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Birch in Providence, RI (Dec ’15): “revisit”

2 Feb

During my final year at Brown (mid-2013 to mid-2014), I dined at the newly opened Birch 18 times, a rate of about once every 2-3 weeks. The reasons I dined there so often were because it was head-and-shoulders the best restaurant in Providence, RI, and also it was relatively affordable at ~US$60-$70 after tax and tip for an excellent 4 course menu. Chef Ben Sukle would generally change the menu every 3-4 weeks and never repeat a dish, giving it a novelty that other restaurants in the Providence area lacked.

Some local talk: New Rivers was a very good bistro with excellent $1 oysters nights, but chef Beau Vestal’s ambitions were limited to more casual food. Matt Jenning’s Farmstead (before he moved to open Townhouse in Boston) I never really rated, having had my fair share of being his guinea pig for weird experiments (snail whole wheat pasta that had the consistency of sawdust, steak with burnt rice, kimchi something or other). Champe Speidel’s Persimmon in Bristol, RI was an excellent restaurant influenced intelligently by modern trends (a faux-mussel shell a la Noma sticks in my mind) and created an excellent rendition of Michel Bras’s famous gargouillou salad, which I discovered late in April 2015. But it was a 45 minute drive away from Providence, and an eternity away by bus, which was why I only made it down there twice.
I came back to the US for a two-week period in December, and decided to make my way up to Providence to see old friends and sample Ben’s cooking again (for a 19th and 20th time). The US flight ticket was originally planned for May in time for Brown’s 2015 graduation ceremony, but work had other ideas and I ended up in Vietnam during that time.

The cooking at Birch is quite unique, and doesn’t fall in any particular style. In the first half of 2014, I had Japanese influenced dishes (black bass sashimi, sweet potato tempura, raw scallops), French-influenced dishes (opera cake, a roasted quail salmis from a collaboration dinner with Justin Yu of Oxheart), as well as Asian-fusion touches (fermented vegetables served with baked rutabaga, and in this couple of meals, my 19th and 20th, I had crisped rice [soccarat]). In fact, that’s what makes dining at Birch exciting – the sense that anything is possible.

But I think Ben’s good taste allows the cooking to avoid a couple of pit-falls, like excessive Asian saucing with kimchi. Asian-fusion cuisine is rarely good, and as far as I know has never comes together to form a cohesive and enjoyable series of dishes. (Examples: Benu, Bo Innovation, etc etc.) The accompanying sauces at Birch are usually French, or some distilled broth that brings to mind consomme. This is intelligent. Also, at ~$65, the one never feels too down for dishes that are merely good, rather than thought-provoking and excellent. (I don’t recall having a dish that was anything less than good).

Birch, as Ben told me, is the opposite of a Saison, where being funded by unending spouts of successful VC money allows them to cook the best ingredients in the best way at any price. Of necessity. Rhode Island’s economy is respectable but not as frothy as San Francisco’s (but then again, where is?). In such an environment, prices have to be reasonable. While I feel the price at Birch is a bit low, the chef’s relationships with local fishermen and farmers, allow Birch to offer these dishes at highly competitive prices. And so it preserves a bit of the neighborhood vibe, which makes Birch a bit of a Rhode Island Chez Panisse.

The two types of dishes I previously enjoyed the most at Birch were the vegetable-dishes (e.g. roasted carrot with clams in autumn, beetroot with shaved walnut in summer, spaghetti squash with marjoram in winter, rolled beef carpaccio with turnip in winter) and the desserts (the sweet grain cereal was insanely delicious, a riff off peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich very enjoyable). The comparative weakness of the 4-course menu would be the Course 3 mains, which tended not to be as creative as Courses 1 & 2. Scup, squid, and other Rhode Island fish; pork, would be cooked simply with a simple vegetable accompaniment and a broth-based sauce. I tend to enjoy Ben’s more offbeat takes, and so preferred the first and second courses.

On this visit though, I found myself really enjoying the main of Rhode Island monkfish, which was really fresh, 6 hours off the boat, and roasted on the bone. Judging by the bone-line, it looked like a small monkfish, but had supreme texture, possessing the gelatinous chew of good turbot. The ingredient itself was good enough to make the simple arrangement highlymemorable.

Starting in January 2016, downtown Providence will have the Sukles’ second restaurant, a casual restaurant called Oberlin, which will be headed up by ex-Birch-chef Ed Davis. I wasn’t able to catch it this time around, but will definitely do next time. (especially since they have the dearly-departed Sweet Grain Cereal).

Birch – worth a special trip to Providence? Definitely.

