Friday, December 14, 2007

Tippy Top 40.

Speculation about what will make the, a subsidiary of the Gault-Millau guide, Top 40 list are already beginning in earnest. Last years list is pretty up-to-date and I'm unaware of any major openings that stand a chance of making it. I would imagine that a few high-end places that were left off of last years list will simply be put on this list, and then they'll swap places next year.

Sadly, even though I love Rhode Island cuisine, I can't think of any places here that would belong on a top 40 of the entire country. I do think that Providence Prime would put in some serious competition for the top 10 steak houses. Hell, even Boston only has L'Espalier, and even then, I'm not sure it deserves to be on the list.

One large criticism I have of the list, and of Gayot in general, is that it ignores Canada. Montreal especially has restaurants that deserve to be listed in American publications and I think it a crime that they are not. I also think it's a real problem for American gourmets. Lots of us live near the borders and Canada is as much a local drive as any American place. Put all the damned restaurants in one publication!

But anyways, go check out the 2007 list to prepare for the 2008 list which should come out sometime in February.

The Gayot 2007 Top 40 (Via

Thursday, December 13, 2007

REVIEW: Gregg's- ***1/2 / $

It's hard to review a Rhode Island institution, and usually pointless. Everyone knows about the place and already likes it or doesn't, so really, this review is more or less a declaration of love for what may be the very best average restaurant around. Founded in 1972, Gregg's now occupies four locations: North Kingstown, East Providence, Providence, and Warwick. All four locations have identical menus, and the menu is huge. Not quite as large as, say, The Cheesecake Factory, but larger than most other places.

Only the North Kingstown location has a different decor, which is kind of disappointing. I like the warm and woody charm and color of the other three locations. Still, all four locations scream family restaurant from every beam and board. The generally relaxed manner of the staff and the simple options on the menu continues this theme. I like the menu a lot. It's all "down home" recipes. Pot pies, chicken, gravy, and sandwiches galore. It's all perfectly affordable for almost anyone on any budget. And this is all fine since basically everything in the menu is delicious. Delicious not in a fine-gourmet kind of way, but delicious in a down home, made-by-mom kind of way. It's comfort food and, man, is it good.

Gregg's is perhaps most famous for their desserts, which they sell to seemingly countless local stores and restaurants. The chocolate cake is a multi-award winner, the cheesecake is has few peers, and their chocolate chip cookies, made with BUTTER, taste like fresh Toll House cookies made by grandma. Gregg's is bested in the pastry department pretty soundly, though, with Emilio's Bakery. But they should take solace with their chocolate cake. It really is the best around. Again, it's the cake mom made.

I keep using the motherly allegory, but that's the best way to describe Gregg's. It's mom. Unless your mom was Julia Child, this is what mom made, and in that capacity, Gregg's is perfect. Any night. Any time. If you don't really know what you want to eat. head to Gregg's. They'll take care of you right.

Greggs: ***1/2 (But my soul gives it ****1/2)
Price range for two: $15-$30

Hours All Locations
Sunday through Thursday 11:30am to 12:00am
Friday & Saturday 11:30am to 1:00am

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I hate hazelnuts. Little bastards are impossible to open. You try to open them, squeeze the nutcracker, and BEW! Little shits fire off at mach 2. You never find them! Somewhere in my house are 47,000 hazelnuts. It would be a squirrels dream. Lots of hidden nuts for him to find.


I've been coming across ads for some liquor I've never heard of. It's called Canadian Club and they've been running the ad in a number of magazines. The basic idea, I guess, is that old men who were lascivious bastards when they were young, back in the 1960's, drank a lot of whiskey. What a great advertising message! What a great message! Skeezy men drink our whiskey! You should, too!

The other, equally disgusting direction, is that they directly reference "your" father. Your... father?! What the hell were they thinking when they decided to bring up images of good ol' dad banging everything with two legs while drunk?! This doesn't make me want to drink, it makes me want to obsessively shower.

UPDATE 4/2/2010: I found this great spoof ad that really turns the concept on its head.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


I noticed that almost everything I've posted in the past few days is about East Greenwich. I don't even live there. I need to hang out in different towns.

Monday, December 10, 2007

QUICKVIEW: Cornucopia- ++ / $$$

The friendly staff elevated an otherwise bland experience. The insides is arranged in such a away as to provide a feeling of high-class dining, but the Wal*Mart-chic decor ruins the impression. Tables sit right up next to the window, giving diners a nice view of Main Street, and walkers a nice view of diners. Menu is limited on any given night with an affordable prix-fixe menu. Choice of soup, appetizer, and main course never totals more than $30, making this a good choice for those looking for an upgrade to TGI-Fridays. The mid-day menu runs 'till 2:30pm and is also very affordable. Nothing cracks $15, making it a good spot for lunch-hunters. Entrees are decently imaginative with nice ingredient choices, but preparation is sub-par and ingredients are sometimes underwhelming. Certainly not bad enough to never go back. If I'm in the neighborhood I'd probably make another trip.

Cornucopia: ++
Price range for two: $50-$60

241 Main Street
East Greenwich, RI. 02818

Friday, December 7, 2007

QUICKVIEW: Black & Blue- ++ / $$$

Black and Blue advertises itself as a restaurant and speakeasy. I don't understand the speakeasy part. It just seems like a restaurant to me. Taking the place of The Indian Club, they changed the color scheme to a subdued, trendy blue; and almost nothing else. Nice interior, with a gigantic explosion of color in what looks like Jackson Pollock's nightmare on the wall as the centerpiece. The dining area is somewhat small, with the bar inefficiently taking up most of the back. The menu is, again, steakhouse-ish. Damned steakhouses are everywhere. The menu is competitively priced. Wine list is very good. A large list of affordable wines combines with an even larger list of more expensive wines. List skews American, with many high-end options.

Appetizers are average. Fried lump crab meat was acceptable, but barely spiced and rather bland. Seafood is nice, but prepared sub-par. Scallops were overcooked and sandy. Sauce was too salty. Steak was overcooked, but not by much, and the pinot noir reduction sauce was sweet and satisfying. Orange and spice chicken was very tasty. Cappuccino was below average. Desserts were disappointing. Flourless chocolate torte was dry, while the banana & ladyfingers thing was very bland. Entering the crowded steakhouse scene means lots of competition from excellent places. The nearby Eleven Forty Nine outclasses this place turn for turn. Still, it was good enough where I might come back.

Black & Blue: ++
Price range for two: $40-$75

455 Main Street
East Greenwich, RI 02818

QUICKVIEW: Eleven Forty Nine- +++ / $$$

Eleven Forty Nine takes the place of the old Bravo and changes things up a bit. The story of its creation is almost legend, and the final product lives up to some expectations, but not all. The inside has been completely redesigned, for an unknown reason. Bravo was extremely nice. I like the new layout more, though. Service is excellent and professional. Atmosphere is uber-trendy, with a bar-full of pretentious yuppies to match. The menu is totally changed, with an emphasis on steaks. Pizza exists as an apparent nod to Bravo's previous favorites, but is out of place. Everything is affordable with most non-steak Entrées at or below $20. The steak is the obvious focus of the menu and sides are à la carte, which leaves Eleven Forty Nine as, basically, a steak house. The options are competitively priced, being roughly equal to Fred & Steve's. Not quite as good as, though. House-made desserts satisfy. It's close to me, so it's a definite return.

Eleven Forty Nine: +++
Price range for two: $45-$85

Eleven Forty Nine Restaurant
1149 Division St.
Warwick, RI 02818

Sunday, December 2, 2007

May the Force be With You.

Pressure, that is. I've been thinking about buying a lever-actuated espresso machine. There are two kinds, apparently, a spring powered variety, where you essentially cock the espresso machine. After doing that the spring applies the desired pressure to the water as it's forced through the grind. I have tried to figure out which brand to buy, so I went to If it wasn't for the gigantic database of consumer reviews, the site would be useless. In a recent review of the Rancilio Silva, a perennial favorite espresso machine, the reviewer actually brags about not reviewing the product. Well, then, what the hell are you doing? I don't care about anything else you have to say. Review the God damned product for me. Enlighten me. That's what I'm coming to you for.

Regardless, I'm getting tired of my Jura Capresso Z5. Yeah, I sound like some whiny little twit, complaining about my $5,000,000 Über-machine. Still, as far as a super-automatic goes, it's fantastic, but boy howdy does it have some limitations. The lack of a manual steaming nozzle/wand is a big drawback for me, since a cappuccino with heaps of foam is impossible. Don't get me wrong, it produces wonderful foam, but not a lot of it and, importantly, it never seems to get everything hot enough. Oh, and I can't even count the number of times I've clogged it with dark roasts ground too fine. Do not even get me STARTED on flavored roasts, like my nemesis, Irish Cream.

So I'm off and running on trying to find a dedicated espresso machine that will allow me to tamp my own grounds and press however-the-hell much water I want through them for however long. So I'm back to the two kinds of lever presses. I mentioned the spring-loaded one, well the other one is a pure lever-pressure model. This one requires a smooth hand that can deliver constant pressure to the water flow so as to not cause any amount of water to either go too quickly or too slowly through the grinds. Unfortunately, much as with the rest of the world, EVERY model out there seems to have something terribly, horribly wrong with it.

So I hit again, and I noticed that they never seem to dislike any machines. Every machine reviewed gets an 8 or above. That doesn't help me at all. So I poked around until I found the companies that made my desired design, and two brands kept popping up, La Pavoni and Elektra. Both of them make fantastic, fantastically expensive machines, and all have something wrong with them that can be fixed easily and cheaply.

