Day trip to Providence

It’s sad that Providence is only an hour from Boston, and yet up until last weekend, I had never been. Actually, quite a few people I talked to from Boston have never visited this, or any other “second-tier” New England capital, and after taking a day trip there, I must say I think we’ve all been missing out. It has a quiet persistence and battered about look that I’m taken with, the sort of place that’s been beaten down but that has managed to pull itself back up for another round. That’s my first impression, at least, and it makes me want to come back for more.

L and I left Beantown around 8am and got into Providence in time to break fast properly at Nick’s on Broadway. Nick’s came highly recommended by several independent sources, so we arrived early and hungry. It has the outfit of a retro diner, with its bright red walls, metallic tabletops, and locals with their spreads of newspapers at the counter. That said, it’s a diner for serious eaters. House-made sausage and pickles, frittata of seasonal vegetables, and house-baked brioche are on the locavore-loving menu, alongside more traditional diner fare like breakfast sandwiches, pancakes, and omelets.

Throughout our meal, we also noted the small touches that separate a half-decent restaurant from one you fondly remember. For example, these unusual (but 100% real!) flowers on display from the florist down the street:

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I think the waiter told us they were protea flowers. Flora are not my thing, but this one’s massive, hairy bulb and delicate, colorful tendrils (bracts?) caught my eye. Check out this one.

We were both in the mood for sandwiches. L ordered the egg, cheese, tomato, and spinach on Nick’s pesto-grilled sourdough:

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and a side of beautifully arranged and delectable house pickles:

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I ordered the prosciutto and egg sandwich on the same pesto-grilled sourdough:

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Grilled bread is insanely delicious! I love me a charred carb. Another detail that didn’t go unnoticed: they make their home fries with both regular and sweet potatoes, a move we both approved of.

We were a little let down by the brioche French toast with fruit compote: the brioche was on the dry side (we drew a piece near the loaf end with a higher crust-to-innards ratio than is ideal for french toast) and the compote, assorted fruits cooked in red wine, lacked any real zing.

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Still, a most satisfying meal that lasted us — supplemented by a nibble or two — until our early dinner at La Laiterie. La Laiterie and its partner, Farmstead, an artisanal cheese shop, form a cute, if thumbed-nose, couple that I gather is leading the charge in Providence’s food scene, which is nothing to scoff at. According to Wikipedia, Providence has the highest number of restaurants per capita among major U.S. cities. Johnson & Wales University births nearly 1,000 culinary arts grads a year, many of whom apparently stay close to the bosom.

Farmstead:

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An appetizer special of the evening: poached lobster tail with fried gnocchi, radishes, a smear of something resembling pesto, and lobster jus. This dish floored me. I needed a good few seconds to absorb it visually, and that first bite sent chills down my spine. There’s nothing like that burst of riches that a fresh hunk of lobster bestows on its fortunate subjects. The fried gnocchi (a take on tater tots) were a nice touch. I’m also realizing my palate is drawn to the juxtaposition of seafood with the earthy flavors of humble ingredients like root vegetables, legumes, and dark greens. Even the success of something like lobster risotto, I think, thrives on this intermingling of flavors of land and sea.

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Small bite: smoked beef tongue with blue cheese and onion jam on toast. Again, drop-dead delicious flavors. I’m not generally a fan of off-cuts but we decided to try it anyway, and hit the jackpot.

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L ordered the pimento grilled cheese sandwich, which came with a generous portion of chickpea fries. Neither of us really thought through what a pimento grilled cheese sandwich would look like, and however interesting the concept may have been, the dish didn’t really work. Perhaps we’re just not fans of pimento cheese (essentially cheddar cheese + mayo) in general, but there was also none of that gooey satisfaction that one associates with the best grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ll take it one step further and say that a grilled cheese sandwich with unmelted cheese is not a grilled cheese sandwich. It may make for a decent non-grilled cheese sandwich, but if you bite into a sandwich and you don’t get that hit of oozing cheese (you all know what I’m talking about), the sandwich better not have “grilled cheese” in its name.

The lobster appetizer and my main course convinced me that the restaurant sources its seafood from someplace run by sea elves and littered with waterproof pots of gold.

Cod with grilled squid, scallions, salt cod and sweet potato fritters, squash, romesco sauce (I think), squid ink:

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The cod was the main protein, but the grilled squid stole the show. Grilled squid is in a class of cooked squid of its own. It’s totally unlike calamari, or even the sauteed sort; it pushes pleasure buttons you didn’t know you had. Don’t get me wrong; I love squid in all forms, and calamari is one of my favorite finger foods, best enjoyed alongside a fizzy drink and aioli for dipping. It’s also something you should plow through enormous piles of, if the opportunity arises. But good char adds an incomparable something to the flavor of squid. I think char enhances most anything (like the bread above), and it does something especially magical to a tenderly cooked piece of squid. The smokiness and slightly bitter quality that char imparts accentuated the squid’s natural sweetness, and the grilled scallions reinforced the smokiness while providing a sharp textural counterpoint. The pitch-black squid ink added a stark boldness to the aesthetic of the plate — like eyes looking up at you, giving you pause and yet daring you to dig in. The rich mouthfeel of the squid ink mimicked the squid itself and its intense flavor added explosions of umami to every bite. The cod was overcooked, but I could have done without it entirely anyway. Take note that the service here is a little detached; the cooking is anything but.

Nick’s on Broadway
500 Broadway
Providence, RI 02909-1623

La Laiterie
184-188 Wayland Avenue
Providence, RI 02906

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