Rating: 17/20


PICTURES OF THE ENTIRE MENU (OVER TWO DINNERS)
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  1. Black garlic and mushroom chips, with apple butter and sorrel (4.25/5)
    1. The combination of black garlic and mushrooms had a rounded mushroomy savoriness. An excellent bite

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  1. Sunchoke: marinated with cherry blossoms and seaweeds with autumun olive and almond (4/5)
    1. Cold slices of sunchoke, with savory almond milk and floral sakura. Very

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  1. Warm broth of pork and sourdough: grilled onions, coriander and kombu (4.25/5)
    1. Charred onions, with day old sourdough bread and pork bone broth. A hearty and delicious broth made from day-old sourdough bread and pork bone broth. A micro-soup

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  1. Raw Rhode Island Fluke: parsley, pickled broccoli stem and preserved tomato (4/5)
    1. Usually tasteless fluke was cured, to give it a savory taste. As far as a white fish could be, it was a facsimile of ham, with parsley creme and pickled stems. It reminded me of the traditional Japanese progression in Tokyo, where the first raw fish is often a whitefish.

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  1. Grilled radishes: Barbecued chicken hearts, hazelnuts and nasturtium (3.75/5)
    1. Grilled radishes in chicken fat. Not bad.

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  1. Kabocha squash: clams, whelk and preserved peppers (4.75/5)
    1. Kabocha squash was roasted, along with clams and whelks. The sauce was excellent (made from red peppers?) It was buttery and tasted like a Grand French sauce, which brought it together. The char on the sweet squash added the necessary complexity. This riffs off the successful carrot and clams dish Ben had in 2013.

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  1. Baby beet: Wild mustard, husk cherries, rice and goat’s milk (4/5)
    1. Rice crispies, sweet beet, mustard flowers, and sugar kelp. A similar butter sauce was with the kabocha squash. Towards the end the beet made the sauce purple with a strong sweetness. The texture of crisped rice (soccarat) was interesting, but didn’t really harmonize with the dish. This brought to my mind mind the beet with shaved walnut in late 2013, but I felt that dish was stronger because the texture of shaved walnut was more delicate than the very crisp soccarat, which had a clashing texture.

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  1. Rhode Island Monkfish: Roasted on the bone with celeriac, broccoli and potato (5/5)
    1. This monkfish was served barely 6 hours after it had been landed. The texture was gelatinous, probably the best I’ve had, and similar to the white meat at the core of the best turbot. Monkfish flesh is densely packed, and can be unpleasantly chewy if overcooked..
    2. Of my meals in 2014 (about 10-12 in total), I used to find Ben’s seafood dishes (e.g. Pt. Judith Scup or Squid) some of the less convincing dishes compared to his vegetable conceptions. This tends to because they were based around a simple conception of protein, vegetable, and a sauce. It was completely different with this dish – the monkfish excellent enough on its own to distinguish the dish; the celeriac topped with roasted broccoli and potato bits was pleasing. A potato/brown butter broth brought together the dish.

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  1. Lightly grilled cabbage: winter squash, caramelized sauerkraut, toasted seeds and a broth of dried apples (4/5)
    1. Cabbage, with apple core oil, toasted seeds (cumin, anise, poppy, sunflower, fennel). I could see the thought process at work. For a vegan dish, the core was layers of cabbage and squash, sour and sweet. Complexity came from the mix of grains (one of Ben’s strengths is creating an optimal mix of grains), and the char on the cabbage. This dish was purely vegan – it was good for a vegan dish.

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  1. Rhode Island pork: Field peas, spinach, green tomato and mitsuba (4/5)
    1. Suckling pig, fatty and tasting heavily of bacon. This was a showcase of good ingredients, but little beyond that, perhaps the least accomplished main – though still very good.

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  1. Cato’s Corner Balck Ledge Bleu cheese: walnut, dried corn and sorrel (4/5)
    1. Celery oil, sweet corn crisp, shaved cheese, walnut milks. Very sharp cheese, and probably the most intense dish of the meal, a dessert that wasn’t sweet in the slightest except for some sugar crisps. I found this dish a bit dry for my tastes, but appreciated the attempt at a savory dessert.

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  1. Apple: Apple blossoms, oats and raspberry (4.25/5)
    1. Really good cooked apples, with raw apple, apple blossom and raspberries. A good fruit dessert end, highlighting the stewed apple texture from apple pie.

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  1. Quince Sherbet: Caramelized whey, toasted grains and rose. (4.5/5)
    1. Caramelized whey ice cream with quince sugar and rose cream. Delicious, the rose cream perfuming the dessert with floral flavor.

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  1. Whoopie pie

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Kitchen | Providence, RI | Spring ’14 | “brunch”

12 Oct
  • Rating: 5/5
  • Address: 94 Carpenter St, Providence, RI 02903

Over 4 years, I tried Louis; Brickway’s; Duck & Bunny; Julian’s; Nick’s and a lot of other breakfast places in Rhode Island. But my favorite go-to, if I had the fortitude to brave the Saturday or Sunday queues, was Kitchen in Federal Hill, just a short car ride away from Brown’s campus.

