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

Monday, August 27, 2007

REVIEW: The Peel Pub- ** / $

The Peel Pub is a popular dining location for tourists in Montreal. With almost any tourist package you would receive coupons for free breakfasts. These breakfasts consist of some kind of toast, two eggs, and bacon or sausage. A pretty good deal for a free coupon. Unfortunately, past that is where the problems begin.

The Peel Pub used to be on, get this, Peel Street, or Rue Peel. It changed locations about a year back, which confused the hell out of me on my most recent visit. Unlike before, it’s no longer underground, which means light actually gets inside. The inside is all pub. This place is a sports bar through and through, and is backed up by somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,370 televisions. They show the widest variety of sports I’ve ever seen in a bar. One visit I saw soccer from God-knows-where on one television with figure skating on another. They are an equal opportunity sports bar, to be sure. Other than that, the décor is neither good nor bad.

Service is a sore spot for me and my entourage. It has been great at times and yet other times utterly abysmal. I wonder if, upon presentation of our free-breakfast coupons, they just immediately relegate us to a status one step above a bum. This is entirely unacceptable. A free breakfast is not worth being treated like dirt. Moreover, not included with the breakfast is any sort of drink. The cappuccino was crap and the serving of orange juice we received for $2(C) was far too small. We would have to spend six dollars or more on OJ alone to feel satisfied.

Breakfast out and it’s decent. Nothing special, but at least it’s edible. And here’s a tip, in Montreal, they DO NOT know what eggs-over-hard is. If you want the yolks broken, ask for that. The juice is alright, and everything is cooked competently. I also can’t argue with the cheap prices for most breakfast items. Still, the horrid service is inexcusable. As a bar, the Peel Pub excels. Their drink menu is vast, with over forty varieties of beer in bottle and about ten beers on tap. Combined with the cheap dinner menu, I can only imagine that this would be a delightful place to have drinks and watch the game. But as a restaurant and breakfast place, The Peel Pub is barely adequate.

The Peel Pub: **
Price range for two: $10-$20(C)

The Peel Pub
1196, Peel Street
Montreal, Qc

Breakfast: Daily 7am to 11:30am
Lunch & Dinner: Daily 7am to 2am

Sunday, August 26, 2007

REVIEW: Cafe Nuovo- ***1/2 / $$$$

I had initially heard of Cafe Nuovo because of the desserts. Later, I would hear other things, but for the most part, people raved about the desserts. After finally going a few times, pretty much everything I heard was confirmed.

Nuovo is a notorious haunt for Waterfire-zombies and businessmen getting blasted. While I didn't witness any zombies on my trips, the business crowd was in full force. Unfortunately for Nuovo, this crowd causes a lot of noise during peak hours that undoubtedly annoy other patrons. It certainly annoyed me. One of the poor wait staff was charged with handling a table-full of them. Judging from the diners, as they got drunker, she got more attractive.

The restaurant's ambiance is very nice. I loved the high-backed chairs. The lighting is romantic. And tables are perfectly dressed. It had a casual trendiness that wasn't overpowering, just... chic. Something about the design hasn't aged well, though. It seems too 1990's modern. Service is beyond fast. Wait staff is a well-oiled machine with few hiccups. They apologized for the long wait and I didn't know what they meant. I had been sitting for no more than three minutes before I was inundated with wait staff. I had heard that the staff is primarily male. I saw a number of women, but they were treated strangely. At times, the men would kind of hijack tables from the women, much to the visible annoyance of the women. Very odd.

The menu is good. I liked the play of certain styles and ingredients, but the success of that play is spotty. Some Asian-influenced dishes, such as the Szechuan Surf & Turf, are so heavy on the salt as to nearly overpower the dish. Prices are odd. The adequate crab cake costs an eye-popping $13, but the filet is a very reasonable $31. I was somewhat disappointed in the selection. There was some grilled pizza that did not belong on the menu. It was tossed on as though paying homage to the city Nuovo calls home. Don't bother. People can get pizza elsewhere. Give me something new. And really, that was the biggest complaint. Nothing new. Food presentation is glorious from beginning to end, but it's covering up food that uses fusion to further hide blasé recipes.

The wine list is very good, but expensive. Some barely adequate vintages carried insane prices. A good example is Opus One, which is everywhere. Most other places carry it in the $200 range. Here, it's nearly $300. They had some affordable wines listed, but not many, and only two bottles go below $30. I've been warned that the wines are aimed at the business crowd, for when you have the expense account card with which to splurge. I agree with this assessment. Moreover, my personal rule of thumb to determine a crap sommelier, whether Opus One is the priciest wine on the list, is just barely overcome with only four bottles more expensive, and by less than $20.

Now to the good stuff, the desserts. Stunning presentation and inventiveness give you art when you expect crème brûlée. And at $9 each, they're an absolute bargain. Baked Alaska? Hooyah! Mousse? Badaboom! I can't recommend the food completely, but the desserts are impossible to not recommend. As for other aspects of the night's conclusion, my cappuccino was the largest I've ever gotten and pretty good. Tea selection is pathetic. They have a mind-boggling five varieties. Sugar comes in the form of a jar of flavored and colored rock candy. Nice touch. And that's a good analogy for all of Nuovo. Food that takes a back seat to style. Not too much of a back seat, but noticeable. Even the desserts, presented wonderfully, are all rather basic in inception. They makes an attempt, but Al Forno still has the best desserts in town. Nuovo succeeds, surely, but more as an exercise in style over substance.

