Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fine Dining Southern Rhode Island Style

In recent posts, I described a trip to Rhode Island where I was introduced to a community of talented chefs who are making the state a go-to place for anyone who enjoys good food. I knew I would find good restaurants in Providence. What surprised me was the number of accomplished chefs working in the resort towns in the southern half of the state.



Newport is Rhode Island's best known tourist destination. Located on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, Newport is home to Cliff Walk and the world-famous mansions built at the end of the 19th century with their distinctive architecture and opulent details. Its sheltered harbor and many beaches also makes Newport a destination for anyone who enjoys sailing and water sports. The city is family-friendly as well, with dozens of affordable restaurants on Broadway and Bowen's Wharf in the harbor.

Newport has fine dining but you have to search it out.

One Bellevue (One Bellevue Avenue, Newport, 401/847-3300) is located on Historic Hill, overlooking Newport Harbor.

Chef Kevin Theile's menu changes with the seasons and emphasizes local produce and seafood. For him, "Local is a big deal. When people travel to New England, they're looking for seasonal New England seafood." So it's no surprise that most of the seafood on his menu is caught in nearby waters, including Maine lobsters, sole, shrimp, bay scallops, tuna, crab, clams, and oysters. As he proudly says, "Right off the docks, right out of the water," right onto your plate.

Chef Theile tells a story about a recent gastronome's tour of New York he took with his sous and banquet chefs. Most memorable, he said, was a meal at Mario Batali's Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca. An "awesome experience," he said, because they feasted on ingredients they love but could never serve at One Bellevue: head cheese, pigs' feet, lamb brains, rabbit, and goat. "Newport," he said, "is a tourist town, not a culinary scene and people want familiar food."

That was a refrain I heard frequently on my tour of the state. Rhode Island is a tourist destination. And tourists enjoy eating food that doesn't challenge their culinary boundaries, but that doesn't stop chefs from occasionally pushing the envelope.

For starters, Chef Theile hews closely to expectations with a seasonal menu currently featuring fall ingredients: Seared Bay Scallops with Apple Wood Smoked Bacon, Crab Cakes, Autumn Vegetable and Roasted Squash Risotto with Crispy Granny Smiths and Swiss Chard, Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, New England Clam Chowder, Caramelized Vidalia Onion Soup with Crispy Bread and Melted Gruyere Cheese, Warm Spinach Salad, Classic Caesar Salad, local oysters, and a shrimp cocktail. Eating any of these first courses and you know you're in Southern New England and you're happy.

With the entrees, Chef Theile continues his walk down familiar paths. The Grilled Flat Iron Steak with Sour Cream-Chive Potato Pancakes, Citrus Glazed Half Chicken with Pancetta Whipped Potatoes, or Blackened Pork Tenderloin with BBQ Pulled Pork will satisfy all the meat-and-potato diners who want their food well-prepared and mouth-watering.

But for those who want some cross-cultural surprises, he offers Southern New England ingredients treated with a French and an Asian flair: Grilled Lobster Accompanied with Cipolini Whipped Potatoes and Ginger Sesame Harciot Vert, Chili Rubbed Tuna with Wasabi Potatoes, Apple and Swiss Chard Salad, and Grilled Shrimp and Bay Scallop Pad Thai.

Located at the end of Cliff Walk and looking every bit like one of the nearby Newport Mansions, the Chanler Hotel (117 Memorial Boulevard, Newport, 401/847-2244) has 20 guest rooms furnished distinctively with European designs. No two rooms look alike. Meticulously detailed, all the rooms are luxurious, even the eccentrically appointed Gothic room with its dungeon-like design.

Taking up most of the ground floor, the Spiced Pear looks like the dining room of an exquisitely appointed Mediterranean villa. From its vantage point on the cliff, the restaurant has a sweeping view of the brilliantly blue water below. In the colder months, the dining room occupies a cozy room facing the open kitchen. In summer, diners can also sit outside in the covered patio and enjoy the cool breezes off Rhode Island Sound.

Executive Chef Kyle Ketchum describes his menu as "contemporary New England cuisine". If you love lobster, start with the Lobster Bisque, then go on to the delicately flavored Butter Poached Maine Lobster, served with sweet creamed corn, English peas, and mushrooms. A Chilled Seafood Plate has oysters sharing the plate with a shrimp cocktail. In the summer, local produce is featured in dishes like the heirloom tomatoes in a Panzanella Salad that includes tiny cubes of hearts of palm along with cucumber pearls and Fourme d'Ambert blue cheese.

Acknowledging that his guests do not live by seafood alone, chef Ketchum serves beautifully composed plates of American Kobe Beef with Potato Gratin, Moroccan Glazed Muscovy Duck Breast with Porcini Mushrooms and Sauteed Spinach, Kobe Beef Shortribs, and Berkshire Pork with Creamy Parmesan Polenta.