Kitchen is a small outlet in Federal Hill that serves about 16 people at once -> 3 4-tops, and 2 2-tops. It has an open kitchen, with just one man who cooks thick-cut bacon to perfection (and I do mean absolute perfection, the perfect marriage of salty crust and tender meat-texture within), does a mean French toast, and really good crab cakes. Who is this one-man, on a single-minded quest to provide the best breakfast in Providence, if not Rhode Island?

Brunch is almost always a disappointing affair, a shakedown of Hollandaise – I don’t find anything compelling around normal eggs, simply cooked. But the brunch at Kitchen was always worth the trip.

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French toast and bacon

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Crabcakes and bacon, salsa (5/5)

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BACON (5/5)

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CRABCAKE

Persimmon | Bristol, RI | Apr ’14 | “playful Rhode Island fare”

9 Apr
  • Address: 31 State St, Bristol, RI 02809
  • Phone: (401) 254-7474
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): ~$125
  • Courses: (18 main/19 total) 14 savory / 1 cheese / 3 desserts / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $6.50
  • Rating: 15.5/20
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining Time: 150 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 8 minutes
  • Chef: Champ Speidel
  • Style: New American

 

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Reflecting on a recent meal at Persimmon, I think that Persimmon is among the top two restaurants in Rhode Island I have tried after 4 years living here; along with birch in Providence. Chef Champe Speidel and Lisa Speidel are the managers of this restaurant, Chef Speidel used to be the sous chef at Gracie’s when it was a 38-seat restaurant in Federal Hill in Providence (source – http://ediblerhody.com/files/pages/articles/winter2007/pdfs/inTheKitchen.pdf). When Gracie’s decided to move downtown (where it now is opposite the Trinity rep, and next door to birch), Chef Speidel decided to move out to Bristol to open Persimmon in 2005. I in fact ate there just 2 days shy of the 9th anniversary of the restaurant this year, in 2014. The restaurant is a labour of love:

A couple of years after graduation, Champe was hired as sous chef at Gracie’s. Shortly after he started, the head chef left. “I knew I could handle it but, basically, I got the job because I was there,” he laughs. In those days, Gracie’s was a 38-seat restaurant located on Federal Hill in Providence. “They mostly did a weekend business, so we had a lot of freedom to take out time and do things the way you’re supposed to do them. We experimented with a lot of different cooking methods and prepped all week to handle the weekends. It was a tremendous learning experience.

“We took the menu they had and added my spin. We got some great accolades.” He stayed for three years. When the owners decided to move the restaurant downtown, to more than double the size, Champe knew it was time for him to find his own place.

That’s when he and Lisa started shopping for a restaurant. It only took a couple of months to find the spot, called the Hotpoint at the time. It took about six months of negotiation to close the deal. The size of the kitchen, which is substantially larger than the dining room, sold him on the place. “We put a 200-page business plan together and solicited help from just about anyone willing to talk to us. We did all the things they teach you in school. The minute we got the keys, April 7, 2005, I proposed to Lisa. Three weeks later we opened.”

Since then Champe has been, “doing the food that we really believe in,” making folks on theother side of the kitchen doors at Persimmon very happy. “The main thing we really want is for people to trust that, when they come here, they will get a well-prepared meal and service that will take care of any needs. Trust is a big part of the restaurant experience.” – Edible Rhody

What Chef Speidel’s cooking deserves to be commended for is his playfulness. It is not a common feature in RI dining to feature experimental presentations, taste combinations, besides the aforementioned birch (presentation and taste) and some Asian fusion (taste) at north. My thoughts (and praise) on birch’s dishes can be read on this blog; north has some interesting dishes but they are generally hit and miss, and their highs (4.5-5) are much rarer than their low to middling fare – of the highs, ham biscuits, and roasted cabbage have left a lasting impression. Other stalwarts like Gracie’s generally play it cookie-cutter safe with no surprises, or in the case of La Laiterie, alternate between the safe and the bizarre, like steak with rice browned with soy sauce. New Rivers does enjoyable bistro fare and great fluke, and has been experimenting with some Asian fusion dishes recently, but is still rather conventional (it is after all self-characterised as a bistro). My two picks for interesting and innovative dishes here in RI, would thus be Persimmon and birch.

Among the plays on RI tropes I had that night: clam cake with chowder, mussel with edible shell, Quonset oyster with herb butter powder,and a drop of absinthe. Even if these dishes were not fully successful, it was just a delight and surprise to be confronted with such thoughtful cooking. If only there were more chefs in RI willing to take these risks!

Boldness in flavor is a double-edged sword. A weakness throughout the meal was the erratic salting. The balance of salt was off on the beef tartare, and the chicharrones course. North Star Farm lamb had the rub all on the skin, and none of the flavor in the meat.