UPDATE 5/22/2009: I have had a number of very positive experiences at Nuovo that do much to change my initial perceptions of the food. The fusion food that's there is still too salty, but the menu overall is richer and less gimmicky. I'll add some photos shortly, but until then, I'm adding half of a star. The reason for going is still to experience the desserts, but dinner definitely won't disappoint.

Cafe Nuovo: ***1/2
Price range for two: $40-$100

Cafe Nuovo
One Citizens Plaza
Providence, RI. 02903

Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:30am to 3:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Thursday 5:00pm to 10:30pm
Friday and Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm
Open Sundays for Waterfire

Saturday, August 25, 2007

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

I fell in love with CAV. The dining area is large, with plenty of seating, so waits are usually short, if at all. The dining area is decorated like Charles Foster Kane's dreams, with loads of antiques, and pieces of art from the four corners of the globe.

While lunch is a treat, and a really good deal, nighttime meals are the star. During the summer, you can sit outside in the small courtyard that houses Jerry's Art Supply and Framing. The small area exudes a quiet Bohemia that isn't nearly as pretentious as Thayer Street. As such, the clientèle isn't as young and trendy as many of the places in Providence. Instead, it's replaced by a well lived, older group in their 30's-50's. If you didn't know, this is a good thing. The random waves of 20-somethings that ramble around Thayer street and the surrounding area are thankfully far away. Probably attracted by the nearby Club Ultra and Snookers.

If you choose to sit inside, you're treated to a dining area that literally glitters. Small lights and candles illuminate the area and all its artistic wonders. It can only be described as ethereal. The staff is young, but not too young, and boy howdy are they friendly and attentive. It can get hairy, strangely, when large groups of people show up out of nowhere. I've experienced this three times, and the staff then gets overloaded. I can only assume it's commonly uncommon... or something.

Their appetizers are impressive. The Pizza St. Donato is a personal favorite. The gorgonzola isn't overpowering, which is always nice to taste. Their crab cakes and bruschetta are delicious, but the crab cake is a bit pricey at $13. It's more than made up for with the prices on the entrees. CAV's entrees are some of the strongest in Providence. The delectably sweet and savory Poulet aux Poires (chicken with pears) and Shrimp Scampy in vodka butter sauce are really fantastic. And for what CAV is, the prices are very reasonable. The available prix fixe menu is a good deal at $17, but underwhelming, and appears to be aimed at bargain gourmets who like their food good and bland. All sections in account, the menu is rather limited. I would like to see more specials and all-around more spontaneity coming out of the kitchen. The wild and crazy nature of the restaurant cries out for random amuses-bouche to be served.

Their dessert offerings are not as good as their dinner and lunch offerings, but that's barely a complaint. They change frequently enough and include things like the mind-blowing chocolate cake/tort/thing, served with house-made meringues, and an interesting coconut sorbet served in the coconut shell. Try their biscotti. I don't think it's made there, but it's some of the best I've had. I really need to find out where they get it.

CAV also offers a Sunday Brunch that's kinda' blah. Sunday brunch is supposed to be a buffet or some other interpretation of the "eat till you puke" ethos. The food is well-priced and very, very tasty, but it's still just breakfast. They don't answer the ever-important question "why here?" Why should I go to CAV instead of, say, Bickford's, where it's breakfast anytime? I guess the aforementioned lack of youthful morons and the always pleasurable atmosphere somewhat answer that question, but not totally. CAV's brilliance just doesn't carry over to breakfast.

Still, CAV would need a far greater transgression than bland breakfast to dull their grand lunch and dinner. It is a wonder of Providence and all of New England. Restaurants in New York that charge twice the price don't offer as much. CAV is, without doubt, one of the best.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Top of Old Latte, All Covered in Foam.

After a post awhile back about two coffees, Tango Java and and Sumatran Blue Batak, it hit me. I hadn't given brewing directions. You can't just say "Oh, this is good coffee" and not specify how you mean it's good coffee. If anything, I left out the most important part.

Coffee is a personal obsession. My beautiful counterpart shares a similar obsession with tea... philistine... but we won't hold that against her. The single most important aspect is not the coffee, but the brewing. Pretty much all available whole-bean coffees are good. As long as you buy Arabica, which is pretty much the only kind available, you're safe. (A note on Arabica. The two kinds of widely available beans are called Arabica and Robusto. Robusto is more bitter, doesn't have as strong a coffee flavor, and has significantly more caffeine in it. It's looked down upon in many areas of the world, but I feel it has gotten a bum rap. There are many European blends that use both Arabica and Robusto to achieve unique flavors.)

So brewing is the most important part. And what is brewing but water? SO! The most important part of brewing is the water. If you live in an area with notoriously hard or bad-tasting water, either buy a filter or, you may want to consider, buy big jugs of distilled water at Wal-Mart and use those.