Temperature regulation on these machines is apparently a novel and absurd concept. Many of them have no insulation to speak of and blast off heat from their boilers. Oh yeah. The Green Team will be happy with that one. We already have global warming from CO2, we don't need it from heat. Others, like the La Pavoni, would get so blistering hot as to actually ruin espresso shots. I think I'm going to go with the full lever-actuated one and forgo spring mechanisms. I really want to get a true, barista experience and also get as much control as possible. The constant problems with boiler pressure messing with milk steaming times gives me some serious pause, though. I swear. Am I going to have to buy a fully professional model for ten grand? Because I won't. I'll just go to friggin' Starbucks and leave my soul at home.

QUICKVIEW: Providence Prime- +++ / $$$$$

In this new section, I will give a quick review-type-thing of a place that I have only visited once and don't really have enough to go on to do a full review. The star rating changes from five-stars to three pluses. One plus means I will not return, two means I may or may not return, and three pluses means I will definitely return. The price range rank remains the same as for full reviews.

Providence Prime takes the crown for steakhouses in Rhode Island. The inside is cozy and beautifully appointed. Very chic and professional, the wood tones and leather bleed urban elegance. The wait-staff is very knowledgeable about the meats and will give you a full presentation if you ask. The wine list is excellent if a little expensive. Appetizers are utterly yummy across the board. The steaks are the best in Providence. Thank GOD they have actual Bearnaise sauce. Side dishes are large and very tasty. The steakhouse intentions shine through with recipes that are simple and austere. This is a compliment since the chef is flawless. The excellent meat is allowed to take center stage. The mind-numbing 38oz porterhouse will defeat you. Don't bother even trying to finish it. Seafood selection is limited, but if you want that, go next door to their sister-restaurant, Providence Oyster Company. A gem of Providence dining, Providence Prime puts the chain steakhouses to shame. If you love meat, this is a must-try.

Providence Prime- +++
Price range for two- $80-$140

Providence Prime
279 Atwells Avenue
Providence, RI 02903

REVIEW: Rasoi- *** / $$

Nestled in an absolutely hideous strip mall in Pawtucket are three, very unique, very impressive restaurants. First up is LJ's BBQ, next to that is Rasoi, and then The Garden Grille. Strip malls are not exactly bastions of high dining, but, for some reason, this one is. The trio represents a dynamite combo of food that could keep you busy for months. From the irony of having a vegetarian/vegan restaurant fifteen feet from a temple to slow-cooked meat, to the figurative and literal middle-ground inhabited by Indian food, Blackstone Place in Pawtucket is a destination that no Rhode Island gourmet should miss.

Rasoi sits in between the PETA nightmare that is LJ's BBQ and the PETA wet dream that is the Garden Grille. I knew it was going to be a tough sell what with India about thirty seconds down the street. India really raised the bar for Indian food around these here parts, but the food is kind of Americanized. While there's certainly nothing wrong with this, for no one could ever argue that India tastes bad, my tongue yearned for a more authentic, Indian experience. I was hoping Rasoi would give me that.

The sign, design, and Indian-looking folks running the place all gave a solid impression. In fact, the logo and sign are so well done that you might be fooled into thinking it a chain. The design of the interior doesn't quite follow from the impression the sign gives you, and it's very inferior to the sumptuous interior of India's two locations. Still, it's an open, welcoming, and well appointed interior. On the night I was there, the music was too loud. As a result, I had a terrible time trying to hear the waiter. Which was unfortunate. He was very friendly. I noticed that the wait staff was all Indian, and everyone in the kitchen appeared to be white. The shoe is on the other foot, it seems. Damn the white man. Yeah. Overall, I was hoping for a more Indian feel and didn't get it. Maybe pillows, or fornicating statues would have done it.

The disappointment continued on into the menu. Lots of good-sounding food stuffs, but all visibly Americanized. The samosas are good, as is the Tawa Jhinga, but the appetizers are otherwise unremarkable. One area where Rasoi shines is its fantastic bread selection. Every bread is excellent, and the naan is a treat. It's the best naan I've ever had. Airy, sweet, and moist, with a wide variety, this is the one area where Rasoi truly outperforms India. The honey and ginger naan is sweet, and the flavor of ginger is perfectly balanced. The coconut and date naan is almost a dessert.

The entree list is large and runs the gamut of usual Indian meats of chicken, lamb, and shrimp. They also separate vegetarian meals with a list of about ten options. The whole of the list is well balanced and quite affordable. All in all, it's a tad cheaper than India, but I encountered some chicken with tough parts. The ingredients at India have never been anything but top-notch. Dessert offerings are almost non-existent, but they offer pretty decent coffee. Nothing much else, but as I said, if you didn't get any at the start, you might as well finish with the honey-date naan.

As far as value goes, Rasoi has a real winner with the lunch menu. It's very large and very affordable and they obviously do not skimp. And for the gourmets who consider themselves more as gourmands, two buffets, a vegetarian one on Saturday and a standard Indian buffet on Sunday, are sure to send your belt out a notch or two. Here, the fact that Rasoi does little to differentiate itself from India doesn't matter. You get an enormous amount of bang-for-the-buck that India doesn't match.

Rasoi makes a good run at India's dominance of the local Indian scene, but it doesn't manage to do any dethroning. They offer delivery, which is a party piece that India is lacking, so homebodies need apply, but for someone more than ten minutes away, that's meaningless. Maybe if Rasoi had gone for fully traditional dishes, or offered a more inventive set of non-traditional ones, they would have gotten somewhere. Rasoi doesn't even deviate enough from Kabob & Curry, the owner's other restaurant, for it to be an entirely separate entity, in my mind. As it stands, they offer some very well made, not-terribly-inventive, Indian dishes that anyone would be well-served to get. And since good Indian food is very hard to come by in the Rhode Island area, Rasoi offers enough differences from the nearby India to make a trip worth it for diners who would like to try something a bit new.

Rasoi: ***
Price range for two: $30-$50

727 East Avenue
Pawtucket, RI 02860
In Blackstone Place
delivery 401-272-3463

Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 3:00pm then 4:30pm to 9:30pm;
Friday 11:30am to 3:00 pm then 4:30pm to 10:30pm;
Saturday 12:00pm to 10:30 pm
Sunday 12:00pm to 9:00pm

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

REVIEW: Fred & Steve's- **** / $$$$

The old Lincoln Park is certainly making a go at being a true destination. Still, knowing the previous clientèle for which what is now Twin River was known, namely those who are 9.5 million years old and those to whom dental hygiene means little, I did not enter with high hopes. Aside from the same old clientèle, Twin River and its selection of restaurants impresses.

As was the case with Fred & Steve's. A very good restaurant that offers decent prices ($20-$35 for a steak) on excellent meat in e-freakin'-normous portions. And would you expect anything less? Afterall, Fred and Steve are both ex-football players, and they are not a group that is known to mess around when it comes to meat. Or any food for that matter.

If you remember Twin River back in the Lincoln Park days, Fred & Steve's design and may catch you off guard. It's nice. Something Lincoln Park never was. In fact, it's damned nice. The wait staff is well-dressed and perfectly professional. The tables are perfectly dressed. The lighting is very well done, giving you a romantic atmosphere while also keeping stuff well-lit. The warm, wood tones of the dining area are also very pleasing. I felt that the classical music playing didn't match the underlying tone of the place. While it's very up-market, it can't go TOO far up, considering the football jerseys on the wall. Minor quibbles. The seats are very comfy, and the benches were the cushiest I've felt. I honestly sank six inches into the bench. I half expected to feel some old person shove a token in my butt, thinking it some remarkably stinky slot machine on the gambling floor below.

Moving on to the important stuff, meat, I had what I do not consider the best filet I've ever had, but it was far and away the largest. It was larger than my fist. It was perfectly cooked and was a very good cut. Certainly worth the money. Passed around my party were a number of a appetizers and meats. The appetizers, true to the rest of the experience, were huge. If it's only two of you, I'd recommend getting one, two if you want to take some home. The asparagus was well-cooked but a bit too peppery. I like it when they let me season my own veggies. The oysters were very tasty but were nothing special. The corn was good, as was the broccoli and the cheese souffle. Still, none of it was amazing. It's obvious the stars of the meal were the meats. Everything else needed only fill a supporting role, and they did so well.

Filets, rib-eyes, they were all perfectly cooked examples of good cuts. Very good all around. And, again, the servings are bleedin' enormous. And on a lighter note, my girlfriend thought they had the best Midori Sour she's ever had. So if you wanted a drink recommendation, there it is. The wine list is adequate, but it's obvious that wine snobs are not being catered to. This is a place for meat lovers and that's about it.

Fred & Steve's would have probably gotten the nod as best steak house in Rhode Island not too long ago, but unfortunately for them, Providence Prime recently opened its doors and I think that they beat Fred & Steve by a field goal in most areas. They can still hold their heads high, knowing that they're at least better than the big-chain invader, Ruth's Chris, and much better than competing football-oriented steakhouse, Shula's. With Providence Prime closer to me, I don't feel too motoivated to go to Fred & Steve's. For me, it's about 40 minutes away while Providence and all its meat is 30. The old jocks have stuff to offer, to be sure, but not really enough to draw my attention from Providence. But if I was in the neighborhood, though, I would never hesitate to go and get what is, even at these prices, a good value for great steak.

Fred & Steve's: ****
Price range for two: $65-$120

Twin River
100 Twin River Road
Lincoln, RI. 02865

Monday & Tuesday Closed
Wednesday & Thursday 5:00PM to 9:00PM
Friday & Saturday 5:00PM to 12:30AM
Sunday 1:00PM to 8:00PM

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

REVIEW: Tavern by the Sea- *** / $$

Wickford is so quaint at times you want to vomit when you visit it. Cute little thingies here, and adorably doo-dads there. Combined with the fact that Wickford remains a functioning fishing village, there is character here that's hard to find anywhere else. The village is forever battling a desire to fill up with overpriced tourist traps for the summer season at the expense of places actual townsfolk might like. Knick-knack shops come and go on a seemingly yearly basis, always replaced by another shop selling the exact same crap. Oh how sad it is.