His Vegetarian Tasting Menu takes advantage of seasonally available local produce and includes a delicious Chilled Clear Tomato Gazpacho, Chanterelle Mushrooms with English Pees and Gnocchi, and Risotto with Truffles and Sweet Corn.

If you'll allow yourself the calories, chef Ketchum will delight your sweet tooth with the eye-pleasing Tahitian Vanilla Bean Souffle or his acrobatic Chocolate Trio that couples a wedge of chocolate truffle cake, a dark chocolate terrine, and a pistachio and dark chocolate brownie with a Bailey's Irish Cream Float topped with whipped cream.

Twenty minutes from downtown Newport, the 35 room Castle Hill Inn & Resort (590 Ocean Drive, Newport, 888/466-1355) sits on a hill overlooking Narragansett Bay. The day we drove out to the restaurant, a rain storm pelted Ocean Drive, the solitary road that circles the island. The lobster skiffs that fish the waters had taken refuge in sheltered coves to avoid the storm.

The Inn looked all the more lovely and romantic in the rain.

The restaurant occupies the sun room of the converted mansion. Open on three sides to a view of the water, light poured in even on a rainy day. Chef Jonathan Cambra, like his fellow Rhode Island chefs, emphasizes local seafood and seasonal produce on his menu. The clams in his New England Clam Chowder and in the saute combining Littlenecks with Portuguese sausage and fennel are from local waters, as are the raw Matunuck Farm oysters he tops with a Bloody Mary sorbet and black pepper gelee.

While the menu lists familiar dishes like Bacon and Eggs, a Lobster Roll, and a Grilled Cheese Sandwich, chef Cambra prepares them with upgraded ingredients. The bacon is actually pork belly, the lobster roll uses a tarragon dressing instead of plain old mayo, and the grilled cheese is made with a selection of Narragansett Creamery cheeses on Sicilian bread. Even the hash he serves with his eggs isn't your cafe-variety hash. His is made with lobster.

Desserts come in all varieties. From Belgian Chocolate Tarts to Napoleons, Hot Fudge Sundays with homemade ice cream, Banana Splits, and a refreshing Raspberry Consomme. My personal favorite was the Artisan Cheese Tasting. The cheeses were well-chosen and accompanied with a selection of caramelized nuts, delicious honey, and an apricot puree. By the time we had finished lunch, the rain had stopped so we could take a walk on the expansive lawn. Looking across the Bay we could make out the mainland where we would be going next.

A trip to Rhode Island should always include a stop on Block Island. Ferries leave frequently from Point Judith and New London. Looking very much like a Norman Rockwell painting, Old Harbor is one of those rare places where time appears to have stopped. There are no high-rises here. Turn of the century four-story hotels like the National dominate the skyline. Walk a few blocks inland to Spring Street and you'll find Victorian houses that have become B&Bs like the Hotel Manisses and the 1661 Inn (Spring Street, Block Island, 401/466-2421).

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that there is only cafe-style food on the island. Among the dozens of local restaurants, Eli's (456 Chapel Street, Block island, 401/466-5230) is deservedly well-reviewed because the food is fresh, reasonably priced, and well-prepared. But the best place to eat on the island, bar none, is in the Hotel Manisses Restaurant (Hotel Manisses, Spring Street, Old Harbor, Block Island, 401/466-2421).

Chef Ross Audino takes local sourcing one step farther than his mainland colleagues. During the summer, 70% of his vegetables and 100% of his herbs come from the large garden behind the restaurant planted by Justin Abrams, the hotel's owner.

Because of the temperate island climate, chef Audino has fresh lettuce well into the fall. That is, he has lettuce until the week after Labor Day when, like clock-work every year, he wakes up to find that the local deer have descended on the garden and eaten what was left of the crop. Justin speculates that after Labor Day when most of the tourists leave, the deer feel its safe to come out of the hills to forage for food.

Not only are the blue fish, striped bass, clams, littlenecks, tuna, mussels, lobster, and swordfish served at the restaurant fished from local waters, but because Block Island is a tight-knit community, the chef knows the fishermen personally, like Joe Szabo, an old-timer who fishes for local swordfish.

The summertime dining room extends outside into a spacious brick lined patio that looks out on the herb garden at the back of the building. When the weather cools, diners happily stay inside, starting off with a drink at the bar and one of the appetizers: Maryland Style Crab Cakes, Tuna Tartare with delicious cubes of extra firm fried tofu and ginger mayo on top of a wakame seaweed salad, Grilled Scallops with Ratatouille, Fried Cod Cheeks, and Freshly Shucked Moonstone Oysters.