Many people will say the minerals in various kinds of water affect the taste in both positive and negative ways. I actually agree, but still prefer my water as filtered as possible. I prefer to taste the coffee alone, unaffected by characteristics of the water. Water can also have an affect on the strength of the coffee. Water with certain minerals will dissolve through coffee differently. That may prove the be the biggest difference between waters. Consider me on one extreme and bad tap water on the other extreme. Your best bet is to buy a Brita filter or equivalent and make your coffee with that. You always want to start off with cool to cold water.

Second, buy a good coffee machine. You don't have to buy one of those $1,000 espresso machines, but $200 is not insane for a quality machine. My favorite is the recently released Capresso ST600. If you actually care about quality coffee, this is no job for a $9 heap of Chinese plastic from Wal*Mart.

Finally, back to the actual beans. Both of those coffees are very mild, which I've always loved. But they won't go well in lattes or cappuccinos. They're so mild the flavor is kind of lost. If you make your cappu-lattes very dark, the flavor will be fine, but if you add a shot of espresso to a full cup of steamed milk, you might as well just drink coffee milk. The Blue Batak gave me one of the best macchiatos I've ever had.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Wrath of Grapes.

There are a few things about restaurants lately that I truly hate. One of them is tiramisu. I freaking hate tiramisu. Not because I hate tiramisu, but because I hate tiramisu. It's as though every restaurant thinks that if they just have tiramisu on their God-forsaken menu that it will make it more "exotic." You are not being ethnic! You are not being inventive! Having a dessert with a funny name does not a gourmet restaurant make. Don't even pretend! Get rid of it and replace it with something real, like chocolate cake.

In the same boat as tiramisu at these crappy restaurants is Robert Mondavi's Opus One blended wine. Now, call me a snob, but I've never been all that impressed with blends. I like my cab to actually be a cab, likewise for pinots and merlots. I'm certainly not against the idea of blends, and Opus One is pretty damned good, so it's hard to be against good wine.

Still, Opus One is famous not because it's good wine. It's famous because it's famous. It was more a marketing exercise with a fancy logo, fancy name, and two fancy men associated with it. This marketing exercise has Opus One sold in restaurants that have no place at all in selling good wine. In fact, Opus One has now become a strong metric by which I measure a wine list. Namely, if Opus One is the most expensive wine on the list, it's in all likelihood a shitty list. This metric has yet to be proven wrong.

I've got a news flash for the restaurants that think by having Opus One, with it's fancy name, on your wine list that it will make your restaurant haute cuisine. It doesn't. It's out of place, out of price, and the only people buying it are self-important idiots who fancy themselves gourmets but actually have palates so dull you could fill the bottle with Welche's Grape Juice and there's a possibility they wouldn't notice.

Give it up. You just look ridiculous. If you want to truly impress with desserts, hire a pastry chef. If you want to truly impress with wine, hire a sommelier, or even just someone who knows SOMETHING about wine. You don't even have to hire them for long. Just long enough to give some structure to your offerings and take your restaurant from middling piece of stupidity to something greater.

REVIEW: The Oak Hill Tavern- ***1/2 / $$

The Oak Hill Tavern is one of those local haunts that is populated almost exclusively by people you knew from high school and never really wanted to see again. The dining area is so down-the-pub that it's almost nauseating. This is precisely what major chains like Smokey Bones are desperately trying to recreate when they cover their insides with schlock and shtick.

Like the atrocious Texas Roadhouse, the floor here is covered in the spent peanut shells of the army that has traipsed through over the past few hours. Unlike Texas Roadhouse, this isn't some nauseating gimmick meant to drive home the fact that "this is a real, Texas steakhouse! Huh'yuck!" Flat screen televisions litter the bar area, there's a dart board, and drunk locals yell a lot. Basically, it's a bar. A bar so genuine that it seems almost fake.

Like most local haunts, The Oak Hill Tavern succeeds heavily because it's the only game in town. Unlike most local haunts, The Oak Hill Tavern doesn't rely on this by producing acceptable but otherwise underwhelming food. On the contrary, they may be quietly cooking up some of the best food available in Rhode Island.

The Tavern's purpose as a tavern is evident in the menu. Appetizers are bar fare, such as buffalo wings and french fries. The wings are, um, buffalo, and if a basket of french fries could ever be considered gourmet, it's here. They season them in a way that you can't quite get anywhere else. Of note, their grilled pizza is better than you'd expect. A lot better. In fact, it's pretty good.

The bulk of the menu is standard offerings made special by the seasons and spices used on their meats. Their sandwiches are very good. Burgers are especially tasty. They season their meat very well. But this is all immaterial. The real food at this place is the BBQ. They've been doing it here since the mid-Cretaceous and it shows in a sauce without peer, ribs that are nearly unmatched, and chicken and seafood offerings that are great. Sides are pretty good. I'm a big fan of their baked beans.

Nothing surprising. Nothing inventive. Just very simple, BBQ dishes powered by a sauce and spice recipe that is nearly untouchable. If you're far away, I can't say to make the drive. It's excellent BBQ, but the offerings at Smokey Bones are somewhat comparable, and LJ's BBQ in Pawtucket is excellent as well. But, if you consider yourself a rib connoisseur, you absolutely, positively must make a journey to The Oak Hill Tavern.