Tavern by the Sea is no tourist trap. It delivers city-like cuisine and atmosphere for rural-town prices. I am, in word, hooked. They feature a lot of seafood, being in a fishing village, but there's also a wide selection of pastas... some of which have seafood IN them. Still, a hater of fish will not be left out in the cold. Steaks, pastas, chicken, and a semi-large menu give hope that you'll find something you like.

Presentation is very good. Dishes are garnished with flare and color, and wouldn't look out of place in Providence. The taste definitely backs it up. I've enjoyed everything I ate. Most recently I had bruschetta for an appetizer, which is served somewhat pizza-like with a sweet sauce drizzled on top, and chicken picatta for my entree. The chicken came with mixed vegetables and excellent mashed potatoes. The chicken was very good. I was ready to lick the lemon butter garlic sauce off of the plate. I must admit though, it doesn't take much in the way of garlic or butter to get me licking it. Some of the entrees are a bit pricey, and the question of value isn't entirely answered. I've also encountered a few notable gaffes on the preparation of fish like scrod and salmon. Salmon especially is easily overcooked and this has happened on a number of occasions.

The atmosphere is very nice. Cozy, would be a good word, because it's pretty cramped. They made some significant achievements with space, and it's not the most cramped place I've been, but it's not spacious. Still, the food and prices are worth it. Also, as of this writing, they had yet to get a full liquor license. So if you were hoping for anything, and I mean anything, other than beer or wine, you're out of luck.

Tavern by the Sea: ***
Price range for two: $35-$60

Tavern By The Sea
16 West Main St.
Wickford, RI. 02852

Tuesday through Saturday 11:30am to 9:00pm
Sunday 11:30am to 6:00pm
Closed Mondays

REVIEW: Twist- **1/2 / $$

Twist is owned by the Pinelli Marra group. A restaurant group that started with the Post Office Cafe in East Greenwich and eventually expanded to eight locations. On the group's website they brag about every location being different from the others. I had inside information, though, and know that the cooking staff (apparently a near-army of Guatemalans) from one location frequently gets transplanted to others. That isn't exactly the best way to maintain a unique flavor from location to location. This shows.

Upon entering Twist, I noticed how ultra-trendy the whole setup was. As in, trendy to the point of trying to hard to present itself as though it's in Providence as opposed to situated across the street from a working-class mall. Still, it's a very well designed and attractive dining area. Lighting is good, and the place is suitably romantic if you're hoping for some kissy-kissy during dessert. The windows aren't very large, which is somewhat understandably. The fabulous view of the medical center isn't very picturesque. I still prefer large windows. No matter the view. The chairs are comfortable with a decent amount of cushiness. Table dress was also very good.

Service was prompt and friendly. I wasn't as impressed with the menu. It's large, which is a characteristic of all Pinelli Marra restaurants. But sheer selection can't save the day. For a bit more money, you're getting a selection that's very similar to other Pinelli Marra locations, like my favorite, The Grille on Main. For example, the crab cakes, mozzarella triangles, and quesadilla are all identical to the Grille. They call them "Appetizers with a Twist." Twist? What twist? That I'm eating HERE as opposed to THERE? They offer no reason to pay more for this food. No sides, no more artistry. I'm sorry, but the trendy airs do not a dinner make.

They do get more inventive with the specials at this location than at others, but unfortunately, those specials are hit-and-miss in their quality. For example, in a recent visit I ordered a steak with gorgonzola sauce. The sauce was over-powering and rendered most of the other ingredients moot. Like, there were artichokes somewhere in there, but I sure as hell couldn't taste them. The steak was on the well-side of medium, an epic transgression in my book, and wasn't a very good cut. Still, I give it credit for being decently tasty once I had scraped some of the sauce off and it was under twenty dollars. The wine list is entirely forgettable, but acceptably cheap, and not nearly as pretentious as the crap list at Pinelli's current flagship, Waterplace.

Their dessert offerings are very basic and offer nothing inventive. Cheesecake, brownies, and ice cream are all present. Many of the items are cheap, though, and are well-made. Taken as a whole, there are a number of gems on the menu (Chicken Walnut Ravioli is dee-lish), but the lack of real seasonal changes means it will grow old quickly, and The specials are so dodgey in quality I resist saying to ever get them. Still, much of Twist is affordable, and they give it to you in a trendy, romantic setting. Most of it is well-made, and you won't be disappointed with the bulk of the menu. So, If you're in the neighborhood, it's worth stopping by for a sandwich or some pasta, but nothing more.

Price range for two: $40-$60

336 Bald Hill Road
Warwick, RI. 02866

Sunday through Monday 11:00am to 1:00am

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Mmm, Creamy.

Can we talk? What the hell is wrong with Panera Bread? I recently ordered a cappuccino there and, thank god, said 'yes' to their offer of whipped cream. I'm glad I did, since a subsequent visit saw me say 'no' to the whipped cream. This opened the view to the full carnage that lay in my cup. What... the FUCK... is that? I so eloquently said to my partner. For before me, in the tub-sized cup-o-cino, was the most pathetically limp foam I had ever seen. Panera Bread's cappuccino was practically a cup of coffee with some milk that into which somebody blew with a straw. Apparently they think sheer quantity makes up for quality. The bubbles were enormous, and what foam there was floated helplessly around on top of the coffee.

I had to know. So on my next visit, I hovered around by the machine as my barista, who I swear was the banjo-playing kid from Deliverance, made my cappuccino. I'm sure the look of steely-eyed determination and disgust on my face made her feel great. I nearly gasped as she poured 2% MILK into the steaming carafe. TWO PERCENT?! You might as well foam water! Bah. I know they're doing this because it's easier to foam 2% than whole milk, but if you don't want to worry about hiring skilled baristas to make your drinks, DON'T SELL CAPPUCCINO. A barista needs to do more than simply jam the foaming rod into the milk and blink out for 15 seconds. Which is exactly what she did.

There was no symphony. No dance of the rod on the surface of the milk. No nothing. She just sort of humped the rod with the carafe and called it done. Just having a cappuccino on your menu doesn't make you trendy or cultured. You have to make it correctly! God almighty! Not too long after this I went to Pastiche in Providence and had a latte and was reminded of how a good drink should taste. Ohhh, the sweetness of the whole milk. The body. The texture. Everything Panera Bread wasn't.

So I guess what I'm saying is, don't do drugs.

REVIEW: Pagoda Inn- ***1/2 / $

Originally an Inn for horse-riding travelers (the horse tie posts are still standing), this little piece of the east became the Pagoda Inn in 1966 and has been owned by the Chan family since 1993. The matriarch, Cindy Chan, oversees most of the restaurants operations whilst her husband, Fung, handles the kitchen. The Chan's purchase back in 1993 was something of a God-send to local Chinese lovers since the options in town were pretty grim. Cindy's business acumen and Fung's kitchen skills have since transformed Pagoda into one of Rhode Island's best Chinese restaurants.

Entering, the dining area isn't as tacky as many Chinese places seem to get, being tastefully colorful with the expected smattering of photos from China. I'm just glad there aren't large, ceramic dragons everywhere, staring at you like they want information. The seats are all comfortable and hug your bum nicely, but some are a bit tattered from years of wear. Take-out is the foundation of their business, so you rarely have to wait for a table. Service is fantastically friendly. Some of the nicest I've met.

Upon sitting you're met with a rather standard array of Chinese offerings. It's the quality and depth of flavor that separates their food. Their fried rice is complex, with a variety of ingredients that other establishments seem to ignore, such as green onions. Standouts are their crab rangoons, sweet & sour pork, and a house-made duck sauce that is to die for. As the years have gone on, a few items have also seen a drop in quality, such as the General Tso's Chicken. Perhaps they're training new chefs, but that, combined with some items being overcooked, detracts from the overall experience. In comparison to other chinese places, everything stands up well, even the recipes that have withered. It's just not as good as it once was.

Other items are fairly by-the-numbers, but it's all cooked with great skill and choice ingredients, save for the use of dark meat instead of white in the General Tso's. The drink menu, compliments of bartender Kyle Chen, is diverse and colorful. It's a treat for those who like wild-looking drinks. Previously, like most Chinese places, the dessert menu was non-existent. Recently, though, the son of the owners, Danny, has begun baking and now offers a wide array of baked goods under the wildly inventive name, "Desserts by Danny." He uses real butter in his desserts, no shortening, and it shows. They are quite delicious and I recommend taking a package home.

Pagoda Inn's food may have warranted a full five stars not too long ago. The options for Chinese were just so dreadful in South County that the existence of such good food should have been sang on high. But, with the emergence of Seven Moons nearby, it is no longer the far-and-away best. And if you're willing to travel outside of a town, many other places with good food have opened. As the overall quality of Chinese increases, so does the bar for what defines average. I seriously doubt Pagoda Inn could ever be called average, but while its traditional recipes are some of the best Chinese-American this side of Chinatown, they lack inventiveness and flair. There needs to be something more to call a restaurant a true destination. Even still, if you find yourself in North Kingstown area, and hanker for some Chinese, Pagoda Inn remains one of the local greats, and should be on the top of your list.

Pagoda Inn: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$30

Pagoda Inn
7315 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI 02852

Sunday through Thursday, 11:30am to 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 11:30am to 11:00pm

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

REVIEW: Gracie's- **** / $$$$$

I was first attracted to Gracie's by a card for a complimentary dessert tasting for two. Far be it for me to pass up free food, and Gracie's certainly seemed like a nice place. I went during the summer, when the weekend sees pretty much all of Providence, save for the poor people who have yet to panhandle their way into a Lexus, beat feet to the beach. This leaves the city near-deserted. Since very nice restaurants rarely have promotions such as this, I was expecting a decent restaurant, with prices in line with a downtown location. I was not expecting to be as impressed as I was.