Chef Audino also puts the local seafood to excellent use in his entrees: Gnocchi with Lobster Meat, Pan Roasted Bass & Local Littlenecks, Striped Bass with Spinach-Shallot Foam, and Grilled Swordfish with Lobster Mashed Potatoes (yes, that's lobster mashed potatoes and they are delicious).

The menu accommodates vegetarians with a Grilled Garlic Marinated Tofu with House-made Mozzarella and a Beet Salad made with beets from Justin's garden. The roasted beets are configured into a tower of savory deliciousness that includes toasted almonds, sweetened mascarpone, and a reduced balsamic vinegar.

For meat-eaters, the menu is a lot of fun. A Smoked Beef Brisket Sandwich with Crispy Onion Rings and Barbecued St. Louis Ribs on a bed of Jalapeno & Cheddar Spoon Bread from the Bistro menu are delicious. The ribs are full of flavor and, literally, finger-lickin' good because they are brined, dry rubbed, slow braised and then finished in high heat so the moist, nicely fatty meat gets a thin crust on top. The addition of a demi-glaze on the Grilled Hereford Filet Mignon on the main menu creates a similar melt-in-your-mouth salty-sweetness and can be ordered either with mashed potatoes or the French fries which are fried with garlic cloves and rosemary leaves.

Desserts range from an Apple Crumble with an excellent nougat ice cream, Carrot Cake, Bailey's Chocolate Mousse with Whipped Cream, a Seven Layer Chocolate Cake with mocha ganache, and a Lemon Cake with Strawberry Sauce. All of which were good, but I think that if I were going to leave room for anything, it would be for a couple more of the St. Louis Ribs and a handful of those French fries.

Before you leave Rhode Island, you should make one more stop before you go home: the coastal city of Bristol.

Located on the eastern side of Narragansett Bay, mid-way between Providence and Newport, Bristol has small town charms, New England style. The small craft harbor is encircled by a bike and walking path. The small town shops remind you of a time before-we-had-malls.

If you are walking toward the harbor on State Street you might pass by Persimmon (31 State Street, Bristol, 401/254-7474) without noticing the intimate, tastefully decorated dining room inside.

Opened in 2005 by chef Champe Speidel and his wife Lisa, Persimmon has gained a large following among tourists and locals, including chefs throughout the state. Working with local purveyors, like all Rhode Island fine dining chefs, chef Speidel's kitchen turns out exquisite plates of extraordinarily delicious food.

His attention to detail would rival any upscale restaurant in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Reading widely in his hundreds of cookbooks, chef Speidel looks for techniques and flavor combinations that he believes will engage his customers. He explained that it is "really easy to get complacent in a small restaurant, but you have to push yourself, always try to do more."

The seasons energize his cooking.

Even though much of Bristol's business is summer tourism, the town is a bedroom community of commuters who work in Providence and Newport. Which means a year-round clientele supports his restaurant.

Challenging himself, he prints a new menu every day, featuring what's fresh and local. Keeping his menu in sync with the seasons means his customers look forward to the new ways he'll prepare ingredients with a short season, like asparagus, black bass, and tautog. For his loyal customers he balances favorites like the Crispy Skin Long Island Duck Breast with new dishes so he'll encourage them to come back several times a week.

When Champe and Lisa opened Persimmon, their goal was to create a small, cozy restaurant that emphasized high quality food and good but informal service.

Calling his menu "modern," Champe borrows freely from world cuisine and American traditional food. His approach is highly skilled and witty. Eight years ago, Lisa took Champe to his first clambake on the beach. He loved the experience of a wood fire, freshly cooked clams, corn, lobster, potatoes, and chorizo. Wanting to recreate the experience back at the restaurant, he created the Mini Clambake, one of his most popular appetizer.

When the dish is presented at the table, the plate is covered by a glass dome. When the covering is removed a scented cloud of apple wood smoke is released and, for a moment just before you devour the sweetly flavored seafood and broth, you're transported back to a summertime beach where you don't have a care in the world.

One of the dishes I enjoyed the most and would have eagerly asked for seconds, was his Two-Minute Ceviche of Native Razor Clams, served with Vietnamese Kalamansi lime, chilies, and mint sauce. Never has a Southern New England clam been so well-served.

His menu includes some exquisitely prepared comfort foods. For those who can afford the fatty indulgence, he serves up a perfectly seared Hudson Valley foie gras with oven roasted figs dressed with a duck reduction and aged balsamic vinegar. For another appetizer, an egg slow cooked at precisely 143.6 degrees for one hour, shares an elegant bowl with sauteed hen-of-the-woods mushrooms flavored with a touch of curry oil.

