat-Sun, 3-5:30 pm]
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The buzz about DeWolf Tavern reached us even before it was recently recognized by Esquire magazine as one of America’s 20 best new restaurants. The tall waterfront warehouses in Bristol have been under renovation over the past few years, and it’s terrific to see how the manager/ chef team (and personal partnership) of Melicia Phillips and Sai Viswanath have maintained the historic atmosphere of this 1818 stone building. Both bring strong credentials to this venture, Phillips with her background in management, cooking, and publishing, and Viswanath with degrees in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America and a school in Madras, India.
The downstairs has a colonial tavern feel, with rich wood all around, in walls, ceiling and floor, booths on one side, banquette and chairs on the other side of the long, narrow space. Round natural-wood pillars holding up the beams are a reminder of the spot’s warehouse beginnings, purportedly in the triangle trade whose New England base was in Newport. With a nod to the role of rum in that commerce, DeWolf offers many kinds of imported rums, especially from the Caribbean, and a house specialty cocktail, the Rum Raisin.
That drink could have warmed us up on a recent cold night, but we were more eager to plunge into the menu, a veritable masterpiece, as it turns out, of local seafood, seasonal veggies, and touches here and there of the chef’s Indian heritage. Indeed, the smell of roasting meats and breads from the tandoor oven wafts forward as you enter the restaurant, and the lure doesn’t let go as you peruse entrees featuring chicken, lamb chops, veal, and lobster.
The swordfish is served with a tamarind chutney, the lamb with a lemon/lavender one. The seafood biryani has lobster, crab, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams in a gentle sauce over basmati. Among the appetizers, the quail legs are tandoor-roasted, and the tuna carpaccio is accompanied by green mango and mustard oil.
But it was the lobster popover ($15) that grabbed my heart among the starters, and I was not disappointed. Spilling out of a crispy popover shell was nearly a cup of fresh lobster meat in a Newburg-like sauce. I savored the texture contrasts in each bite, and the lobster was cooked to perfection.
As was the lentil/spinach soup which Bill ordered. In a new serving trend, he was given a bowl with a bit of grated cheese in it and then the hot dark green puree was pitchered onto it. It had that distinctive mild curry flavor of dal, with the earthiness of the fresh spinach. The third member of our party was served a complementary soupcon of goat cheese and apple with fronds of mint sprouts that was also delicious.
He chose the tandoor veal tikka with cardamom and green chili ($24), which was surrounded by a particularly delectable spinach sage sauce. Bill had homed in on the prix fixe meal, which included appetizer, entree, and dessert, with a glass of house wine or draft beer, for $24.95 (served Sunday through Thursday in the tavern). His entree was pork tenderloin, three generous pieces, in a slightly sweet and spicy sauce, with garlic-sauteed spinach, and a pile of sweet potato fries. He was a very happy chomper with his choice.
As was I, with my tandoor-roasted chicken, which had been marinated in caramelized onion and cheddar before being thrust into the extremely hot clay oven. It was served with an exquisite tomatoey sweet-and-spicy sauce and a fingerling potato-brussel sprout hash.
Despite the terrific food in front of us, Bill and I managed to save some for a later lunch and leave room for dessert. His was a nutty cranberry bread pudding with a caramel sauce, and mine was two slices of toasted pumpkin bread with house-made chai ice cream sandwiched between. Both were quite memorable, as was the scoop of fig-port ice cream sampled from our friend’s side of the table. (They also offer rum raisin, bourbon almond crunch, vanilla and chocolate.)
The glow of a fireplace and the lights on the water in Bristol Harbor make DeWolf’s upstairs dining room as enticing as the tavern below. Don’t be one of those Rhode Islanders who won’t cross bridges: hie thee to Bristol and DeWolf Tavern.
Johnette Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.