Gracie's was a perfect companion to our cool summer night on the town. The food was excellent, the service was excellent, and the ambiance was so romantic I almost made out with the people sitting next to us. Being a summer night, the valet wasn't sure if we were somehow lost on our way to the beach, or if we were actually there to eat. So it took him awhile to come over. Once inside, we were seated immediately in a romantic corner giving us a fantastic view of Washington and Aborn street. Just down the road is The Cuban Revolution, so a steady parade of capitalist-hating, privileged yuppies walked by. There's a not-so-subtle star theme throughout the dining area which really rather works. I thought it was classy. The entire restaurant has a subdued, golden color scheme, accentuated by various wood grains. Very, very warm and inviting. It's tone is not at all fake and cobbled together like the abysmal ambiance of nearby L'Epicureo. It's also more cozy than the airy decoration of Al Forno. Very much its own, I loved the dining area.

The menu was semi-American with heavy French influence (read: small servings, lots of weird words). It displayed a suitable amount of pomp in choices of ingredients and foods. The menu is also inventive. The food has real character and shows the hand of a chef who's willing to try totally new things, as opposed to taking an already established recipe and throwing in something and calling it new. This praise belongs more heavily to the 2nd courses, for the 1st courses are good, but pricey and lack the flair of the main courses. The 1st course menu also doesn't seem to undergo the same frequent changes to the lineup that the main courses do.

It was now that Gracie's truly surprised me. The waitress brought out the first of two amuses bouche. This helped to at least partially explain the prices to follow. For our 1st course/appetizer we ordered the artisanal cheese platter (pricey at $18) which came with a selection of five cheeses. One of these was recently rated "the best cheese in the world", according to our waitress. I'm not sure I agree, but it was excellent nonetheless. It came with a small dollop of honeycomb which was truly delicious with the cheese. The other four cheeses were all well-picked and tasty. Perhaps it was the love of the chef, for the cheeses seemed to skew to the earthy side of flavor, with robust bodies. The scallops are also drool-worthy, but, again, are pricey.

For entrees my partner got the house-made gnocchi from the 1st course menu, which was perfectly made but nothing exceptional. I got the Berkshire pork two ways. This pork was a revelation. It was probably the best I've ever had. Two pieces of tenderloin cooked differently. Both were just mouth-watering. I'm drooling now thinking about it. The menu has recently seen this option replaced with Veal Two Ways. Fabulous veal, but not the heaven-sent thing the pork was. If pork isn't your thing, go for whatever filet is available, since the chef produces some fantastic recipes.

For dessert, we got the tasting platter which came with four, near full-size servings. One strawberry shortcake which was decent, one flourless chocolate cake which was excellent, a banana milk chocolate mousse torte, also excellent, and a blueberry lemon cake with gelato which was just delicious. I don't know where they got their gelato, but it was creamy as all get-out. A perfect companion to the rich, dense texture of the cake. The flourless chocolate cake was my partner's favorite, but my mind was fixated on the lemon cake and gelato.

Across the board, presentations were beautiful. Artful and attractive. They advertised well the quality of the food as it was set down. Obviously not as ostentatious as Cafe Nuovo, but subdued in a suitably cosmopolitan way. Still, I was struck by the prices for what we got. I'm certainly not one to complain about quality over quantity, but I felt the serving sizes were just a bit too cosmopolitan. Restaurants like Al Forno, CAV, and Mill's Tavern produce larger servings for either less or equal money with equal quality. I still think chef Joseph Hafner's personal spin is worth the money, but if they really want to compete, they need to come up with something to better explain the cost. Aside from that quibble, Gracie's is a world-class restaurant that's more than worthy of your dime and time.

Gracie's: ****
Price range for two: $70-$150

194 Washington Street
Providence, RI. 02903
401-272-7811 (Reservations accepted)

Tuesday through Saturday 5:00pm till Close
Sunday 4:00pm till Close
(Call if after 9:00pm to find out how late they plan on staying open)

Saturday, October 6, 2007

REVIEW: Fadó Irish Pub- *** / $$

The old Lincoln Park is certainly making a go at being a true destination. Still, knowing the previous clientèle for which what is now Twin River was known, namely those who are 9.5 million years old and those to whom dental hygiene means little, I did not enter with high hopes. Aside from the same old clientèle, Twin River and its selection of restaurants impresses.

While Fadó does not impress as much as its Twin River roommate, Fred & Steve's Steakhouse, it was still a good restaurant. Entering, I was struck by how large it was. It seemed to continue onward in all directions. The layout borders on labyrinthine. The bar is enormous and it had a vast selection of beers that any brew-lover will certainly enjoy. It's obvious Fadó fully embraces its niche. They are pushing themselves as a true Irish pub, with all the trappings one would find in a European counterpart, including an obsession with soccer. If you like soccer, this is a dynamite place to go if you like strikers. If there is a single game on in any deep, dark part of the world, it's probably on their TV's.

We were seated promptly in a cozy little corner near some wall-mounted knick knacks. It was fun-enough, but the whole junk-on-the-walls motif, to try and somehow drive home the fact that this place is just another neighborhood haunt when in fact it's a chain, has been driven into to the dirt by TGI Applebee's.

The seats were uncomfortable and my dinner partner's bum found itself falling to sleep on a number of occasions. It also took a very long time for our server to apparently become aware of our existence. I'm not sure how one forgets about customers, but they managed. Once she did, though, service was prompt, if not a bit strange. They are all older than you would expect, as was the clientèle. I, 25, and my girlfriend, 23, were the youngest people in the room by at least a decade. The average age of the wait staff was probably in the late forties or fifties. Moreover, everyone working there seemed to be bored, or drugged. Not bad, just strange. Our waitress apparently had a nervous breakdown halfway through our dinner, necessitating help from another server. She explained that she was helping out our original waitress with the work load. What work load? I think we were her only customers.

We got a three-cheese toastie which was the best grilled cheese I've ever had, and we both got corned beef boxties, which are potato pancakes cooked crepe-style and wrapped around corned beef and cabbage. Very good but unbalanced. I'm not going to knock a restaurant for giving me a healthy serving of meat, but I really would have liked some cabbage in there. There was almost none and the very salty corned beef overpowered the rest of the boxty. The French fries were tasty. Very crisp and well seasoned.

None of the desserts were very impressive, considering the bakery downstairs. The Black & Tan brownie is decent, but its party piece, the Guinness ice cream, isn't very Guinness. It's basically vanilla ice cream with the faintest hint of Guinness that is immediately lost upon biting into the very chocolaty brownie. The chef's dessert of the day is perpetually chocolate cake. The bread pudding is very good and really the only dessert worth considering.

In the end, the star of the show is the rustic charm of the food and the prices. Fadó intelligently doesn't try to outclass its ambiance with its food. Instead, it allows its food to simply be cheap, tasty, and provide just the right kind of sustenance for a night out with other Manchester United fans. All in all, good place, just not a place I'd seek out unless I was really hankering for a boxty.

Fado Irish Pub: ***
Price range for two: $25-$45

Fadó Irish Pub
100 Twin River Road
Lincoln, RI. 02865

Closed Monday & Tuesday
Wednesday & Sunday 12:00pm - 11:00pm
Thursday through Saturday 11:00am to 12:30am

Friday, October 5, 2007

REVIEW: Pane E Vino- **** / $$$

Pane E Vino has been churning away quietly on Federal Hill for a number of years now. Lacking the fame of the other Italian eateries, such as Camille's or L'Epicureo, it is somewhat ignored. Thankfully, if the chock-full dining area is any indication, patrons are not following the lead of the local hype machine.

Everything about Pane E Vino is excellent. Entering, I was pleased with the decor and ambiance. It wasn't pretentious or fake. It was cozy, romantic, welcoming, and all the other good adjectives you could think of. The tan color scheme makes me feel as though I'm sitting in a villa in the Italian countryside. We were seated immediately. The table dress was very good if not too formal. The floor is slippery, so it's easy to move your chair around. I liked that a lot. Lighting is wonderful. Much nicer than that at the more famous, and inferior, Mediterraneo.

Service was excellent. Our water glasses were always full, and we never went more than five minutes without a check-up. Our appetizers were, across the board, very good. The sweet, lemon flavor in the mozarella en carozza was a nice touch. I must admit, it was a bit too soft and felt soggy in the mouth. Thinner, heartier bread would give it a very satisfying texture. There were too many of us to list all the entrees we got, so I'll mention the standouts. The hanger steak was spicy and tender and went perfectly with the decent mashed potatoes. The cut of meat wasn't the best I've had, but it was more than acceptable.

A cheese and rotini special had some flawless cheese and cream sauce in it. Everyone at the table had a taste and it was a hit with us all. Their bracioli was good, but wasn't very well prepared, being a bit tough. It was the odd man out, since everything else was prepared very well. The menu is traditional Italian overall, and this works well for them. It's large and well-priced.

The wine list was well chosen. Obviously, it skews Italian, so its self-imposed limitation prevents it from being truly world-class. Thank God, there's no Opus One. The list is well-priced. Many affordable wines means that even a person on a budget can add a nice red to their meal. Don't think there's any shortage of pricey wines, though. Some truly wonderful vintages in the $75-$100 range fill the list. A good place to try Italian wines and a very good list overall. It deserves the recognition it receives from Wine Spectator Magazine.

For desserts, the lemon sorbet came in a beautifully frosted glass. The presentation was matched by deep lemon flavor. The chocolate cake was decent, but lacked power to the flavor. Very little chocolate. The texture was also on the dry side. The molten chocolate cake was excellent. Hot and gooey, and presented beautifully, it was the star of the dessert menu. The coffee's a little weak, if you ask me, but was still a fine finish to an excellent meal. While Pane e Vino doesn't break new ground, what it does do, it does wonderfully, and I will be going back again and again. Pane E Vino is currently my favorite Italian food in Providence.