The general flow of the menu went from seafood is the first half of the menu (and where most of the memorable dishes) to meats, and then to a standard assortment of desserts (sorbet, panna cotta, chocolate cake). But there was a wild unpredictability throughout the 14 main courses. In the midst of a succession of seafood courses, suddenly beef tartare was served. In the midst of the heavier courses of foie+pork+game, a beautiful plate of vegetables (evoking the famous Bras gargouillou) was served, followed by the chef’s take on Asian-fusion, with bold use of fish and peanut sauce, as well as kabayaki sauce (more often used for unagi). The desserts which followed, were conventional, a slight disappointment given the chef’s flight of fancy earlier in the meal.

Service was fantastic. Lisa Speidel runs a great FOH, my dining companion and I felt very comfortable throughout the night.

Overall, a restaurant I was very excited to dine in. One of two best I’ve tried in RI. I believe that by remedying some minor flaws in the dishes served, this restaurant would reach a 1-star Michelin standard.

Rating: 15.5/20

Memory: Mussel with edible shell, foie gras gateau.

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2014-04-05 19.39.041. Deviled quail egg, caviar (3.5/5)

Egg yolk seasoned with soy sauce and/or worcestershire sauce?
Slight gripe: I felt the strong taste of the deviled egg detracted a little from the taste of the caviar.

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Cocktail: Maginot Line

2014-04-05 19.47.122. Marinated Massachusetts sea scallop, scallop chip (3.75/5)

A third component was scallop mayo underneath. Interesting in conception. The idea was to showcase two textures of scallop.
My dining companion G and I agreed that the oiliness of the scallop mayo hid the freshness of the scallop. The mayo could have been reduced in volume.

2014-04-05 19.51.17 2014-04-05 19.51.293. Beef tartare, cured egg yolk (3.25/5)

Additional ingredients: capers
The tartare was oversalted, though not unbearably so.

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4. Raw Quonset oyster, ‘herb butter’ (4/5)

A very interesting Quonset point oyster, with herb butter powder, and a drop of absinthe.
I enjoyed the fruitiness and lack of salinity in the Quonset point (a rarity given the high salt levels of East Coast oysters generally). The herb butter powder was an interesting textural contrast (akin to edible soil), the absinthe added a herbaceous note. An intriguing and avant-garde combination.

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5. Chowder, clam ‘cake’ (4/5)

Rhode island chowder foam broth with a clam cake seasoned with fennel. A playful reinterpretation of clam chowder and clam cakes, both traditional RI edibles.

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6. Mussel, edible shell (4.5/5)

Butter poached mussel, with an edible shell, made from pasta dough with squid ink, and shellfish-broth foam.
Inspired in conception, this had echoes of atera’s famous “razor clam with edible baguette shell” from their 2012 season.
It would have been 5/5 for conception, if not for that the “mussel shell” had thin innermost layer that had an undercooked texture.

2014-04-05 20.12.567. Black olive financier (4.5/5)

Fruity and buttery, a delight.

2014-04-05 20.22.13 2014-04-05 20.22.218. Potato agnolotti (4.75/5)

Mascarpone cheese and yukon potato in the agnolotti (little purses), with yukon and celeriac
With a fragrant onion jus. The scent of the onion was very strong.

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9. Foie gras gateau (4.75/5)

Applecake, pickled apples, foie terrine, elderflower gel.
An inspired combination. This was probably my favorite dish of the night. The complexity of the pickled apples, with the fragrance of elderflower gel was an inspired pairing for a foie terrine. However, I feel the dish could have improved if the foie didn’t have a slightly mushy texture – which detracted again from a perfect score for this dish.

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10. Pork jowl confit, pickled daikon (3.75/5)

A pork skin crackling with dehydrated pork jowl and  kabayaki sauce (which usually goes with uni). Okay, a bit oversalted.

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11. Raw, pickled vegetables, herbs (4.25/5)

A take on the famous Bras gargouillou, transplanted to RI.
Each component was well prepared, and with great freshness and different tastes in the vegetables. My favorite of an assorted plate was probably the sweet beet.
Unlike the gargouillou which has ham in the poaching water, this I think was purely vegetarian.

2014-04-05 20.55.37 2014-04-05 20.55.5512. Chicken wing, peanut sauce, shishito pepper (3.75/5)

fish sauce and peanut sauce on the deboned chicken wing
An experimental Asian dish, which was bold on flavor, esp. with fish sauce.

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13. Squab, egg, emmer, jus (3.75/5)

How could the squab breast be so perfectly cooked – crisp flat skin with rare meat –  (4.75/5), yet the leg almost raw? (2/5) The center of the leg bone was simply raw meat. I was very pleased with one, and unhappy about the other. Both could have benefitted from having slightly more seasoning on the well-roasted skin.
Praise for the fragrant trumpet mushroom sauce.

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14. North Star Farm lamb (3.25/5)

Decent. This was a sous-vide lamb dish. I am starting to not be a fan of sous-vide cooking, I find it gives meat the uniform texture of styrofoam, which is not appetising.
The very tasty seasoning on the fat of the lamb did not penetrate into the meat. Meat was relatively flavorless.

