H.P. Lovecraft, the cult-favorite horror/sci-fi author and native of Rhode Island's capital city, is said to have once written to a friend, "I am Providence." In the spirit of modesty and humility, I like to borrow this saying for myself from time to time.
I've spent most of my formative years in the city and, along the way, have grown much acquainted with its distinct and varied culture, which includes its culinary scene. So I felt great pride when I heard recently the results of Travel + Leisure magazine's "America's Favorite Cities 2012" poll, which named Providence the best city in the country for food, drink and restaurants.
Rounding out the top five, were the likes of New York, New Orleans, Chicago and Portland, Ore. Talk about an underdog victory!
I'm using the poll as a springboard to examine some of the best dining Providence has to offer. But I know many in New England are well acquainted with the big name restaurants downtown and the Italian places on Federal Hill, so this review will be a roundup of some of the city's lesser-known gems.
Here we go:
The Red Fez, 49 Peck St.
Everyone - online and in the real world - calls this place The Red Fez, although the sign out front reads, "The Fez." Go figure. But red or no red, this restaurant is a must try.
The dining area downstairs is small and intimate in a charming rather than cramped way. Head upstairs if you want a livelier dining experience. That seems to be the room set aside for the drinkers and revelers, with taxidermy animals - including a massive elk and wild boar - affixed to the walls.
The menu here rotates, but you can count on it being unique and varied, from oxtail and golden beet hash to braised squid with onions, tomatoes and queen olives over crostini. The best dish I've tried here recently is the Rhode Island fluke wrapped in crispy wonton and covered in a soy glaze with a side of fried Brussels sprouts. The fluke was flaky, moist and obviously incredibly fresh, and the sauce tied it together perfectly. If you know someone who doesn't like Brussels sprouts, try deep-frying them. They'll like 'em.
Dishes here typically vary from $9 to $20. The Red Fez is also known for having one of the finer craft beer selections in the city. So if you're not too hungry and want to save a little cash, order some tasty and spicy pomme frites with Old Bay seasoning and Tabasco sauce, and a Berkshire Brewing Company porter or IPA.
Providence Coal Fired Pizza, 385 Westminster St.
I grew up in Connecticut, and for a while I thought the one thing the Nutmeg State definitely had over little Rhody in the culinary department was its pizza. But the Ocean State has made this contest a little closer with the somewhat recent introduction of Providence Coal Fired Pizza in the city's downtown. As the name would suggest, this thin crust, New Haven-style pizza is made in an impressive and massive coal fired pizza oven.
The best pie, in my opinion, is the local clams with rosemary, pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Unlike other clam pizzas I've had, these are fresh clams, not the chopped kind that come in a can. The cheese and rosemary combination is enough to make you want to eat the whole pie yourself.
A close second would be the "Baby Bella" with oyster mushrooms, truffle oil, ricotta and mozzarella cheese. It's my thought that anything other than ice cream or apple pie is made better by adding truffle oil. This pizza is no exception. The restaurant takes pizza - a pretty simple combination of dough, sauce and cheese - to a new and sophisticated level.
Pizzas typically range in price from $16 to $20 and are big enough for two people to share. The salads are also spectacular. Try the Caesar with some of the freshest Romaine lettuce I've ever tried, anchovy dressing, croutons and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Julian's, 318 Broadway
Located on the hipper side of I-95 known as the "West End," Julian's is an eclectic restaurant where you'll find a variety of vegan, vegetarian and carnivorous delights. The menu rotates regularly, but some past favorites of mine are the smoky barbeque tempeh tacos, and the seitan steak and soy cheese wrap with pomme frites on the side. These may sound like simple items but are made with fresh ingredients, expert preparation and well-balanced seasonings.
Some current menu items that keep with Julian's inventive style are caramelized pear and bleu cheese pizza (small $8, large $15), horseradish rubbed seitan roast beef ($17) and saffron braised rabbit leg with sausage, black and yellow lentils and red wine fennel apricot chutney ($22).
This is a quirky restaurant, and sometimes it seems like there must be a three-tattoo, five-piercing minimum to get a seat. But anyone I've ever brought here loves the atmosphere and marvels at the décor. Works by local artists hang on the walls, and the tables are lined with a decoupage of odd finds. I don't typically talk about restaurant bathrooms in these reviews, but this one is special - it includes a Pez dispenser collection and a television set, which usually runs 1980s cartoon favorites like "He Man and the Masters of the Universe."
Loie Fuller's, 1455 Westminster St.
This restaurant is easy to miss, and I'm sure many people have driven past it not even realizing it was a restaurant to begin with. Named for the pioneering modern dancer (1862-1928), Loie Fuller is located in an old bank building down the street from a public park in a mostly residential neighborhood. For a while, the only exterior element that hinted there was a restaurant inside was a sign that read, "LF." The inside, however, is stunning, as the walls are decorated with elegant and ornate fresco paintings that evoke a true antique feeling. Everyone I've sent here describes him or herself as charmed by the experience. The food is eclectic but also inspired by the Cajun style. My favorite appetizer of all time is a shrimp in bourbon cream sauce I had here a few years back. The sauce was so good, I found myself ordering extra bread to lap it all up. The soft mussels over crispy, thick-cut salty fries with an aioli sauce were nothing to scoff at either. Some entrees that might catch your eye on the current menu include the skirt steak with hand cut truffle fries, arugula and blue cheese buttermilk dressing ($21), rendered duck breast with sautéed mustard greens and sunchoke chips ($19), and striped bass with potato leek puree and heirloom tomatoes ($19).
Los Andes, 903 Chalkstone Ave.
If you were coming into Providence for the day, your first thought would probably not be to venture over to Chalkstone Avenue and Los Andes restaurant. This authentic Peruvian restaurant is located in a working class neighborhood, down the street from a medical center in a building that, from the outside, will likely leave something to be desired. But, if you venture inside, you will be very thankful. The chefs here use fresh and unique ingredients - they had flown in a marlin caught the day before in Chile when I was last there - and most diners would likely agree this style of food done at this level is hard or even impossible to come by in our region.
Personal favorites include the Aji de Gallina, a classic Peruvian dish consisting of strips of chicken simmered in a savory walnut cream sauce, topped with parmesan cheese, botija olives, hard-boiled eggs, and served over medallions of purple potato and white rice ($18.95). This exceptionally moist chicken is probably some of the most flavorful poultry you'll ever try. The heaviness of the cream sauce also contrasts nicely with the purple potato, which has the flavor of a sweet potato and a consistency like a russet potato.
Another great dish is the Peruvian fried seafood medley of PEI mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, choice of tilapia or rainbow trout, and fried yucca, battered in kiko soy and garlic, and dusted with flour ($14.95 with tilapia, $17.95 with rainbow trout). Fried seafood is something you see on a lot of menus in Rhode Island, but the distinct seasonings in this Peruvian preparation are unlike anything you've tried before. Something else noteworthy about this dish: they actually fry the entire clam and mussel - shell included.
Honorable mentions: Gracie's (eclectic food made with locally sourced ingredients), Thai Star (Thai food), Apsara (Asian fusion), Trinity Brewhouse (pub fare), AS220 (Foo)d (vegan, vegetarian).