Blessed with an inventive imagination, he carefully crafts the flavor profiles of his dishes. Unlike many chefs who make clams and mussels a featured ingredient, chef Speidel uses shellfish as a flavor garnish, pressing their uniquely sweet-and-salty profile to enhance the qualities of, one night, Line Caught Cox's Ledge Cod wrapped in apple wood bacon and served in a chowder of razor and littleneck clams.

His Pan Seared South Dartmouth Boneless Pork Loin Chop is sweet and juicy, the meat's flavors all the more enhanced by the accompanying ragout of squash, fennel, turnips, and peaches. While he roasts his Long Island Duck Breast to glazed, crispy perfection, he prefers to cook his organic chicken cuit sous vide, giving the meat a velvety texture that is contrasted by the oven roasted potatoes and onions.

The dessert selections run from the delicate (Yogurt and Vanilla Panna Cotta with native Berries) to the sublime (Rich Chocolate Moussse with Dark Chocolate-Hazelnut Feuilletine and Carmel Ice Cream) to the familiar-though-decadent (Warm Peanut and Banana Cake with Banana Ice Cream, Caramel and Chocolate Sauces). All of which are wonderful. But I confess a simple plate of Berkshire Blue Cheese with a wedge of honeycomb dusted with fennel pollen stole my heart that night.

After having so many wonderful meals, and taking everything into account--the simple elegance of the dining room, Champe and Lisa Speidel's friendliness and charm, the execution and distinctive flavor profile of each and every dish--eating at Persimmon was my best experience on a very memorable trip.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lobster Rolls, Clams, Oysters, and Much Much More on the Rhode Island Shore

Providence has a dynamic food scene. There are fun neighborhood hangouts like Thee "Red" Fez (49 Peck Street, Providence, 401/272-1212) and fine dining at upscale restaurants like Bacaro (262 South Water Street, Providence, 401/751-3700) with it's encyclopedic menu of regional Italian dishes. But you don't have to stay in the big city to enjoy great food.

Hop in your car and head south.

It's only a short trip to East Greenwich, Wickford, and Matunuck in South County or to Bristol and Newport on Aquidneck Island. If you have a little more time, drive down to Watch Hill on the southern-most tip of the state or go day-tripping out to Block Island and spend the day walking, hiking, biking, and eating.

Everywhere you go, you'll be rewarded with wonderful meals in beautiful settings.

During the summer, stopping at a clam shack when you're at the beach is a guilty pleasure not to be denied. In the coastal towns ringing Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound, you'll find plenty of opportunities to eat yourself silly.

If you're in Newport, try Flo's Clam Shack across the street from First Beach (4 Wave Avenue, Middletown, 401/847-8141) or better yet head up to Bristol a few miles north and stop at Quito's Seafood Restaurant (411 Thames Street, Bristol, 401/253-4500) where chef Frank Formisano and his mom, Joann, serve up clam strips, fish and chips, fried calamari, lobster rolls, fluffy and light clam cakes, sandwiches with fried fish, clams, shrimp, crab, or scallops, fried oysters, raw clams and oysters, baked clams, casseroles with fish, shrimp, lobster or scallops, French fries, hot dogs, hamburgers, Cole slaw, and clam chowder (red, white, and--because this is Rhode Island--clear as well).

This being Rhode Island, even food at the shore is touched by Italian traditions. The red sauce is homemade from Joann's Sicilian recipe. Littlenecks can be enjoyed raw, steamed with garlic and oil, steamed in a Zuppa sauce (tomatoes and garlic), served over pasta, or in a scampi sauce. A piece of advice, if you're offered a choice of French fries or Cole slaw, go for the Cole slaw. When I was there I ordered a double portion, it's that good. Since Quito's is on the bike path, you can take a leisurely walk or bicycle around Bristol Harbor to work off the calories.

Across Narragansett Bay in South County most of the towns hug the coast. Head inland and the area is home to farms, roadside stands, and wildlife refuges. Stay on Route 1 south of Providence and you'll drive through undistinguished towns, but keep your eye out and you'll discover some gems.

East Greenwich has a main street out of a postcard. You half expect to see 1930s Fords and Chevys pulling up in front of the hardware store. The kid friendly Grille on Main (50 Main Street, East Greenwhich, 401/885-2200) is a good place to stop for grilled pizza--now a Rhode Island staple originally popularized by Al Forno in Providence--or the calamari, either crispy or spicy hot with a soy-arrabiata sauce.

Keep driving a half dozen miles south on Route 1 and you'll slip even farther back in time when you take the turn off into historic Old Wickford, a town important during the Colonial-Post Revolutionary period. Contact Tim Cranston (swamptown@msn.com) and he'll give you a walking tour of the town. You'll hear great stories about lives lost, loves found, and history made.