2014-04-05 21.29.3515. Bayley Hazen blue, Greensboro, VT (3.5/5)

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Served with Cinnamon Raisin Bread

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16. Sorbet (3.5/5)

Coconut lime sorbet, with calamansi-lime curd.
I enjoyed the coconut+lime sorbet pairing, but calamansi curd was too sweet and one-dimensional; it might have been improved by dispersing the curd relative to the sorbet.
It also might have been interesting to me as a diner, to try different citrus curd pairings, like the lighter finger-lime from Australia.

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17. Panna Cotta (3.25/5)

Vanilla panna cotta with passionfruit gelee.
By now the desserts were all very conventional

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18. Chocolate Cremeux (3.5/5)

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19. Mignardises

birch | Providence | Winter Season ’13-’14

11 Mar
  • Address: 200 Washington St, Providence, RI 02903
  • Telephone: (401) 272-3105
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $65
  • Courses: (4 main/6 total) 1 amuse / 3 savory / 1 dessert / 1 mignardise
  • Price/Main Course: $16
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Average Dining Time: 90-120 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 15-20 minutes
  • Chef: Benjamin Sukle (ex: La Laiterie, The Dorrance)
  • In Own Words: “We don’t do massive plates. We don’t do massive starches. We don’t do anything like that. It’s very vegetable-forward, it’s very clean, it’s very healthy in some aspects.” [1]
  • Style: New Naturalist (*)
  • Notable: High quality cocktail list (The Dorrance alumni); focus on Rhode Island ingredients; subtle use of microherbs

Previous write-ups from me:

  1. Summer dishes @ birch
  2. Fall dishes @ birch
  3. Guest chef Erik Anderson (ex. The Catbird Seat) @ birch

birch has really made senior year at Brown a treat. Located about 20 minutes by foot from campus, it’s my default go-to for fresh and inventive New Naturalist cooking. The following is a compilation of my last 3 visits in winter season at birch , now we’re finally at the end of it! (It has been a long and bitter winter in the Northeast.) Here are some thoughts on their winter menu offerings:

____________

Winter #1 (early December 2013)

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Spaghetti Squash: Enoki Mushroom, Marjoram, Pumpkin Seeds, Sour Cream (4.75/5)

Spaghetti squash here made to live up to the heartiness of its namesake spaghetti, richly coated with cream, with crisp enoki mushrooms on top. Counterpoint a herby marjoram. Hearty.

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Warm Red Beets

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Crispy Heirloom Potatoes: Preserved Green Tomato, Egg, Potato-Miso Cream (5/5)

(Vegetable ash on top) Another great dish, the egg binding together the roasted potatoes underneath a head of miso cream. Green tomato provides the tart notes.

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Rhode Island Chicken: Brussel Sprouts, Pumpkin, Chervil and Quince (3.5/5)

A chicken confit with brussel sprouts and quince. Was not a big fan of this, wasn’t sure what the brussel sprouts added. This has been a mainstay of the menu since December though, so I’m may be in the minority.

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Chocolate with Rhubarb

Refreshing.

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Warm Apples: Caramel Custard, Malt Cookie, Bourbon (5/5)

Brilliant. The malt cookie shields the warm apples, doused in caramel custard, underneath the apple ice from the sog. Originally a descendant of a dish from the Catbird Seat dinner. Unfortunately not on the menu right now.

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Sweet Grain Cereal

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White chocolate and quinoa

____________

Winter #2 (late January 2014)

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Cornmeal Hush Puppy

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Rhode Island Beef Tartare: Wrapped in Cape White Turnip with Crispy Rye, Chives and Ramp Capers (4.75/5)

A descendant of one of the dishes from the Catbird Seat guest dinner, I think. Flat beef slices rolled in a turnip shell, and finished off with a sauce of jus and sherry vinegar.

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Rhode Island Suckling Pork

As great as ever, with a sweet sunchoke mash this time around.

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Lemon: Maraschino Cranberries, White Chocolate, Poundcake and Picotta (5/5)

Great lemon flavor throughout this dessert. Burnt-lemon-flavored meringues, lemon poundcake, shaved white chocolate and sour cranberries. The scent of lemon, and the sweetness of the white chocolate + lemon poundcake cut by tart cranberries.

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Whoopie Pie

____________

Winter #3 (early March 2014)

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Warm Butternut Squash: Melted Leeks, Pumpkin Seeds, Marjoram and a Brown-Butter Shellfish Bouillon (4/5)

Squash is now mashed and for textural contrast, artichoke slices and pumpkin seeds are added. Marjoram seems to be a favored pairing with squash, and a rich third leg – earlier in winter it was cream sauce, but now a brown-butter bouillon. A hearty broth.