The Oak Hill Tavern: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$30

Tuesday through Sunday 3:00pm to 12:00am (Kitchen closes at 10:00pm)
Kitchen closed on Mondays. Bar open.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Other Black Gold.

I just finished watching a documentary called Black Gold. I downloaded it many months ago and have watched it in five minute bursts ever since then. Well, since watching it, I can say that everyone who drinks coffee should watch it. If you don't drink coffee, well, there's a pretty important political message in there, but it takes an hour to get to it. It's easier if I just tell you.


Africa, basically, doesn't need aid. It never did. It needs some help getting on its feet and to be given its fair share of the world trade industry. After that, aid will become unnecessary. Africa will have the fish it needs because it learned how to fish.

If you DO drink coffee, you should watch it to give you a sobering look at as what you drink every, freaking morning starts out. I feel pretty good because as soon as Fair Trade coffees became available in my area, I started buying them. I felt that paying a bit more for quality coffee seemed like the right idea.

Not just for a humanitarian reason, either. It seemed like a good idea for selfish reasons. I knew coffee growers earn very little, so paying them more is smart. If they get paid more, that means they start actually caring about what they produce. They have pride and a vested interest. That means they are more likely to invest greater amounts of work and skill into their part of the chain. If I care enough to pay them a lot, they will care enough to make sure I enjoy what they sell me. I want the best possible product, and that means paying for it.

I think it's a good message, not necessarily a good documentary, but a good message that you can make a difference, without changing your life at all, by merely buying fairly traded coffees. That's easy. Even major grocery chains are beginning to offer Fair Trade coffees.

The movie was recently screened in the UK and the BBC ran a story about it. As is usually the case with evil corporations, they responded to the BBC but declined an interview in the movie. In one sense, I can understand this. They were afraid of words being twisted. And for a documentary with a bias, that's a legitimate fear. Still, they had some serious explaining to do, and they ran away in favor of feeding a prepared, PR line to a reporter.

The representative from Kraft Foods said the "main problems were that farmers did not always get the full market price and that the market price for coffee had been "volatile in recent years", dropping down to 45 cents for 1lb in 2001." He followed by saying that "We buy to the market price and we have to do that because we are a business that operates in the market."

That the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Not only is the market controlled by companies like Kraft, Kraft is easily large enough to sidestep the market if they so chose. They continue in the market because it's beneficial to them and gives them the very excuse they just used, "We're only a business and we're not directly connected to them."

I'm not some humanist wonk who thinks we should be paying them $5 per pound, but paying them what they get paid isn't a humanitarian issue, it's bad business. It's bad for the growers, and most importantly, it's bad for me.

Official Black Gold Website

Thursday, August 16, 2007

REVIEW: Frank & John's From Italy- **** / $

Frank & John's From Italy is the best pizza you can get in Rhode Island. It's that simple. Upon entering, you are struck by the welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere. Both Frank & John are straight off the proverbial boat and their decoration of the main dining room makes you feel like you're sitting in a neighborhood pizza joint in southern Italy. It's the kind of place that makes everyone feel welcome. The Olive Garden may spew that trite line about being there is like being family, well at Frank & John's, you truly feel that.

The menu is loaded with all the expected Italian dishes. Nothing inventive or special, but the sauce is perfect. Italian food lives and dies on its sauce and many, many places will foul it up. Frank & John's is exquisitely spiced and prepared. Their pasta is well-cooked with well-blended cheeses filling them all. I especially like their manicotti and stuffed shells. Their bread is home-made and EXCELLENT. Ask them for a loaf to take home. They have a good drink selection that's beer-oriented. They have a small selection of wines, but nothing to write home about. It's all very affordable with small mark-ups. A note about payment, they accept only cash for both take-out and dine-in. If need be, there's an ATM directly next to the restaurant and one inside.

As usual, the family-friendly theme continues with an excellent soda selection for the kids. Still, the star of the show is their pizza, and what a star it is. They don't have medium, they go straight from small to large, and then to giant. That should give you an idea of the size of the pizzas. They're huge. Hot, spicy, with perfect, hand-made dough, the ingredients all combine to form an orchestra of tastes and texture that is unmatched in Rhode Island. Another treat is to order a white pizza with mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, and whatever else they think would go good on it. I would challenge you to find a better white pizza anywhere on Earth. I want to clarify that this is all traditional pizza. An old-world pie. You will not find anything weird on it like California Pizza, or twists on the concept like Chicago style. Like Lombardi's in New York, this is how pizza is meant to be eaten.

There's only one, real problem. On busy days, such as Friday or Saturday, during the dinner rush, the quality of their food takes a dip as they try and handle the load. It's still good pizza, but not the pizza-nirvana they make on other days. And for someone who's so used to their pizza being perfect, it can be a big let-down. Go during the down times, maybe a late lunch, and you will be smiling a big, Italian smile with every mouth-watering bite.

Frank & John's From Italy: ****
Price range for two: $10-$30;

Frank & John's From Italy
186 Main St
East Greenwich, RI 02818-3828
401-884-9751 (Reservations not accepted)

Monday through Thursday 3:00pm to 9:00pm
Friday through Sunday 3:00pm to 10:00pm

REVIEW: Jim's Deli- **** / $

Jim's Deli is all over the place. Their flagship location of sorts is right on the border between East Greenwich and North Kingstown R.I. I think there are more than the two listed, but no one seems to know. There's really very little to say about the place. It's a deli and a sandwich shop. It's decor is simple. Its chairs are supportive enough. The staff is friendly and service is quick. It can get pretty hairy around the lunch rush, but they usually handle it.