When you've finished your walk, stop for refreshment at Tavern by the Sea (16 West Main Street, Old Wickford, 401/294-4771), which is actually located on the edge of a picture-perfect pond, complete with white swans and flocks of ducks. Sit outside on the deck with a glass of Ginger Mimosa when it's warm, or, when it's cool, upstairs in the slanted-roof dining room, and feast on bistro food Rhode Island style: stuffed quahogs, mussels in white wine sauce, French onion soup, calamari both ways like the Grille on Main, fat crab cakes that don't skimp on the crab, and excellent Cole slaw. If they're serving slices of Lemon and Berries Mascarpone Cheese Cake, leave room for dessert.

If you want to cook your own seafood, walk over to the retail store at Gardner's Wharf Seafood (170 Main Street, Wickford, 401/295-4600) where they sell the lobsters, oysters, mussels, clams, and fish caught that day.

An insider note: if you're using a GPS to guide your travels, you won't find "Wickford" listed. You'll have to call the town, "North Kingston," even though the locals don't.

The oysters and clams from Rhode Island deserve to be better known. Everyone has eaten bivalves from Long Island, Connecticut and Maine, but if you want a treat, drive west on Route 1/1A past Snug Harbor, then go south on Succotash Road and eat at the Matunuck Oyster Bar (629 Succotash Road, East Matunuck, 401/783-4202).

When owner Perry Raso has time, he'll take you in a skiff for a tour of nearby Potter Pond where he farms the oysters and clams he serves at the restaurant. His oysters and clams are delicious: sweet, briny, and plump. While you're eating a dozen shucked littlenecks on the deck overlooking the estuary or inside the cozy dining room, you can watch the ducks float by as Springsteen plays on the speaker system. The menu offers classic favorites like lobster rolls, boiled or stuffed lobsters, oysters Rockefeller, steamers, cod cakes, fried oysters, a variety of chowders, but there is also a superb dish made with pan-roasted littlenecks and grilled chorizo with white beans and tomatoes. To add turf to all that surf, there are cheeseburgers, grilled ribeye steaks, and baby back ribs in a bourbon bbq sauce with corn bread.

If you're in Watch Hill and it's late in the day, there's a 99% chance you're sitting on the patio of the Olympia Tea Room (74 Bay Street, Watch Hill, 401/348-8211) watching the magic of a sunset.

Locals like to say that Watch Hill has all the comforts and advantages of Newport without the crowds. The Olympia Tea Room exemplifies what's best about Watch Hill. A long bar takes up one side of the room with dark wood dividers cutting across the dining room, creating romantic intimacy for those who like some privacy with their chardonnay and raw oysters.

Like many restaurants in Rhode Island, the Olympia Tea Room prides itself on supporting local food purveyors. The oysters, clams, scallops, scrod, haddock, sausages, and as much of the produce as the season permits are locally sourced. The menu offers a good assortment of familiar comfort food: ravioli with sage butter, veal stroganoff, grilled lamb chops, spinach salad, Caesar salad, oysters and clams on the half shell, fish and chips, pork chops, steak frite, lamb shank, roast chicken with a mustard glaze, and pasta about any way you'd want--with fresh vegetables, lobster, bolognese, panchetta, sausages and meatballs, or clams. Once you've had your fill of all that good food, take the time to sit outside again for a cup of coffee and enjoy the cool evening breeze coming off Little Narragansett Bay.

If you're on your way to Block Island or you're taking a leisurely drive on scenic Route 1A, you can stop at Champlin's (256 Great island Road, 401/783-3152) in Point Judith. Head upstairs over the fish market, order your food, and find a good spot on the deck overlooking the harbor where the fishing boats and the Block Island ferries dock. The lobster roll is first rate, as are the fries and clam chowder.

For those with a little more time to spare, Block Island is a short ferry ride from Point Judith. Sparsely populated, with more than 50% of the island set aside as nature preserves, Block Island is a rare treat, a place to slow down and enjoy some quiet time reading, talking, walking, eating or just sitting and taking in the magnificent views. The communities that surround Old and New Harbor have hotels, bed and breakfast inns, and restaurants that cater to both locals and tourists from the mainland.

Overlooking New Harbor, The Oar (221 Jobs Hill Road, New Harbor, Block Island, 401/466-8820) has a bar famous for, yes, you guessed it, autographed oars that cover the walls and ceilings. The restaurant has an open air dining room facing the pleasure craft tied up to the docks. Relaxing with an ice cold beer or glass of wine, watching the sea gulls pass by overhead, it's easy to fool yourself that you're in a tropical paradise but then the waitress brings you your lobster roll with fries and Cole slaw and you know for sure you're in Rhode Island.