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Roasted Carrots

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Rhode Island Lamb: Roasted Celeriac, Creamed Chicories and Nasturtium (4.5/5)

Descendant of the pork dish, which went out of season, the roasting brought out the sweetness of the celery root (tasting something like wolfsberry crossed with the earthiness of danggui (angelica sinensis)), and the roasting of nasturtium gave it a crunch not unlike kale chips. Flavorfully roasted slices of lamb shoulder.

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Lemon

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Whoopie Pie

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(*) – A note on style: I think I’ve been hopelessly confused about what I mean by New Naturalism in the past. I’ve used the term to denote restaurants like Borago and atera, in the style of noma and In De Wulf, which feature minimalist plates with tweezered details and foraged ingredients. Those I would now call Foraged Restaurants. There is a distinct style of cuisine by Contra or this restaurant, which I call New Naturalist. Pete Wells calls it “mumblecore cuisine“. This is a unhelpful name. I think a better name for it is “we-mix-it-all-up + soft-pliable-food”. For now I’ll call it New Naturalist. The four criteria are:

  1. 3-4 principal ingredients all mixed up on the plate
  2. vegetable-and-(heirloom)-grain forward
  3. meat as best supporting actor (at best)
  4. a “let-it-fall-where-it-may” plating aesthetic

Mike’s Kitchen | Cranston, RI | Nov ’13 | “local institution”

25 Nov

Address: 170 Randall St, Cranston, RI 02920

Telephone: (401) 946-5320

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“You must try Mike’s.” I’ve heard many a time from Providence locals. “Especially the polenta”. But I don’t have the luxury of a car in Providence, and the buses don’t run conveniently to that part of town. So I’m thankful that today my friend will be doing the short 15 minute drive to Mike’s.

Mike’s isn’t like most eateries. It opens from 5-8pm. It’s been around for 30 years, and many of the original servers are still around. It looks like a mess hall. And it’s located in a squat Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) building. But the polenta’s the main draw. The NYTimes stopped over in 1997:

Johanne Killeen and George Germon, the owners of the acclaimed restaurant Al Forno in Providence, often dine at Mike’s Kitchen and have included his polenta recipe, which they call the best the world, in their cookbook, ”Cucina Simpatica” (HarperCollins, 1991).

Mr. Lepizzera’s cooking is such a draw that on Fridays, the busiest night, a line stretches outside the building as people wait for a table. The restaurant, which occupies most of the post, seats 125.

If not for the Formica-topped tables with plastic baskets of scali bread and margarine, the large, rectangular room would seem like any other V.F.W. hall. The wood-paneled walls are hung with flags, medals and sepia photos of young men in uniform.

But the diners are not just veterans. They are mayors and lawyers (paper napkins tucked securely under their chins and over their ties), young couples and retirees. Not to mention Mr. Lepizzera himself, who sits down every afternoon for a family-style lunch with his staff at a round table in the middle of the dining room. The waitresses, most of whom have worked at Mike’s since the restaurant opened 14 years ago, take turns hopping up to attend to customers.

Here’s the recipe for the famous polenta (from epicurious):

ingredients

1/4 cup virgin olive oil1/2 lb unsalted butter2 Tbs chopped garlic2 cups chicken stock1 1/2 quarts half & half1 1/2 -2 tsp kosher salt12 turns of pepper grinder1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes2 cups cornmealpinch sugar1 1/2-2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano

preparation

1. Heat oil and butter in a large, heavy stockpot. Add the garlic and saute over low heat until it is golden.

2. Add the stock, half & half, 2 1/2 cups of water, salt, and black and red peppers, and stir to combine. Raise the heat and bring to a boil.

3. Very slowly, add the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle boil. After all the cornmeal has been added, continue to stir until it is thick and creamy, about 20 minutes.

4. Off the heat, stir in the sugar and Romano. Serve right away with the short ribs recipe. Also great accompaniment to grilled sausage.

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We arrive in the chilly November night.

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A motley crowd of locals, and long-serving servers.

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No frills table layout. Plasticky brown table covering.

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Peppers and oil.

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Fried Calamari (4.5/5)

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The famous Mike’s Polenta (4.5/5)

Red sauce is the order of the day, covering a polenta cake. I was expecting a more liquid polenta, but this was quite delicious.

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Chicken Parm (3.5/5)

More red sauce.

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Spumoni (4/5)

I love spumoni. It is a tricolor icecream with candied fruit bits (in this case, cherry). This brought me back to Chicago (Avec serves a great version of the spumoni), and reminded me a bit of the rainbow milk swirl ice creams I had in my childhood.

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At Mike’s, I was reminded of 80s Chinese restaurants in Singapore, like the Teochew place Por Kee Eating House (my first review on this blog, sadly standards have dropped slightly when I returned this year). Both have servers who have been there for multiple decades, a motley crew of diners (young couples, local politicians, locals), old fashioned decor, large plates designed for sharing. Both seem to be neighbourhood institutions. For no-frills self-styled-“peasant” Italian food in Providence, look no further than Mike’s.