Now for the only part that matters, the food. The sandwiches, almost all of them are AMAZING. Jim's Deli is, easily, the best sandwich shop in Rhode Island. The food is all high quality. The combinations are, for the most part, delicious. This is what lunchtime in the office is all about. Classics such as the Reuben and the Monte Cristo are done flawlessly and, if you order a large, they will likely be the biggest examples of both that you have ever seen.

Other creations are equally delicious, with the spicy Ranchero and Bronx at the top of my list. Oh, and a thing about the names. The signs at the West Bay location were a total pooch-screw. The guy who made them mis-spelled just about everything. The Ranchero is called The Rancho. 'Sandwich Board' is called 'Sandwhich Bord.' These are not complex typos. This guy was barely verbal. Luckily, I think it adds an undeniable charm to the place.

As far as selection goes, you have an absolutely enormous range of choices for sandwiches and calzones, but that's about it. You can get salads, but, c'mon. A salad? This is LUNCH and you're not an Italian supermodel. Eat a sandwich. You can get a selection of sides, including some potato chips and maybe a crappy cookie, but this is obviously not the point to being there. There are sixteen calzones available, plus a make-your-own option, and an eye-poping eighty-six sandwiches, plus make-your-own. The selection is unmatched.

For what you get, I would call the prices a steal. A large sandwich, which would easily constitute two meals, costs nine dollars. They're practically giving their food away. Jim's Deli is the ultimate lunch location. If you are anywhere in the area, I would recommend a pilgrimage to the temple of sandwich very soon.

UPDATE: 9/26/2007
There is now, officially, only one Jim's Deli, the West Bay location. The Middletown location was recently sold to a friend of the owner, and the other locations, such as J's, were at one time associated with the owner but no longer are. So this review now only applies to the Jim's Deli in North Kingstown.

Jim's Deli: ****
Price range for two: $10-$25;

Jim's Deli West Bay
5949 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI. 02852

Jim's Aquidneck Deli
957 West Main Road
Middletown, RI. 02842

Monday through Saturday 8:00am to 8:00pm
Sunday 10:00am to 5:00pm

RECOMMENDATION: Captain Morgan's Private Stock

Captain Morgan has recently started marketing their Private Stock product. I'm not sure how private it can be, since I'm drinking it, but that doesn't change that it's very good. The smell is similar to ordinary Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum, but much lighter. The vanilla scent is more muted, and as with ordinary Captain, none of it reaches your taste buds. The other flavors come out much stronger, since other aspects of the drink don't overpower them. The spice and molasses come out well, and there's a creamy after taste that's really quite impressive.

Considering the price, I paid $26.00 for 750ml, I actually consider it a bargain. It's the only large scale rum that I can stand straight. It's pricey, but a single bottle will actually last longer than a large, regular bottle since you will not want to mix this. It would be wasted in a cocktail. I drink it on the rocks with a splash of water or without.

REVIEW: Tricia's Tropigrille- **** / $$

To think, I lived on or around the tiny island of Jamestown for over a decade and never went to Tricia's Tropigrille even once. I was stunned by the quality of the food and the prices are just amazing. While the prices aren't down as low as, say, TGI Friday's or Olive Garden, they're as close as I've ever seen in a place with such delicious food.

The atmosphere is totally unique. Lots of little touches make you feel tropical, and on a hot summer night the illusion is convincing enough. Importantly, there's nothing there that screams "kitsch," as with the horridly decorated interiors of major chain restaurants that so desperately try to convince you of their genuineness.

The pillow-strewn upstairs lounge feels more like some hookah bar, though. It's an experience, I'll tell you that much, and a joy to eat in. Still, the outside tables are where it's at. As night falls, it can get problematic if the wind is moving too fast. It can also be problematic if it's not moving at all. It gives the mosquitoes a chance to eat you alive.

Service was fast and friendly. Not very professional, but a relaxed atmosphere is a nice break from the professionalism of Providence eateries. The drinks are enormous and deliciously like candy, being loaded with fruity flavors. The large outside bar area confirms that drinks are a big money-maker for this place, but their size, quality, and price reveals it to not consider itself some happenin' night spot able to charge retarded prices for small drinks.

Appetizers are so large as to constitute meals unto themselves. The conch stuffies are the biggest I've ever seen... and you get TWO of them. Oh, and by the way, they're also fantastic. Like everything, they come with fruit mixed in and it adds a pleasant new angle on the taste.

The mixed grille gives you a wide selection from the kitchen (for only $20), and fun entrees like Chicken and "Barnacles," and the Hawaii Five-O never fail to satisfy. A few gaffs include a bean dip served cold, pizza that seems totally out of place, and bland quesadillas. In general, the menu is incredible strong for such a small eatery, and especially one with such great prices.

Closing touches are sure to entertain. The dessert "message in a bottle" is literally a message in a bottle. The dessert menu comes out rolled into a sand-filled beer bottle. Desserts are simple, but cheap-cheap-cheap and sinfully good in their simplicity. The Chocolate Treasure and Chocolate Chip Wreck are ooie-gooie, warm, large, and just freakin' good. Coffee options are limited, but are all well done.

