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.

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