Rating: 13/20

The Catbird Seat @ birch | Providence | Oct ’13 | “Tastes of Fall”

14 Nov

Address: 200 Washington St, Providence, RI 02903
Telephone: (401) 272-3105

The Michelin Guide is my go-to whenever I’m in an unfamiliar city, but North America is a very big place and their inspectors only cover a small area, geographically speaking. So one of the other North American guides I consult is Opinionated About Dining (OAD)’s top 100 restaurants, voted upon by food reviewers. (2013 edition here). On the 2013 edition are two restaurants run by chefs responsible for the October Visiting Chef dinner – Ben Sukle of The Dorrance (now at his own restaurant birch) and Erik Anderson of Nashville’s The Catbird Seat. My opinions on birch’s food are documented here: [1] [2].

The Catbird Seat is an open-kitchen style restaurant [NYTimes report here], which can be traced in fine-dining to Robuchon’s chain of Ateliers worldwide, which was itself inspired by Japanese sushi counters. These open-concept kitchens getting increasingly popular in New York: I had a recent meal in atera; Blanca, and Chef’s Table are also popular tables.

I was very excited for this dinner, and I was not disappointed by what was to follow.

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Beef Tartar [wrapped in turnip slices, 2 o’clock]
Hot Chicken [Dill pickle sauce, 5 o’clock]
Sea Urchin Sandwich [10 o’clock]
Chicken Liver Bonbons [centre]

My favorite of the amuses was the hot chicken. A Nashville specialty, it was served with mayo and dill pickle sauce.

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Uni Sandwich

2013-10-20 17.25.462013-10-20 17.25.53Clams and Tripe [Erik Anderson] (4/5)

The clams were “open braised” with steam, if I’m not wrong, which sounds like braising without contact with water. The radish gave a parsley note to the dish, and the soup was a pungent red savory brew with tripe. A hearty concoction.

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2013-10-20 17.37.35Sunchokes Roasted in Chicken Drippings [Ben Sukle] (4/5)

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Pigeon [Erik Anderson] (5/5)

Salsify, Pear, Pecan, Birch and Sorghum Sauce

This dish was an absolute showstopper. Pigeon from nashville was first dried for 7 days, roasted and then paired with crispy salsify, pear and butter sorbet, a sour hibiscus leaf and brown butter sauce. The pigeon was strongly flavoured, but to pair it with the sour hibiscus leaf was inspired, and all elements of the dish (caramel dabs and crispy salsify) came together harmoniously. The centre-piece of the evening, evoking memories of fall.

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Another angle.

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Ribeye of 3-Month Aged Ancient White Park Beef [Erik Anderson] (4/5)

Onions and Preserved Matsutakes

The various onions were expertly cooked (I especially liked the small white one in the bottom-right). White Park beef is a very old heritage breed from the UK, and our beef was of Virginia, grass-fed – the aging of 3 months would have served to concentrate its flavours. The exterior tasted like candied beef jerky. While I enjoyed the cheesy, funky taste of the interior, the beef seemed to be dry and a little stringy from the aging process. Perhaps a 2-month aging process might serve it better, or some other way preventing moisture loss.

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Hooligan [Erik Anderson] (5/5)

Roasted Shallot, Oats, Huckleberry, and Mustard See Salt

Voila un cheese course! A roasted hull of shallot would serve to impact sharp onion flavours to a pungent stinky raw cowsmilk cheese from Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut. An oat crisp served as the serving “lid”, but what made it delightful was finding a reserve of huckleberry jam at the very bottom of the shallot. As a serving conceit, I loved the idea of using a halved roast shallot as a bowl.

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Maple and Pine Custard [Erik Anderson] (4.25/5)

Fresh Thyme and Benton’s Bacon

A custard with maple syrup, bacon, and thyme. Satisfying intermezzo.

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Gregg’s Apples [Ben Sukle] (4.5/5)

Maraschino Cranberries, Malt, Caramel and Bourbon

Gregg’s Apples refers to a farm in Middletown RI, as a RI food writer next to me remarked. This dessert has gone on to birch’s regular menu. Dominant notes of caramel and apple. Delicious.

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Pairing of Santiago Oloroso Sherry, Spain

I also had the alcohol pairing throughout the night. This sherry was my favorite, a satisfyingly savory drink, those savory notes reminiscent of Old Pulteney whisky.

 

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Quince Jellies
White Chocolate with Crispy Quinoa

Quince dissolving in your mouth, Hershey’s cookies and cream chocolate made upscale. A right hook of saltiness.

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An enjoyable evening, the standout dish of the night would have to be the Pigeon. It served with its foot just sticking outside the dish, recognisably pigeon and not anonymously delicious meat. The dish invited diners to pick the leg up by its claw and gnaw on it after the civilised motions of forking and knifing had yielded all the easy meat. It was also incredibly harmonious, with brown butter and the sour fleeting taste of hibiscus.

This meal has only made me more eager to head down South one more time, and see what Southern chefs are doing with their food. Bring on the spring!