Tricia's Tropigrille offers flavors like nowhere else in Rhode Island for prices to make you smile. It's hours become limited during the winter, and the outside is, understandable, shut down. So make the trip during the summer while you can. You won't be disappointed.

Because of fluctuating crowds, hours aren't set in stone. The hours listed are the earliest they will close. To find if they're still open, make sure to call ahead if you are dining late or if it's late in the season. They usually close on Tuesday after Labor Day, and are not open for lunch on Wednesday after Columbus Day.

Tricia's Tropigrille: ****
Price range for two: $25-$50;

Tricia's Tropigrille
14 Narragansett Ave
Jamestown, RI 02835
401-423-1490 (Reservations not accepted, call-ahead accepted)

Tuesday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:00pm
Friday through Sunday 11:30am to 10:00pm
Winter (After Columbus day)-
Wednesday 4:00pm to 9:00pm
Thursday 11:30am to 9:00pm
Friday through Sunday 11:30am to 10:00pm

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Did You Know I'm a Geek?

I just got a 33 on the "Web 2.0 or Star Wars Character" test. I swear to god I actually have a life.

Monday, August 13, 2007

REVIEW: The Coast Guard House- *** / $$$

The Coast Guard House is a tough place to review. It's got so much charm that often middling food is overshadowed by eminently friendly service, architecture, character, and sights. It's places like this that help me see why guides such as The Michelin and the Gault Milleau only review based on the food and not on other aspects, such as AAA or Frommer's.

The Coast Guard House is set in, get this, a coast guard house. A real one. It was built in 1888 as a life-saving station to go along with Narragansett's status as a resort destination. The archway known as The Towers is all that remains of this bygone era, being the last remnant of the once mighty casino which had a weird penchant for burning down. The third time it went down, they just gave up.

Arriving, situated ON the water, with cool sea breezes sending waves of salty air dancing across your cheeks, the relics of 19th century Rhode Island towering above you, and the calls of sea gulls adding an impromptu soundtrack to your entrance, the Coast Guard House impresses without even having to do anything. On busy summer nights, this impression can be ruined by the unending waves of loud people, cars, and boats. But come on a cool night in the summer, or after the tourist season has passed, and prepare to be just blown away.

Finally entering the dining area does nothing to dampen your impression (This doesn't include The Deck which is mentioned in the note). The bar area is wide and luxurious. Flat screen televisions abound for game nights, showing that the management holds no sense of self-importance. They want customers. Service has always been eager, pleasant, and artfully danced the line between chattiness and professionalism. Table dress is excellent and our waiter once even commented that our silverware wasn't "acceptable" and whisked some of it away for new.

And now for what the night is all about, the view. The view is unparalleled almost anywhere in the world. During sundown, the sky lights up with all manner of colors and shades. Sea gulls drift in the wind. Water crashes on the rocks below. And as night settles in, lights begin to twinkle and dance on the Narragansett shore, Newport becomes visible in the distance, and the periodic flash of the Jamestown lighthouse makes itself known.

Unfortunately, the food does not match the view, the location, or the atmosphere. The Coast Guard House is an example of what can happen when grand ambitions are either unfocused or backed up with a kitchen that just can't handle it. Presentations are always well done, but the quality of preparation can really suffer. One night, the diver scallops can be large and perfectly prepared, and another night be overdone and gritty. Steaks are a real crap shoot. The clam chowder comes in an incredibly impressive bowl, but lacks any chunks. There is no potato and one bowl had no clam in it. It comes across as more of a bisque. For what it is, it's very good, but I wanted clam chowder.

Difficult-to-cook fish steaks are also dodgey, depending on who's in the kitchen or how burdened the place is. Crab cakes are served with almost no aioli, apparently to be artistic. Sometimes, they're excellent, other times they're greasy and over-cooked. A real star is the stuffed lobster, which, possibly because it's so heavily pre-prepared, is always well done. A real knock against the menu is its total lack of variety. It does not venture much into continental and the heavily seafood bias leaves those who don't like seafood are limited to, pretty much, steak.

Desserts are usually good, but their star, the Black Oyster, varies in quality and preparation with the rest of the menu. Sometimes the mousse bombe in the middle of the wafer "shell" is shaped poorly and the mousse is dry. Other times, it's perfectly round with scrumptious mousse. Orange creme brulee is dee-lish. Coffee is interesting. I ordered a cappuccino and got the smallest cup-o-cheeno I've ever gotten. It was only slightly larger than your average espresso. Nothing against Euro-style, but at over six feet tall and 220 pounds, I need more caffeine than that.

Everything taken into account, there is nothing about The Coast Guard house that is bad. It's all adequate to excellent. But the wildly varying quality levels and preparation inflict a big hit on the overall experience. I certainly recommend it to anyone in the area, and for the experience, I'd even say it's worth a drive. But only if they can tighten up their kitchen, recipes, preparation, and expand the menu will The Coast Guard House match its atmosphere with its food.