Pane E Vino: ****
Price range for two: $45-$85

Pane E Vino
65 Atwells Avenue
Providence, RI. 02903

Sunday 4:00pm to 9:00pm
Monday through Thursday 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm

Saturday, September 29, 2007

REVIEW: Mediterraneo- ** / $$$$

I was monumentally disappointed in Mediterraneo. Entering, I was generally pleased. It's a very pretty restaurant with all the architecture and design I'd expect from a supposed 4-Diamond eatery. The architecure was classy, the tables looked well-dressed, and the overall feeling was of subdued trendyness.

We had called ahead for our table and were greeted by a maître d' who was brusque at best. We were shooed upstairs where we waited around for five minutes. The upstairs was cold. Like, really cold. Sixty-degrees kind of cold. I found it acceptable, but my partner was shivering. After this random wait for a table that was supposedly set, we were sat and given water.

It took them over ten minutes to bring us our bread which was so tough that my partner had to stop halfway through her second piece because her jaw hurt. We were about to order our appetizers when we were informed we must order all at once. I'm unsure of as to why, but so be it. Another ten minutes pass before our server returns. It's now almost 30 minutes in and we have only bread. Finally, the server returns to take our orders. Our appetizer comes out, mozzarella en carozza. For $9 we got a single piece of glorified fried mozzarella. I've had its equal at places not much better than Olive Garden. It was good, certainly, but for $9 we got $.89 worth of food. It came with some random mixed greens as to seemingly say, sorry for the overpriced piece of cheese you've ordered, so have this cheap salad to help explain the cost.

Our entrees arrive. My partner's Filetto di Maialo pork loin is truly excellent. At $25, it's a bargain. The pork was tender and juicy, the breading and horseradish sauce were perfectly seasoned, and the potatoes on the side were wonderfully done. In fact, it was so good I wish I had gotten it. My ravioli all' aragosta is technically perfect, but is nothing special for $25. Yes, it comes with lobster and shrimp, but I can have similar foods for $5, maybe $8 cheaper at a number of places. At least here, the sauce is excellent. As I say, Italian food lives and dies by its sauce, and this sauce was very good.

Our desserts arrive. My molten lava cake is bad. Very bad. It's dry, luke-warm, with what could be gelato or ice cream on top. Either way, it's bad gelato/ice cream. The house-made whipped cream is good, if that makes up for anything. My partners gnutella mousse is very good, though. Rich and flavorful, it's a success, but kind of expensive. But it's got nothing on mine. Over $10 for bad cake. BAD CAKE. I can nary think of a greater crime.

All the while, an army of seemingly confused servants wander about ignoring us. I was never given water without directly asking. The tables had butchers' paper on them. You may think that picking a nit, but for such a trendy, expensive place as this, there better be a God-damned table cloth on my table. Another detail that just chapped my ass the entire night was the windows. The windows were dirty. Dirty as though they hadn't been cleaned in days, perhaps weeks. A nice thing about the upstairs is the aerial view of Atwells, where you can watch all the mid-life crisis men driving by in their Ferraris. To have that view sullied by handprints is unacceptable. The windows should be cleaned nightly.

The night finished nicely enough. Our waitress, freed from some mysterious obligations somewhere in the depths of restaurant, suddenly was aware of our existence and we received some attention. I ordered a cappuccino, which was very strong and well-brewed. Our night concluded with a complimentary shot of house-made Limoncello for a digestif. It was very good, and ice cold. Just the way it should be. Still, the good entrees and free drink can only do so much. AAA's Four-Diamond means a place of dining nirvana, not this train wreck. If AAA were to review Mediterraneo that night, their award would be stripped away, no questions asked. I expected a lot from Mediterraneo, and got very little.

I originally wrote this review for Since then, their Four-Diamond review has indeed been revoked, reduced to a Three-Diamond. Also of interest, at 11:00pm on Fridays and Saturdays it turns into some latin dance club where the bleary-eyed night-lifers of Providence swarm. I recommend avoiding it like the plague.

Mediterraneo: **
Price range for two: $50-$100

134 Atwells Ave
Providence, RI 02903

Winter Hours: October - May
Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:00pm
Friday 11:30 am to 10:00pm
Saturday 11:30am to 11:00pm
Sunday 3:00pm to 9:00pm

Summer Hours: June - September
Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 10:00pm
Friday 11:30am to 11:00pm
Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm
Sunday 5:00pm to 10:00pm

Thursday, September 27, 2007

REVIEW: Don Jose Tequila's- * / $$

I arrived at Don Jose Tequilas with great expectations. I had read good reviews, and been told the same by friends, and after living for so long with nothing but bad Tex-Mex at local restaurants, I relished the chance to eat real food.

It was a sad day.

The dining area was well decorated. The ambiance was cozy, warm, and not too tight. Service was quick and friendly. The margaritas ordered by the table were good, but not great. I would have called them a little weak, although everyone else seemed happy.

For our appetizers we got the Macho Nachos and Don Jose's platter. The nachos were bland, uninventive, and bland. Did I mention bland? Who the hell makes nachos without any kind of spice. They're nachos! This isn't a gas station nacho dispenser. Give me some cayenne pepper. The refried beans were luke warm and dry, the salsa was as hot as an episode of Full House, and the cheese was, for the most part, missing in action. The Platter wasn't much better. The quesadillas weren't fully cooked, the chicken was tough and over-cooked, and whatever they spiced it with tasted burnt.

For dinner, we got steak fajitas, chimichangas, and a stuffed burrito. Across the board, the meat was tough, over-cooked, and flavorless. My tortillas for my fajita were cold. The chimichanga seemed to not have been fried at all. The tortilla had no crispness, and again the spices were bland and muted. The burrito was a similar story. None of them were finished.

I was sad because there was a lot to like. It seemed like their heart was in the right place, but in the real world, you don't get an A for effort. And even then, I'm not sure what kind of effort was actually expressed. The problems were all the mistakes of either someone who doesn't care or has no skills whatsoever in the kitchen. Overcooked meat, terrible seasonings, poorly timed preparations causing some hot and some cold foods. These are transgressions of the highest caliber because a restaurateur should be long past these errors before ever opening a place.

Don Jose's may have earned two stars earlier, but after my discovery of El Tapatio, which is so vastly superior as to be almost comical, the poor haunt on Federal Hill gets tagged with the only one-star review I've written. I would not recommend this restaurant to anyone.

Don Jose Tequila's: *
Price range for two: $25-$50

Don Jose Tequila's
351 Atwells Avenue
Providence, RI. 02903

Sunday through Thursday 3:00pm to 10:00pm
Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 11:00pm

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

REVIEW: Pastiche- **** / $$$

Nestled along a back road of Federal Hill, Pastiche has been serving up some of the best desserts in all of Rhode Island since 1983, and the state has been all the better for it. Combing a good selection of some of the best coffee available, unmatched desserts, a bustling and friendly staff, and perfect atmosphere, Pastiche is a total gem.

Pastiche is so perfectly decorated. The outside, the sign, everything about it would allow it to just as easily sell drapes and knitting supplies as be a cafe. It's so friendly that you expect Meg Ryan to own it. Inside is cozy and can get pretty cramped during busy hours. The table density also makes any walkable areas rather treacherous what with wait staff flying around at Mach 4 with loaded platters.

Seating is first-come-first-serve, so if you show up on a Friday at 6pm, you may have a serious wait ahead of you. I've never waited much more than fifteen minutes for a table, which highlights the quick sojourns of most patrons. Everything is comfy and welcoming. While you're waiting, you can gaze upon their large selection of cakes, tortes, custards, pies, and other girth-enhancing items so by the time you sit down you're so freaking hungry you'd just as soon eat your waiter as order something.

Once settling in, and getting a new waiter, the coffee menu is generally whelming. It's got all the usuals --mocha, latte, etc.-- but nothing that really shows the hand of an inventive barista. The coffee is some of the strongest I've ever had, if not the strongest. As if when roasting the beans, they just set them directly on fire. The deep, powerful coffee flavor is something that will probably overwhelm Americans weaned on the weak concoctions of Starbucks (nothing against Starbucks, though). They seem to hand-make their espresso, since the varying strength of the drinks betrays the absence of an automated machine. Not really a bad thing, but sometimes the coffee is masterful, and other times it's just good. The only real Baristatic (Webster! I got a new word for you!) snafu is coffee that is sometimes not just strong, but burnt. If you have complaints, though, the friendly staff will happily replace your cup.

The pastries and cakes, which change seasonally, are the real stars. Everything is made in-house, and there are so many items to try it's pointless to try and list them. The standouts are the fruit tart, which is the best in Rhode Island, a chocolate mousse cake that leaves you always wanting more, and the airy Italian mascarpone torte. Their chocolate layer cake and chocolate torte have also, on occasion, been very dry. But don't think I'm saying it was bad, because it was still fantastic, but it was a simple mistake that shouldn't have been made.

Still, no errors can really detract from the ineffable charm of this quaint, Federal Hill haunt. Fabulous coffee combined with mostly amazing desserts gives Pastiche the honor of being one of the Rhode Island's best cafes and bakeries. I make a trip at least once a month, where you'll find me, nursing my latte and notching my belt seemingly forever outward. I may grow, but at Pastiche, I grow with a smile.

All orders and pickups must be made before 7pm. Oh, and don't get the large fruit tart. Believe me, you won't finish it.

UPDATE 9/6/2008: After a number of visits, I think it should be mentioned that Pastiche has a pretty dodgey record when it comes to the espresso drinks. Drip coffee is fine, but as I mentioned in my review, the espresso was very dark. Well, I've had more than a few drinks that aren't just dark, they're burnt, really burnt. Burnt, bitter, sour, with poor milk on top. I've had some drinks that were basically unacceptable. I feel that what I wrote didn't drive the point home.

