Published May 30. 2013 4:00AM Updated May 30. 2013 7:03PM
The Westerly dining staple 84 High Street Café has moved around the corner and become 84 Tavern on Canal, and along the way, it seems to have lost a bit of its identity.
With its small dining room and open kitchen, the restaurant at 84 High St. felt like a bustling, downtown bistro, its street-side windows letting in the light and the view of the passing traffic, with a glimpse of Wilcox Park as a backdrop.
At 15 Canal, the former home of the short-lived Senor Flacos and the very long-lived China Village before that, the place has lost its brassy, hustle-bustle feel. What appears to have been a quick interior makeover has resulted in a spacious, freshly painted dining room where most of the tables are surrounded on three sides by half walls, encouraging private, intimate dining.
At the old location, although patrons entered through the busy bar, it was in back, out of sight and out of hearing for those in the dining room. At the new site, patrons enter through the bar and large lounge area, then pass into the adjacent dining room via an open archway. Unfortunately, all the bar noise comes in the same way. So although the half-walls surrounding the tables provide a visual barrier, they don't stop the noise from the bar, which is often quite busy.
We came to 84 Tavern on a Sunday night for dinner. I was struck by the layout's similarities to the old China Village. The restrooms are the same, to the right immediately after the entrance. The bar is new and big, much more sparkling but in the same relative position as the old China Village bar.
We were escorted to our table enclosure and very quickly were offered a beverage by our delightful waitress. The tavern has an impressive list of custom cocktails and microbrews on draft (24!), many of them local. I chose Revival Larkin's Dry Irish Stout, a Providence brew, $5.50. It had a creamy head and a robust body that was just what I wanted. My husband ordered a smoked porter called Leaning Chimney, $5.25, from Westerly's own Grey Sail brewery. It was brown but light and fizzy, with just the right smoky flavor.
The tavern's appetizers range from grilled Cajun shrimp at $3 each, to nachos and cheese fries, to fried calamari, to steamed clams casino for $12.99. My husband ordered the Maryland Crab Cakes, $11.99, and I opted for one of the night's specials, an organic local green salad, $8.99.
The two generous crab cakes were drizzled with a spicy Cajun remoulade sauce and served over a small, fresh salad. They were pan fried, nice and crisp on the outside and piping hot, soft and creamy with a delicate crab flavor on the inside.
My salad was simple but delicately tasty - mixed greens, tomatoes, red onion, shavings of Bloomsday cheese (a mild yellow cheese), with mustard vinaigrette. The greens tasted fresh picked and were crispy and very flavorful on their own.
For our meals, my husband chose a 16-ounce Cajun rib eye steak with ancho-gorgonzola butter, $24.99, and I went with one of the evening's specials, described as a red curry yogurt-baked mahi with sesame cucumber slaw, lemon basil rice and house vegetables.
The ancho-gorgonzola butter brought a decadent richness to my husband's spicy, blackened beef, which was tender and cooked to a perfect medium rare, just as it had been ordered. He chose the rice - I would have gone with the mashed potatoes - and also was served some house vegetables, a delightful sauté of very fresh green beans, broccoli and carrots.
My fish arrived but not as I had expected. I had imagined there would be a pool of red-curry yogurt sauce. Instead, the fish had a thin coating of what might have been a red-curry yogurt sauce, but it had imparted very little flavor to the fish. The generous hunk of flaky white fish was well cooked but not particularly flavorful. I was grateful for the lemon wedge to squeeze over the top.
The dominant flavor on my plate came from the sesame cucumber slaw. Long juliennes of cucumber and roasted red pepper were marinated in a dressing that tasted predominately of sesame oil, but in a heavy-handed way. The rice was tangy with lemon but was otherwise unremarkable. The vegetables on the side - the same beans, broccoli and carrots - were terrific, a highlight of my meal.
For dessert, we sampled the peanut butter pie, "a long time house favorite," according to the menu, a peanut butter mousse in a graham cracker crust, topped with a layer of chocolate ganache. It was served with a generous scoop of fresh whipped cream that was garnished with three hunks of fresh strawberries. The pie was very dense, like a giant wedge of peanut butter fudge. A couple of bites were quite delicious but certainly sufficient.
The lunch menu at 84 Tavern on Canal features an array of burgers, sandwiches, wraps and salads with some pasta options, all in the $10 to $15 range, and I can't help but feel as though that menu may be a better fit with the new place. The new incarnation feels torn between a tavern - featuring a large bar, a great selection of draft beer and some fabulous burgers - and a fancy restaurant with waitstaff dressed entirely in black and a menu loaded with $20-plus entrees.