NOTE: The Coast Guard House also has The Deck. The Deck is used exclusively for the summer tourist season and is open-air. It takes up the bulk of the roof and has ample first-come-first-serve seating. It's menu is cheap and is limited to traditional, Rhode Island seafood such as clam cakes and chowder. The food is good, but it's real intention is as an al fresco bar for tourists. The food is decent and cheap, but the drinks are the real money-maker for them and they cost more than in the house proper.

The Coast Guard House: ***
Price range for two: $25-$65

The Coast Guard House
40 Ocean Rd
Narragansett, RI 02882-1397
401-789-0700 (Reservations accepted)

Brunch: Sunday 10:00am to 2:00pm
Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:30am to 3:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Thursday 5:00pm-10:00pm, Friday and Saturday 5:00pm-11:00pm, Sunday 4pm-10pm

Saturday, August 11, 2007

While On The Subject...

And while I'm on the subject of coffee, here's a must-read for every coffee-"loving" American who thinks Starbucks is the pinnacle of coffee culture. I disagree with him on one thing, though. It is actually O-K to drink espresso with milk in it after 10am. The coffee gods will not smite you.

ALERT: Good coffee.

Anyone on the lookout for a good coffee should check out the Sumatran Blue Batak coffee currently available at Whole Foods. I love their roast and it results in a deliciously mild coffee that goes perfectly in an espresso or macchiato. The Mocha Java blend from Allegro is also worth a look.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Review: Chez La Mere Michel- ***** / $$$$$

Montreal is well known for having some fantastic restaurants. Reviews by Zagat, AAA, and Frommer's can't seem to lavish enough praise onto eateries such as the casino-anchored Nuances, the brilliance of Toqué!, or the inventiveness of Le Chevre. The worthiness of such praise notwithstanding, they're all missing a gem which left me giddy. Chez La Mere Michele is, currently, my favorite restaurant in Montreal.

You don't get that impression, initially. Nestled in an old house on a remarkably quiet road, there was no fancy architecture to warn me of what lay inside. It even had its menu in an aged, wooden box outside to tempt walkers-by. I, in my usual street clothes, interested by the French-inental cuisine inside, wandered in.

There is a coat check-in area, which leads to a maître d', and finally the dining area. The dining area is glorious. Flawless table dress, sumptuous lighting choices, and decorative touches that are so genuine, so hard to find elsewhere, that I would dare you to find a nicer dining area outside of Versailles. I don't consider this an exaggeration.

My dinner partner and I were greeted warmly, with flawless panache the waiter led us to our table. Only after sitting down did I realize how wonderful this whole scenario was. He did not judge, or at least he hid any semblance of it, and sat us with nary a look. We looked around at the other diners, and sitting in our street clothes, realized how horribly out of place we were. This was a very nice place. The professionalism and utter tact of the waiter was exemplified by how he did not place us in some far-off corner, away from other guests, or turn us away. The menu placed outside was not some off-handed gesture. They meant it. You CAN just walk in. Whether you feel out of place or not, I guess that's your problem.

Without a hiccup, he sat us, and with the flourishes of a classically trained waiter, he gave us our menus, the specials, and off he went. I was so impressed with the service. Speechless. Speechless about covers my initial feelings. Every move, every word, every stance was perfectly chosen. As our appetizers came out, that this was a traditional restaurant was further confirmed, when he brought out a serving tray loaded with various food stuffs and he commenced preparing our salads and appetizers by the table. As per the traditional blueprint, the waiter was a part of the establishment; critical to its operation and immensely skilled.

The dinner breads were wonderful and freshly cooked, and by the gods, they gave us butter. Living down in uber-hip Providence has made something as simple as getting butter, as opposed to some shallow dish of oil and spice, a treat. My dining partner ordered the Swiss cheese souffle which was, for her, nearly beyond words. Airy, crispy, creamy. The textures and flavors danced a jig all over our palates. I ordered a crab cake special which was, sigh, almost without peer. It was the best crab cake I have ever eaten. I've had some excellent crab cakes in Rhode Island, but thanks to the precedent set by Baltimore, American crab cakes are almost always soft. I like my crab cakes with a crisp and a crunch to their outside that I just can't get here. This cake had it. Chunks of fresh crab meat mixed with some powerful spices, and voila, Captain Planet.

For entrees, we both couldn't resist a filet mignon with bernaise sauce. I so rarely can find bernaise sauce on filets, nowadays. It's so frequently some weird concoction of butter, or spices, or something involving a wine reduction sauce. Give me bernaise! And boy did they. They gave me the best bernaise I've ever had. It was thick, exploding with tarragon, and slowly melted into a thinner sauce over the heat of the steak. Combined with a perfectly(!) cooked filet, it was the best filet mignon I've ever had. It came with a vegetable arrangement that was, as with everything else, perfectly cooked. None of this blanched nonsense that's so popular. These vegetables were COOKED. Steamed, with just a little bit of snap left to them.

Desserts were a frozen mousse for my partner and an orange rum tart for me. The frozen mousse was unique and delicious. Call me a traditionalist, though, for I prefer my mousse upright and unfrozen. My tart was a bit of a disappointment. The rum and oranges conspired to give the tart an overpowering taste which squelched the divine custard underneath. After scraping off some of the rum-soaked oranges so only a couple remained, the excellence of the creaminess below was able to come out and I think wistfully of it now.