I can find no pattern, as in the drinks are only bad on weekends, so it's a crap shoot if you're going to get a well-made drink or a slapdash. I'm not going to amend my review since when the drinks are good, they're good, and the atmosphere and baked goods overcome sporadic weakness... for now. So be forewarned. If you demand the best in espresso, you may want to stick with tea.

Pastiche: ****
Price range for two: $10-$25

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Pastiche Fine Desserts
92 Spruce St
Providence, RI. 02903

Tuesday through Thursday 8:30am to 11:00pm
Friday and Saturday 8:30am to 11:30pm
Sunday 10:00am to 10:00pm

Freedom for Myanmar

As the rise of dissent continues in Myanmar, I would like to express my hope that the military does not again repress these calls for freedom with violence. I value nothing more intently than freedom and I deeply feel for those who don't have it. I really, truly hope this leads to change in the poor little country.

Three killed as Myanmar troops battle protests (Via Reuters)

REVIEW: Al Forno: **** / $$$$

Al Forno is a difficult place to review. The hype is so thick that you could almost eat it instead of the food. Much praise from a historical perspective has been lavished, seeing as it pretty much ignited the Providence dining scene, which up to that point hadn't exactly been world-class. Al Forno also remains the only Providence dining area to have two recipes used nationwide to its name: Clams Al Forno and grilled pizza. Seeing as no other restaurant in Rhode Island can claim this, that kind of makes Al Forno our de facto foody flagship.

Still, a quick check on the various restaurant review websites shows that there are many, many unhappy customers at Al Forno. Even if you assume that a happy customer tells no one and an unhappy customer tells ten, I read an awfully large number of bad reviews. After reading others’ horror stories, and experiencing a little of it myself, I’m hesitant to say 'thumbs up!', but since I can only go on myself, I must. Al Forno is one of Rhode Island’s best restaurants and certainly worthy of hype, but not as much as it gets.

The place itself is isn't exactly dressed for success. It's in some cramped little armpit of Providence with such illustrious neighbors as The Fish Company, so a constant flow of drunk 20-somethings into the street will keep your exit interesting. The area is filled with large cement blocks, overgrown weeds, trucks from a nearby truck-related-something, and a glorious view of... the hurricane barriers. During the summer a romantic after-dinner walk is also made impossible because of the ceaseless flow of derelicts fishing. I'm not kidding. Dozens of people, ALL fishing. Some of them appear decent, but unfortunately decided to bring their seventy-three children. Others look like they belong in the Star Wars Cantina. While still others may be nice people, but I can't tell because none of them speak English.

Al Forno is like a different world. The parking lot is full of luxury cars, lights glimmer from the outside dining area, and the faint sound of music and dinner chatter stand in stark contrast to the screaming of children from the seaside and the thundering of hip-hop from the bars. The inside is well appointed, well decorated, and generally very chic. It is a perfectly classic dining area and one of my local favorites. Tables are well dressed, but the chairs need a serious upgrade in the comfort department. Old window-side benches left behind from the building's original purpose are recycled as seats that have charm but no back support. I'd rather have back support.

The service I had was basically perfect. Water and wine flowed, frequent attention, and pleasant demeanor made us feel welcome. The wait was terrible, and some of the employees seemed not arrogant, as other reviews have said, but annoyed. The ceaseless flow of pretentious(!) customers could explain that. Still, it’s unacceptable. Lapses in decorum such as that just don't happen when your patrons, assholes or not, are paying well over $100 for just two people.

Also, a major, nay, ENORMOUS, knock against Al Forno is its insistence to not take reservations. When you have one of the hottest tickets in town, you take some bloody reservations. I was lucky on my most recent trips to never have a wait over thirty minutes, but waits of two hours are not uncommon. This is not TGI-Friday's. You do not have some weird philosophy about the equality of all. You are a restaurant, so take a god-damned name over the phone.

Now, on to the important stuff.

Julia Child ate here every time she was in the area, and I can certainly understand why she did so. The food is stellar. House specialties, such as Clams Al Forno and the grilled pizza margarita, are delectable. Dishes are served simple and perfectly cooked. Sometimes, too simple. The bruschetta costs a fair amount and is TRUE bruschetta, namely, toast. Put something on it!

As far as I’m concerned, their baked pasta with five cheeses is the only dish you should ever get. But, if you must deviate, the oven roasted lemon chicken breast is a treat for the mouth. Delicate, tender, slightly tangy, it’s just ab-fab. Their specials are almost always brilliant and delicious (albeit sometimes pricey) and a real reason to come back. Surprisingly, an exception is a house specialty, the Dirty Steak. It's a steak cooked directly on the hot coals of the fire. Tasty, gimmicky, and not at all worth it for over $40.

The wine list is a surprising disappointment. It was well chosen with a good selection of affordable wines. The sommelier was well trained, but the lack of breadth left the list somewhat lacking. Considering Al Forno's fame, I expected one of the best wine lists in New England. Instead, I got a merely good one.

The dessert menu, on the other hand, is one of the best, if not the best. Filled with great, inventive desserts that can be had nowhere else, I would go back for just the desserts until I weighed half a ton. They cost a pretty penny, though, ranging from $9 to $18. But believe me, they are definitely worth it. Their creme anglaise is perfect, a surprisingly rare feat. Their croque Mademoiselle is just freaking mouth-watering. The Mascarpone Sorbetto? Illegal!

Whether you think the sometimes absurd wait is worth it or not is up to you. Frankly, I’ve never eaten anywhere worth a two-hour wait and Al Forno is no different. But a one-hour wait? Now we’re talking. And this is precisely the wait you'll get in the middle of the week or during the summer when the city empties out. Al Forno is generally perfection in what it does and, flaws or not, I love it and think everyone should try.

Al Forno: ****
Price range for two: $60-$130

Al Forno
577 S Main St
Providence, RI 02903
401-273-9767 (Reservations not accepted)

Tuesday through Friday 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Saturday 4:00pm to 10:00pm

Sunday, September 16, 2007

TASTE TEST: Peanut Butter

In this first of a new feature, the taste test, I'll be testing and rating various brands of something to determine a winner. In this case, I'll be testing peanut butter. My rating scale is slightly different in taste tests. I'll be dispensing with the star rating in favor of a 0-100 scale to better gauge the differences in quality and to accommodate a dynamic scale. Notes will be provided on every product tested. So on with the test!

Choosy moms choose Jif. Or so we've been told. But Skippy fuels the fun. We certainly want to have fun. And Peter Pan has repeatedly been portrayed by a woman, so I assume his peanut butter is made from avocados. All the brands have some shtick by which to lure us into their web, but who's really selling what they say? It's something I had never thought about before. When I bought peanut butter, I did just that. Good ol' pee-bee never garnered much criticism from me, just so long as my PB&J sandwiches didn't taste like gasoline, or avocados.

That changes today. I recently made a trip to the local grocery store and purchased every variety of peanut butter they had the shelves. I avoided the organic ones that I suspect hippies use as a face cream and any varieties that were pure, natural peanut butter. I only rated the sweetened, whose group includes the arch nemeses Jif and Skippy. So, the big question, which is better?

Well, as I discovered, it's not that easy. I found that Jif and Skippy were both excellent products with different takes on the same concept. They tasted different, but better or worse? I'm not so sure. Some surprises included me not liking Peter Pan and the store brands, in this case IGA, Stop & Shop, and Wal*Mart.I also disliked Skippy's Honey Nut variety. I was also surprised when I found no brand to harness all positive characteristics into a whole. I rated each variety on texture, primary taste, secondary taste, and aroma. Testing was done in the ideal environment of my kitchen counter.

Skippy Natural90
Peter Pan80
Skippy Roasted Honey Nut70
Stop & Shop60
Fun Cuisine Spongebob Squarepants55
Wal*Mart Great Value45

Skippy Natural: 90
I liked Skippy Natural's toned-down sweetness compared to ordinary Skippy. It's a much more natural flavor. As far as strength goes, this one was average for both the primary and the secondary taste. There was little aftertaste to speak of. The flavor of the peanuts is allowed to come out nicely with the limited ingredients. It's nice and smooth, but not quite as creamy as ordinary Skippy. It's still creamier than Jif, though, and much more creamy than the cement-like IGA and Wal*Mart. Skippy Natural also gets huge props for tasting better than other brands while not using any hydrogenated oils.

Skippy: 85
Skippy is very good. A good peanut flavor that's somewhat overpowered by its sweetness. It's easy to see why this brand is so loved by children; because they need everything to be at the very least 1/3rd sugar. While this isn't that sweet, it's the closest to that mark than any of the others save for the atrociously sweet Honey Nut Skippy.

Jif: 85
Jif is also very good. It's similar to Skippy, but has a darker, more mellow flavor that speaks of peanuts longer roasted. This is also the only variety to use molasses as a sweetener and that adds a distinct depth in flavor that the others lack. That dark flavor gets big props, but it's not as creamy and satisfying on the tongue. Jif is also the highest in calories, at 190 per serving. It's got the most protein, though, with a startling 8g per serving.

Peter Pan: 79
Peter Pan is a difficult rating for me. It's a bit lighter and more astringent than Skippy or Jif. It's got a stronger flavor than Jif or Skippy, but it's very light and doesn't stick around too long. It also has a smokey bite in the aftertaste indicating a dark roast to the nuts that's balanced with more sugar. Still, it's not as sweet as Skippy. I liked it well enough, but found that aftertaste to be less pleasing than Jif or Skippy.