In the next post, I'll have news about the upscale dining opportunities on Block Island and in Newport and Bristol on Aquidneck Island.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Amazing and Delicious Food Scene in Providence, Rhode Island

If you lived in Providence when I did in the mid-1970s, you would never go back. In those days, the city was suffering the human equivalent of deep depression. Jobs were scarce. Downtown was dominated by the boarded up Biltmore Hotel and a grimy Amtrak station. If you wanted to eat out, your choices were pretty much restricted to Mafi-style Italian restaurants and food from diners like the Haven Bros. Diner in front of City Hall.

All that has changed. Renamed the Renaissance City, Providence has been reborn.

Downtown was revived by Buddy Cianci, the frequently indicted and much revered mayor of Providence, who convinced Amtrak to relocate so he could create a park in the center of the city. He tore up the streets that had paved over the Providence, Woonasquatucket, and Moshassuk Rivers and created a Venice-like system of canals that are used today by WaterFire (http://www.waterfire.org/), the summer festival that transforms the center of the city into a street fair of music, food, and pyrotechnics.

With RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design), its newly expanded Museum of Art, Trinity Rep, and Brown University, the city offers more art per square foot than almost any other city, save maybe San Francisco. Increasingly visitors to Southern New England are discovering Rhode Island and Providence in particular because of its manageable size and creature comforts.

If you're hungry, Providence will make you very happy.

You can enjoy uniquely Rhode Island foods by stopping at a neighborhood shop like Sal's Bakery (1288 Chalkstone Boulevard, Providence, 401/331-5349) and picking up a spinach pie or a pizza strip. They're eaten cold although the pizza strips,which used to be a humble affair of baked pizza dough topped with spicy tomato sauce, are now available with thin slices of potato, cheese, or basil.

Unless you're a vegan, you have to try a New York Style hot dog, which is--notwithstanding the name-- only found in Rhode Island. A generous helping of braised beef sits on top of a hot dog, with a smear of mustard and a generous dusting of raw onions and celery salt. Don't drive by The Original New York System (424 Smith Street, Providence, 401/331-5349) without running in for a plate of hot dogs and a glass of ice cold coffee milk, another Rhode Island original.

Take an afternoon walk around DePasquale Plaza in Federal Hill, Providence's Little Italy, and enjoy local baked treats like zeppoles and sfogliatelle with a good espresso at Palmieri's Bakery Cafe (64 DePasquale Plaza, Providence, 401/861-2253) or go around the corner and stop at elegant, romantic Pastiche (92 Spruce Street, Providence, 401/861-5190) for a pot of tea and a slice of chocolate layer cake.

While you're walking around Federal Hill, take a minute to join the crowds at Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Avenue, Providence, 401/421-9105) where the display cases are packed full with olives, cheeses, cured meats, ready-made Italian deli favorites like stuffed peppers and snail salad, homemade pastas, freshly baked breads, gelato, and imported chocolates.

Among the restaurants, there are old favorites for those who know the city. Pot Au Feu (44 Custom House, Providence, 401/273-8953) and Al Forno (577 South Main Street, Providence, 401/273-9760) show up in all the tourist-guides because they sparked a change in the way Rhode Islanders ate. They are worth a visit but there are a half dozen others that should be at the top of your list the next time you're passing through Southern New England.

In fact, I'll hazard a guess that once you've eaten in Providence, you'll think twice about making reservations in Boston. The food is as good or better. The prices competitive or cheaper, and it's a lot easier getting around and parking in Providence than in Boston.

The locavore movement has found its epicenter in Providence in the cooking of Brian Kingsford (Bacaro), Matt and Kate Jennings (Farmstead and La Laiterie), Ed Reposa (Thee "Red" Fez), Matt Gennuso (Chez Pascal and Hewtin's Hot Dog Cart), Bruce Tillinghast and Beau Vestal (New Rivers), Derek Wagner (Nick's on Broadway), and Joe Hafner (Gracie's), all of whom work with local farmers to create product for their restaurants.
Nick's on Broadway (500 Broadway, Providence, 401/421-0286)
When you walk inside Nick's, you're met with a whirlwind of energy emanating from the open kitchen. Chef-owner, Derek Wagner orchestrates the movements of his staff in a narrow alley of a kitchen as he calls out the orders, keeps the mise en place well-stocked, and checks every dish. What attention to detail!

Nick's is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and Derek is in front of his stove for all three meals. For Derek, like his fellow chefs in Providence, cooking is about passion and heart. In this close-knit community of chefs, they think, sleep, and talk about food 24-hours a day. They spend their free time searching out new purveyors. They hang out with one another and pitch in if anyone gets jammed up.