Memory: Pigeon, Hooligan

north | Providence | Oct ’13 | “Asian fusion, hit and miss”

13 Oct

Address: 3 Luongo Memorial Sq, Providence, RI 02909

Telephone: (401) 421-1100

north has quite an inconvenient name, since searching in Google Maps for “north, Providence” always gives me “North Providence” instead. So I’ve committed their address to memory. My October visit was my second, the other being 5 months ago in May. The restaurant is one of two restaurants pushing the envelope of food experimentation in Providence (both incidentally run by Johnson & Wales alum) – the other is birch, which I have raved about here and here. In particular, many of the dishes in north have fermented products in them.

In the words of the cooks:

“The state of Providence’s dining scene is a complicated question. It is better than it has ever been. The major change is the product quality. Five years ago no one except maybe Matt Gennuso [Chez Pascal] was breaking down pigs on a regular basis; now Nicks on Broadway and others are breaking down whole pigs every two weeks! There were no serious farmer’s markets five years ago; now we have the Farm Fresh system, which freakin’ delivers to your door! The connections that have been forged between restaurants and farmers/fishermen are amazing.

There have been some really exciting places cropping up – Flan y Ajo and the Dorrance kill it. I had an awesome sandwich at Dok’s Deli the other day. (Plus, they have a Roadhouse sandwich –“Pain don’t hurt.”) It’s exciting to see young dudes coming up, and I’m hoping that they and the more established restaurants in the city keep pushing themselves to find our own distinctive voices. We certainly will be at north.”

The Area: Located in a corner of Federal Hill between Broadway and Atwells, north is one of two restaurants in Providence which is trying to do something interesting with food. On the Friday night I was there, north was completely packed with its share of Federal Hill regulars, which was quite different from the College Hill crowd. For those who do not own a car (yours truly), it can take a lot of time to get from one hill to the other, which is why I visit Federal Hill a bit less than I like.

The Food: north errs on the side of experimentation. In my two experiences there, I’ve had a hit-and-miss experience. One can often expect Asian influences to come up prominently – James Mark having worked with David Chang at Momofuku Ko.

Interesting ingredients are the key to their cuisine. From fish sauce and fermented crab to cherry vinegar and miso, there are fermented products in almost every dish. It’s against health department codes for restaurants to create their own fermented concoctions, so north must purchase regulated products. Even Momofuku enlists a culinary laboratory for safety reasons. “Fermented products are around us all the time: beer, wine, bread, soy sauce, vinegars,” says Mark. “The ingredients are not meant to be obvious, but they add a complexity to the dish. You can’t necessarily pick it out when you’re eating it, but it makes it craveable.” – RImonthly

NB: north does not take reservations!

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Menu

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Crispy Dumplings & Fall Squash (3.75/5)

Buttermilk Dressing, Charred Squash Jam

An interesting dish. The dish did not come together, the dumplings being a crisp whole, that did not interact with the squash nor the squash jam underneath. The fried dumpling (akin to a spring roll in texture) was essentially complete in itself.

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Roasted Sea Robin (4/5)

Brown Butter Carrots, Mustards, Glazed Radicchio

I found the carrot sauce very appetising. I have heard that sea robin is a hard fish to cook. It has a taste and texture like a cross between the texture and meat geometry of cod, and the taste of snakehead (Toman fish, for Singaporean readers). It was a good combination with some fermented cabbage underneath.

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Dan Dan Noodles (3.5/5)

Goat, Squid, Fermented Chile, Black Pepper

I enjoyed the sour Szechuan-inspired sauce very much on this hybrid land-sea dish, but I felt disappointed by the very chewy dan dan noodles, which made it a chore to move my jaw just to finish a bite. I remembered this dish being less chewy and better in May. Dining there with a companion from New York, he mentioned that this is a very similar dish to one at the Momofuku Ssam Bar, except that the rice pellets here aren’t covered in pork fat and deep fried.

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north falls very much on the Asian-side of the fence in cooking. On the positive side, I enjoyed the experimentation and the uncertainty that comes with each meal. (I had a very good Tsukemen-style ramen in May, with charred jalapenos and pork broth, and Mapo Tofu with peanut brittle). With restaurants that are trying to accomplish something new, one expects a certain number of misses. The hit-miss ratio at north was a bit low for me during my October visit though. A bit more quality control may be needed: how exactly are shaved slices of squash and a squash semi-solid going to interact with large chunks of self-contained dumpling? The dan dan noodles also needed a bit more time in the pot. Judging from the packed restaurant though, I think James Mark, Tim Shulga, and John Chester have found themselves a well of demand for their kind of food.

Other Notable Write-ups:

  1. RImonthly’s initial write-up of north’s opening.
  2. A write-up in the Providence monthly 
  3. James Mark talks about his life leading up to north.

Rating: 13/20

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Historical reference Pictures: May visit!

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