Skippy Honey Nut: 70
The initial flavor of this was like a punch to the face. The honey over-powers the peanuts right through the palate. It's all you can taste initially, subsides a bit while chewing, and then again dominates over the peanuts in the finish. I found it cloying and unpleasant at first blush, and it just doesn't recover. I want peanut butter to taste like peanut butter, not dark honey. The very end is pleasant, though, with a wonderfully mellow flavor of darkly roasted peanuts brought out by the honey, which is the way the entire experience should have been. It's so startlingly sweet, I'm sure your kids will freaking love it.

Stop & Shop: 60
The varieties take a nose-dive after the big brands. Most of the time, I don't notice a difference between name and store brands. Apparently, in peanut butter, there is a difference. A HUGE difference. Stop & Shop is the best of the discount brands. It's flavor isn't as good as Fun Cuisine's Spongebob variety, but its texture is way better, although it's still not creamy enough to prevent surface breakage when you pull some out with your finger. The fact that this is sweetened with corn syrup and not sugar is quite apparent, but at least not to the degree as IGA.

Fun Cuisine Spongebob Squarepants: 55
Spongebob should keep his day job, because he sucks at cooking. It has a smoother flavor than Stop & Shop, something I credit to the molasses and sugar, but it's got the same paste-like consistency of IGA and Wal*Mart.

IGA: 49
What terrible peanut butter! It's edible, and it's cheaper than the others, but I'd nevereverever buy it. It's creaminess was far and away the lowest of the bunch. Its consistency was somewhere just above dried concrete. Flavor was serviceable, but the fact that IGA was sweetened with corn syrup shone through loud and clear. Its sweetness was cloying and unpleasantly fake. Its primary flavor was decent, but the closing flavor was weak. Overall peanut flavor was inadequate.

Wal*Mart Great Value: 45
Wal*Mart was even worse. It was sweetened with sugar, but I don't know what the hell happened to it. Its color is the palest of the lot. Were peanuts actually involved? I don't know! What's strange is that both this and Peter Pan are manufactured in the EXACT same facility by ConAgra foods. I guess they use the waste from Peter Pan manufacture to make this. They at least managed to make it non-poisonous, so I guess they deserve kudos for that. Just bad. Very bad.

Happy Play Doh Day!

For all of you who made fake food with Play Doh that you wanted to eat, I hope you have a happy National Play Doh Day!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

REVIEW: Spice Thai- ***1/2 / $

Nestled in a strip mall with such illustrious neighbors as an empty front, a Christian ministry, a bad pizza joint, and a nail salon lies some of Rhode Island's best Thai food. Spice Thai remains true to its heritage and its name with some serious spice on the menu.

Spice Thai is primarily a take-out place, which means that the dining area consists of three to four tables with meager table dress. If you're on your way through town and you want someplace to grab a bite, it's an adequate eating environment. The rest of the walk-in area is pretty basic, with a few paintings hung on the walls and some dividers cordoning off the back part of the restaurant.

The service is lighting-quick and very friendly. Much credit to them goes for offering delivery; something that has been a stand-by of Asian cuisine in other places but has yet to catch on in Rhode Island. Delivery is dependent on whether they actually have the person there to do so or not.

Spice Thai's menu is headlined, whether they like it or not, by the most well-known Thai dish in America, pad thai. Well, they've got nothing to worry about. It's some of the best I've had on the road. Well spiced, well cooked, well everythinged. I was impressed with first taste and have remained impressed with each of the many times I've eaten it since. It's not as complex as the pad thai I've gotten some places else, and it's not as rich as the recipe I like to make for myself, but it's better than nearby Seven Moons. Unlike their more famous competition, Spice Thai is not at all shy about pouring on the spicy flavors. If you want it hot, they will give it hot. I liked this very much.

The menu is quite large. Not as big as your average 4,000-item Chinese menu, but still containing a few dozen options. Every single one of their appetizers is very well done. Salads and soups are larger than their prices would indicate, and if you get one of them and an appetizer, forget an entree. You'll probably be full. Their noodle and rice dishes are quite excellent.

Some of their dishes are hot as hell, but a bit watery in their texture. The Volcano Chicken will knock you down, but the texture is not wholly satisfying. Entrees, like the noodle dishes, are all offered with meat, seafood, of vegetarian. I have yet to eat one I didn't enjoy. Their Sweet & Sour was especially tasty, since its texture and presentation is entirely different from the style popularized in Chinese cuisine. It was a breath of fresh air, as it were.

There are no surprises with the food. It's all basic, well-tread territory. Spice Thai does it all very well and is willing to maybe scare you a little with the spice. They will cater to a duller palate, but they'll make it hot if you want. The fact that they deliver is also utterly fantastic. I'm not sure if that will be enough to guarantee success in the face of Seven Moons and Pagoda Inn, but I certainly hope so.

UPDATE 11/20/2009: It's getting a bit confusing, but Spice Thai has changed ownership again. It passed from the original owner/founder to a local affiliated with another thai restaurant. Apparently, the founder was associated with another place in Connecticut and didn't want the trouble of two businesses.

It has since passed back to the original family, with a sister running Spice Thai. The recipes are all different, but the pad thai tasted much closer to the original than the last recipe. If you disliked what happened after the first owners left, you would be well-served to give it another shot.

UPDATE 5/13/2010: It's been this way for awhile, but I just got around to updating the page; Spice Thai is gone. Kaput. Never to return. So very, very sad. Some of the best all-around basic Thai that I've ever eaten is now gone. Well, I wish the owners the best of luck with their other operation in Connecticut. I think it's Thai One, in Branford. Not Thai One On.

Spice Thai: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$30

Spice Thai
7661 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI. 02852
401-294-9888 (Delivery available over $15)

Monday through Saturday 11:00am to 10:00pm
Sunday 12:00pm to 10:00pm

Friday, September 7, 2007

REVIEW: Maharaja Buffet- ***1/2 / $

Maharaja is a buffet and most likely Montreal's best deal. As Indian cuisine goes, it's not all that inventive, and it's of bad-to-excellent quality, but there's just so much of it that you can't help but find something you like, and the price is beyond unbeatable. At $15 Canadian, this is, without doubt, the best deal in all of Montreal. It's best on weekdays, for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday cost $17, and lunch is $12, instead of $11.

The dining area is huge, so there's rarely a wait. And even if there is a wait, they get people in and out very quickly, so it's short. The dining area is well decorated. They have some nice touches, even though many of them are Wal*Mart chic, such as the paintings on the wall. I especially liked the giant, golden hookah.

The selection is so large it's pointless to to try and pick standouts. Most importantly, who cares? It's a buffet! Here, you can try everything and I recommend you do. Some of it is dodgey. Some of the chicken is very dry, and the cuts of meat aren't the best, but the recipes are all very good. Very importantly, they are not timid. There is no shortage of spice in these dishes and I loved it. Still, if you want grander presentation and higher quality ingredients, you may want to try Gandhi or Le Taj. Especially Le Taj, which doesn't up the evening's cost too much but provides better food in almost equally large amounts.

But complaining about the quality of certain foods is irrelevant. This is a buffet and you don't come here to be a gourmet. You come here to eat and to do so cheaply. And as buffets go, this is one of the best. When in Montreal, a trip to Maharaja is a must. It's dirt cheap and the food is very good. Selection is amazing. And the satisfaction of stuffing yourself silly with naan and tandoori chicken is something that will stay with you for some time.

Majaraja Buffet: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$20

1481 René-Lévesque Bld. West,
Montréal, QC H3G 1T8

Daily 11:00am to 11:00pm

REVIEW: Carlos & Pepe's- ***1/2 / $$

I love living in the United States. I love it because pretty much nowhere else on Earth are you going to find the mind boggling selection of foods available as we have them here. Even Montreal, a city I love, and also a city in very close proximity to the US, does not have the wide selection of foods available even in a small, and generally crappy, city like Providence. What Montreal needs is a little dash of spice.

Thankfully, Carlos and Pepe's delivers that spice. They sell themselves as Montreal's number one Mexican restaurant and bar. They should probably just say Montreal's ONLY Mexican restaurant and bar. Ok, it's not that bad. Montreal actually has a handful of them. Some of them are pretty good, and one of them may even be better than Carlos & Pepe's, but we'll discuss that later.

Carlos & Pepe's has a fantastic interior. It's like they went back in time and kidnapped a very tacky interior decorator from Tenochtitlan. It's great. It's so tacky, it works. The service is a well-oiled machine, and it damn well better be. Almost every night they're pushed to the breaking point by a constant stream of people. The waits can sometimes be pretty nasty, so I'd recommend just avoiding it altogether on Friday and Saturday. They also have the best specials on weekdays.

The seats and table dress are all very good. I was especially impressed by the fantastic lighting. It really sets the mood. There is also a pub upstairs that is... a pub. Basically, it's a good pub to go to since you can get the full menu upstairs as well as down. There drinks are big, colorful, full of booze, and reasonably priced. Definitely a good bar.

The nachos brought to the table are tasty and the salsa is good. No complaints there. The menu is very large and has a wide variety of Tex-Mex foods. It's all pretty basic. Nothing amazing. The prices are all excellent. Tacos are a good standby, as is the burrito. The chimichangas are what I usually get, but that probably says more about my love of chimichangas than the quality.

My major complaint is the lack of spice. I once ordered something that had a chili pepper next to it, denoting hot, and it was rather bland. I don't know if they're playing to the audience in Montreal, but what they call spicy is not what I call spicy. Other problems include tough meats that are sometimes overcooked, and stuff that should be cheesy being almost totally devoid of cheese. Minor complaints, I feel. Still, Carlos & Pepe's needs to step it up if they want to be compared favorably on all levels to Casa de Mateo. The nearby competitor is better in many ways, even though it has less than half the character of C&P's. It's food quality is usually higher, and their recipes take more chances with spice.