At Nick's the food is local as much as it can be, given New England seasonal realities. His menu lists the local farmers, growers and producers who supply the restaurant. His cooking style is short order but the dishes are long on flavor, well-made, delicious, and smart.

For breakfast you can have a tofu scramble, bacon and eggs, or a breakfast sandwich. But you can also have blue cheese bread pudding topped with over-easy eggs and Hollandaise or slow-cooked braised beef with a poached egg on top of a grilled round of sour dough bread. Pastas, sandwiches, soups, salads, tofu, and grilled fish fill out the lunch menu, with an emphasis on keeping prices well under $10.00 for the majority of the dishes. Dinner features locally caught seafood--cod, clams, shrimp, yellow-fin tuna, and sea scallops--as well as chicken and steaks and New England desserts like warm blueberry bread pudding or cherry cobbler with creme fraiche-cherry ice cream.

Thee "Red" Fez (49 Peck Street, Providence, 401/272-1212)
The Red Fez is where Providence chefs go after their own restaurants close, so you know the food is good and affordable. Ed Reposa and Sara Kilguss serve up imaginative cocktails like their Gentleman's Manhattan with ginger syrup. They feature fun-comfort food like Mac + Cheese with chorizo, homemade kimchi with tofu and rice, grilled chicken wings with "eleventeen" spices, grilled cheese with bacon and tomatoes, hummus and grilled pita, pulled pork sandwiches, and the not-to-be-missed French-Canadian poutine made not with a biscuit and lumpy gray sauce but with chorizo gravy, fries and bits of fried Mexican cheese.

If you haven't died-and-gone-to-heaven after you've eaten your fill, head to the upstairs-bar and listen to the music, have another drink--maybe a Pasilla, Queen of the Desert, a spicy blackberry and pasilla pepper margarita--and just hang out.

Farmstead and La Laiterie (184-188 Wayland Avenue, Providence, 401/274-7177)
At Farmstead, a retail store and small restaurant, the cheeses come from all over the world and, in Providence, this is the place to buy quality cheeses.

Chefs and co-owners, Matt and Kate Jennings like to tell people that when they met they fell in love over stinky cheese and cured meats. Trained as a pastry chef, Kate bakes the homemade cakes, muffins, and dessert breads sold at the store. Matt's the cheese monger and charcutier. If you love cured meats, Matt's your man. He selects the best he can find and makes some himself, like a mortadella that is deliciously light and flavorful, a lamb's neck terrine filled with fat pieces of savory meat, and a smoked-brined bacon he uses to make their signature BLT.

La Laiterie is attached to the cheese store and serves a dinner menu that draws freely from French, Italian, Spanish, and New England cuisines. Hanger steak gets a side of new potatoes and salsa verde. Grilled branzini shares the plate with preserved lemon and toasted quinoa. Local seafood--squid and mussels--is served in a spicy escabeche sauce. If hamburger is your food-of-choice, you've hit the jackpot with La Laiterie's 1/2 pound burger with your choice of Shelbourne 3 year old cheddar, Gorgonzola piccante, or tarentaise. The restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere. Matt and Kate encourage their patrons to linger, sampling wines, having dessert and coffees or a cheese plate.

New Rivers (7 Steeple Street, Providence, 401/751-0350)
Located on the eastern edge of downtown, New Rivers has championed fine dining in an intimate, romantic setting since 1990. Chef-owner, Bruce Tillinghast has always based his menu on local, seasonal food, with an emphasis on French and regional Italian cooking. His current chef, Beau Vestal, like his friend Matt Jennings with whom he goes mushroom foraging, loves cured meats, so he added an extensive "Charcuterie & Offal" menu that includes heart, pork cheeks, lardo, as well as pork belly, garlic and pistachio sausage, chicken livers, and pork confit torchon. With a nod to Southern New England traditions, New Rivers offers corn bisque with sauteed fish, a full clambake albeit without the sand and smoke, and one of the best lobster rolls in the area. Usually lobster rolls are made with claw and knuckle meat. At New Rivers your lobster roll will be made up entirely of tail meat, served on a grilled brioche with Cole slaw made with celeriac, corn, Italian parsley, and red cabbage. The Berkshire Pork Ribs, slow grilled with peach bbq sauce, was fall-off-the-bone delicious.

Using local ingredients to advantage, the innocently sounding Westport Salad is actually a gathering of the familiar and unexpected on a plate that balances fall greens like arugula and red leaf lettuce with slices of Asian pears, two kinds of French radishes, locally grown Mexican cucumbers, thin slices of red turnip, Hannahbelle Cheese, and half a dozen sliced husk cherries. Rarely has a salad been so refreshing and satisfying.

Besides a full bar and a generous wine listing, New Rivers also has an amazing dessert menu with a lemon tartlet topped with a crown of fresh berries and mint leaves, warm apple cake with buttermilk spice ice cream (my favorite!), and perfectly constructed ice creams like huckleberry or praline.

Gracie's (194 Washington Street, Providence, 401/272-7811)
Located downtown across the street from the world-famous Trinity Repertory Theater and a block away from a Providence favorite, Local 121 (121 Washington Street, Providence, 401/274-2121), Gracie's is an easy place to like. With floor to ceiling windows facing Washington Street and stars decorating the interior, Gracie's invites you inside to enjoy a drink and snacks at the bar or into the intimate dining room for dinner and quiet conversation.

Like his fellow Providence chefs, Joe Hafner buys locally and changes his bistro menu seasonally. There are classic dishes like the Gorgonzola gnocchi that were little puffs of flavor that dissolve on the tongue, Hudson Valley Foie Gras served on brioche with pumpkin pie custard and cranberry gastrique--it was almost Thanksgiving after all--or hanger steak with collard greens. And then there are personal dishes like the Rigatoni Campano, made from co-0wner Ellen Gracyalny's grandmother's recipe, the pasta sweetened with a tomato and ricotta salata sauce, a spicy Italian sausage filling out the flavors. While chef Hafner says, "Quality goes hand in hand with local," he admits that's a balancing act. He won't keep lamb off the menu because it comes from Colorado. And if there are better scallops in Canada's George's Bank or salmon from Scotland, that's what he'll serve. But if the local product costs a bit more, he'll pay it. Buying from local purveyors and staying in "harmony with the season" are key to his inspiration.

Bacaro (262 South Water Street, Providence, 401/751-3700)
When chef-owner Brian Kingsford was 15, he got a job at Al Forno, the Italian restaurant that sparked Providence's food renaissance. To get the job he had to lie. He said he was 18 and knew how to cook. Neither was true. But seven years later, having learned the craft and proven himself, he became the head chef. With his partner, Jennifer Matta, he opened Bacaro in 2007, with a bar and salumeria downstairs and a full-service restaurant upstairs in the large loft-like space.

The huge menu takes its inspiration from the wine bars or enotecas of Venice. Replacing the chalk boards used in Europe, he took a page from Japanese sushi bars. When you order from the tapas (cicchetti) menu, you use a sushi-style sheet, marking what you want. The choices are encyclopedic, covering fish, fowl, meat, and virtually every edible plant found on an Italian menu. It's easy to fill up on the tapas menu when you have your choice of crispy pork belly, figs with honey, stuffed squash blossoms, fried smelts, anchovy sandwiches, roasted peppers, pate, braised cipollini onions, baccala and polenta crostini, and mini-panini with a selection of cheeses and meats.

The oyster and salumeria menus use the same mark-up menu. There are raw oysters from Long Island, Rhode Island, and Prince Edward Island and you can order oyster comfort food, like po-boy sliders and gratins of oysters in several flavors.

As part of his education, chef Kingsford traveled widely in Italy. The question that haunted him was, "Why do dishes I know how to make taste better in Italy?" The answer, he decided, was because of the olive oils, specific to each dish, town, and region. As a result, he uses regional olive oils for specific dishes.

On the main menu there are grilled pizzas in the Al Forno style, salads with a Mediterranean flair like the squid and octopus salad or a buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto salad but also combinations of local beets with Gorgonzola and a salad of local tomatoes and sweet corn. Pasta dishes like the Pasta Con i Funghi or the Pappardelle with Chantrelle Mushrooms & Sweet Corn are prepared with homemade pasta and sauced luxuriously with farm fresh ingredients. The seafood comes from local waters and arrives variously butter-poached, pan-seared, or braised. If you are a meat eater, you'll have to come back several times to satisfy your love of duck confit, spareribs, pan-roasted or crispy chicken, and wood-grilled beef or pork tenderloin. One dish in particular stood out, the Kurobuta pork chop. Of course the meat was tender and juicy, but the sweet flavors of the deliciously fatty chop were accentuated by the caramelized red peppers with their vinegar finish.

A word of advice, go with a large group so you can taste as many of the dishes as possible, so you can explore the extensive menu. Definitely leave room for dessert. There are perfect exemplars of regional desserts like the crostata with vanilla Creme Anglaise, topped with a seasonal fruit, which one evening was fresh figs. Chef Kingsford is a man with a sense of humor and that's reflected in his interpretation of a Chocolate Almond Joy or in the deconstructed Root Beer Float, which looks like a cake but tastes like the root beer float of your childhood.