Also worth mentioning is La Iguana. There, Semi-traditional Tex-Mex is melded with a sort of Caribbean touch. It's very nice, but I'm not interested in that. I want Tex-Mex and only Tex-Mex. I want it hot as hell and I want steak, and for that, C&P's goes head-to-head with Casa de Mateo for dominance. No other place even compares to these two. C&P's has the larger menu and more character, but Casa de Mateo counters with better recipes and better food. I lean towards C&P's and, when in Montreal, usually found myself eating there if I wanted Tex-Mex. That could be because my Hotel was always closer to C&P's, but proximity aside, Carlos & Pepe's is a great Tex-Mex place in its own right and certainly worthy of a trip. But if it kicked it up a notch, it could be something very special.

Carlos & Pepe's: ***1/2
Price range for two: $25-50

1420 Rue Peel
Montreal, QC H3A 1S8

Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 1am
Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 2:00am
Sunday 11:30am to 12:30am

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

REVIEW: Gillian's Ale House- **1/2 / $

Gillian's Ale House is yet another local haunt where you see people you don't really want to see, so you get drunk to smooth things over. Unlike the nearby Oak Hill Tavern, though, Gillian's doesn't really have a culinary party piece to give it a reason for existing. In fact, as a restaurant, they're not half bad, but they're not half good. As a bar, again, it's a local haunt and as such it's very good at being what it's trying to be. But being that requires no skill, ambition, or endeavor.

Gillian's dining area and bar are quite nice. Warm, welcoming. Pool tables are accounted for, which is never a good sign. The dining area is certainly an afterthought here. I have never been when more than a couple people occupied it, and on a few occasions I was seemingly forgotten. Service is adequate, all in all.

The food is all well and good. Nothing is noticeably bad, and their house-made corned beef is quite excellent. But as with everything at Gillian's, the quality is inconsistent. I've eaten when the corned beef was delicious, and when it was sub-par. I've had the sirloin and it ranges from decent to badly prepared and tough. Their "tradtional Irish entrees" are rendered laughably inadequate by the presence of Fado Irish Pub... 35 miles away. It's that far, and if you actually want something Irish, it would be worth the trip.

Sandwiches are and other bar foods are all good. Nothing special, but still quite good and more than enough to satisfy some hunger pangs. They have both hot and cold and the hot get all the attention, with the selection being three times as large. Always nice are the extremely low prices. Unfortunately, the sandwich selection about eight minutes down the road at Jim's Deli is vastly superior to Gillian's. The recipes are better, the service is quicker, and the prices are, somehow, lower.

Gillian's Ale House could never survive if it wasn't relying on its status as a bar/hangout. The food is decent, but so is the food at every other local hangout nearby. And the old standby, a sandwich, is produced better by Jim's Deli. It's not bad, but there's just no reason to go to Gillian's unless you're nearby.

Gillian's Ale House: **1/2
Price range for two: $15-$30;

Gillian's Ale House
7835 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI 02852

Open Daily 11:00am to 1:00am

Thursday, August 30, 2007

REVIEW: The Pump House- *** / $$

The Pump House plays, for Rhode Island gourmets, something of a red-headed stepchild to founding chef Normand LeClairs more famous, and much better but now defunct, Red Rooster Tavern. The Old Rooster's house was recently sold to some development or another and will in all likelihood be turned into another God-forsaken office complex. For me this is truly a sad day. The Red Rooster was a first-class restaurant at a time when South County had no others. Things have changed, obviously. Providence got Al Forno and a slew of other high-end establishments, South County became a national vacation destination, and little Rhode Island is so full of good restaurants that it's hard to pick where to eat. But still, my heart falls back on the Red Rooster. But this review is not about The Rooster. It's about The Pump House. Does it carry on its rich heritage in the absence of its father?

The Pump House is quite obviously a different animal from The Rooster. It's much more relaxed, with a rustic charm to the decor that's warm and cozy and distinctly Rhode Island. The age of the building has not been hidden, with visible aged wooded creaking and bending in all directions. It's a really fabulous dining area precisely because of the lack of architecture. It's a trip into history to a much greater degree than the near-by Coast Guard House.

Service is always good, but it's usually busy, even on weekdays, so expect a fifteen minute wait. Sat, you can partake of the salad and soup bar, which always has baskets of house-made bread. It's a good selection and it's all-you-can-eat, so the price is right.

Appetizers and entrees are all very basic. This is a restaurant that's aiming to be nothing more than a neighborhood haunt. Prices are excellent, as would be expected of a haunt, so the lack of inventive dishes can be forgiven. Moreover, I have never considered mozzarella sticks to be a waste of space on a menu. In fact, I think any menu can be made better with their addition. The French onion soup is a standout. I thought it was excellent. The sandwich selection is decently large and everything is well done and very cheap. Good sandwiches, I guess, is all that can be said. Their Fish & Chips needs to be mentioned, since it's basically whatever they dragged in out of the ocean that morning, fried up and served. You don't get fresher.

For the entrees, the prices are excellent. Only two dishes crack the $20 level, and those are the filet mignon and a sirloin/stuffed shrimp surf 'n turf. This place is very, very affordable. There is a heavy emphasis on fish, and being so close to the ocean the ingredients are quite good. Some standouts are, obviously, the very cheap filet and the butter rum chicken. Especially the butter rum chicken. Lip-smacking tasty, that was. Still, it's a generally unimpressive selection. It has everything you'd expect, and it's all well-prepared, but not much more. Most importantly is how bland everything is. I can only assume The Pump House is catering to the over-175 crowd, since the entrees are not only unsurprising, but frequently bland as all get-out. This hypothesis is supported when the average age of the dining room at peak hours may very well hit the triple digits. Not bad, but bland. If I was either five or five-hundred, I'm sure I'd love it. Desserts are the expected standards. Cheesecake is always a safe bet, and here is no different.

So, I guess, The Pump House does not carry on the tradition of the grand old Rooster. It chooses to be something entirely different. It's not trying to be world-class. The elderly clientèle that packs the dining hall every night tells me that not only are they trying to be something else, they're succeeding with flying colors. In that sense, maybe they deserve five stars. Maybe they're smarter than me. Maybe their food is the result of a culinary master knowing his audience perfectly. Perhaps, but the Rooster wasn't that, and I think this place does nothing to rise above its status as neighborhood haunt. It's good, certainly better than most places with these prices, and if you're nearby it's worth a stop, but otherwise The Pump House is unremarkable.

The Pump House: ***
Price range for two: $40-$60;

The Pump House
1464 Kingstown Rd
Wakefield, RI 02879

Dinner: Monday through Saturday 4:00pm to 10:00pm, Sunday 12:00pm to 9:00pm
Lunch: Tuesday through Friday 11:30am to 2:30pm
Pub open 2:00 p.m. to closing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

REVIEW: Café République- ***1/2 / $$

I love Montreal. I'm not sure why. As far as cities go, it's pretty. It's clean. It has its fair share of homeless. Maybe it's the French/English mix that enchants me. Or maybe it's that whenever I go, by chance, I wander into some of the best restaurants they have to offer. I wandered into Chez La Mere Michel. I wandered into Toque!. With absolutely no knowledge, I simply amble into some of the world's most fantastic restaurants.

Café République may not be world-class, but it's damned good, and my favorite place for a night of coffee and cake with friends while roaming the length of St. Catherine Street. Or Peel Street. Or a number of other streets. Actually, Café République is scattered all over Montreal. The locations are operated separately and provide different decor and personality. The food selection is very similar and all provide a wide selection of coffee and alcoholic drinks.

All four locations are decorated very nicely. Dark wood tones give you a comfy feeling that goes well with a warm cappuccino or espresso. Lighting is muted, warm, and romantic. The Saint Catherine location especially provides a fabulous view of the street by which to people-watch. Tables are dressed nicely and everything is is polished and clean. The Peel location also offers a raw-wood feel with many plants and wicker-like decorations.

The Peel location is situated right next door to the new location of the Peel Pub. It's much nicer, with vastly superior food. If you're on the hunt for breakfast, the slightly more expensive food is immaterial. République is it. Those breakfasts are large and use wonderfully fresh ingredients. Preparation is as good as it could get. Nothing too inventive, mind you, but all very good. All five locations now offer breakfast.

A dinner menu is available, but it's only good. Everything is competently prepared, with good ingredients and the such. Prices are also reasonable, but there are a great many other restaurants in the city at which I think I'd rather have dinner. Still, if you choose to eat here, you won't be wasting your money. Their paninis are very strong and their soup special is usually quite tasty.

The real attraction for me is the coffee and desserts. They have some of the best desserts in Montreal. Chocolate cake, mousse, tiramisu, and a wide variety of cheesecakes combine to provide a selection that is almost without peer in the whole of the city. The coffee is also excellent. It's consistently among the best I drink when visiting, and I drink a lot of coffee when visiting. Cappuccinos are perfectly steamed, with a delicate foam that tickles the lips. The roast is nice and dark. They also have a wide selection of liqueurs which can be mixed to give you a real late-night warm up during the cold winters.

For breakfast, Café République is very good. If I lived in Montreal I'm sure I would become a frequent visitor. Dinner is good. But the coffee, oh the coffee and the cake. Those are excellent. If you find yourself in the area, make sure to stop in for a cappuccino and a cheesecake. You will not be disappointed.

Since writing my review, I've read a number of horror stories about varying quality between the locations. The bulk of my experiences were at the Peel location and the St. Catherine location. I never found either place to be anything but good.

Café République: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$40(C)

MONTRÉAL, QC H3B 2T6, Canada

MONTRÉAL, QC H2X 1Z7, Canada


MONTRÉAL, QC H3G 2B2, Canada

MONTRÉAL, QC H2X 2T6, Canada

Breakfast: Daily 7:00am to 11:30am
Dinner: Daily 7:00am to 1:00am