As with any restaurant about which I actually dream, especially one with French cuisine, Chez la Mere Michel must be compared to Basil's. And there is some give and take between the two. Michel's has a wider and more inventive selection of entrees, but the continental cuisine available at Basil's offers a wider selection of tastes. The quality of the two is generally a wash, but Michel's filet was undeniably better. Appetizers such as the cheese souffle collide head-on with Basil's fantastic fettuccine alfredo and stuffed artichokes. In only one area does a winner emerge completely; Basil's wine list is better.

Still, the magnificence of the dining area, the perfect professionalism of the waiter, the mind-blowing filet, and the completeness of the rest of the package push Chez la Mere Michel into a small lead. The praise lavished on Toque! may be worth it. The inventiveness of Le Chevre is undeniable. And the entrees at Michel's are a bit traditional. But when traditional is done so well, and traditional is traditional because it's frequently hard to do that, there's nothing quite like it. If you find yourself anywhere near Montreal, forget all others. Go to Chez la Mere Michel.

Chez la Mere Michel: *****
Price range for two: $100+(C) $100+(US)

1209 Rue Guy
Montreal, Quebec
H3H 2K5
514-934-0473 (Reservations recommended)

Lunch: Tuesday through Friday 12:00-2:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Saturday 5:30-10:30pm

REVIEW: Emilio's Bakery- **** / $

I have a hard time putting my love for Emilio's to words. So much of what they are is perfect. The quality, the recipes, sigh. I'm drooling as I write this.

Emilio's is generally a take-out kind of place. They have small tables in the quaintly decorated interior. You can sit down and enjoy a cup of decent coffee with the utterly fantastic desserts. In fact, as far as ambiance goes, it is one of the most European places I've ever been, merely because it's not trying to be. European decor isn't a shtick at Emilio's. It just is.

I'll highlight the stars, which are numerous. The slices of chocolate covered cheesecake are sweet, creamy, and imbued with an incredible cheese flavor. Some of the best I've ever had. The coronets are the best I've ever had. I've never had a coronet that comes even close to the flaky, airy perfection of the dough, or the sweet, creamy decadence of the filling. Their chocolate covered coronets are great, but stick to the traditional ones. They have some of the best éclairs on Earth, with a perfect filling, firm, buttery dough, and rich icing on top sending your mouth into a tizzy.

Their wide selection of cakes and pies are all excellent. The cake is moist and rich. The icings are all rich and not too sweet. Only a few of the cakes spoil the party with bland fillings and too much icing overwhelming the cake. Their wide selection of house-made cookies threatens to turn anyone into a Cookie Monster. Their fruit tarts, cookies, and danishes all cry out to be gobbled down. Unfortunately, some of their cookies are NOT house made, which seems odd in a bakery with such wide offerings. These are pretty standard butter cookies, but can't hold a candle to the flavor of the house-made butter cookies.

For pastries and cakes, I always, without hesitation, make the trip to Emilio's. Their prices are just this side of insanely cheap. You can walk away with three more inches on your waistline in a box for under $20. Some other bakeries compete in price, or in quality, but never the two combined. Emilio's is the killer combination of both that leaves everyone else wanting.

UPDATE 3/19/09: I've eliminated a star from the review. Not because the quality went down, but because I wrote this review years ago for another website and I think I was too much of a cheerleader. The bakery is not without problems, such as cake that is too dry, and as such a five-star review denoting perfection is unwarranted.

Emilio's Bakery: ****
Price range for two: $5-$20

287 Legris Ave
West Warwick, RI 02893-2905

Tuesday through Sunday: 8:00am to 8:00pm

Thursday, August 9, 2007

REVIEW: Feast or Famine- **** / $$

Feast or Famine has three locations, including a location on Mineral Spring Ave. in North Providence that specializes in take-out. I drove past the take-out location on one starving night, looking for something, ANYTHING, that wasn't fast food. I found Feast or Famine and was utterly dismayed to learn that a frozen pipe explosion early in the winter had rendered the location closed.

Luckily, they had a sign telling me about their location on Park Ave. in Cranston. I went. I ate. I loved. Feast or Famine is a gem to which I go once a month. None of the places have really stunning architecture, but they're attractive and comfy enough. The Warren location is easily the prettiest and a very nice place to have a meal. The Cranston location is right next to a Carvel where you can get some dessert (more on that later), and the North Providence location has a few tables, and during the day the busy corner on Mineral Spring provides a good view during lunch.

Service has always been friendly and quick. There's no sense of rigid professionalism, which is usually nice, since it frees the wait staff to be chatty and conversational. I like this. I had a waiter spill a tray of sodas on me. I found it funny and the event has befriended me the entire Cranston location.

Sometimes on slow days they give you crappy dinner bread, but that's one of only three complaints. Actually, not only is the dinner bread bad, they insist on giving you a small bowl of olive oil, as is trendy these days, and NO BUTTER. Carrabbas is able to pull off the olive-oil-thing, but that's because they pile in a blob of spices. Here, all they give you is olive oil and red pepper seeds. GIVE ME BUTTER!

So they did. :-D

Appetizers are headlined by chef/owner David Sepulveda's take on garlic bread. It eases you into his approach of wood-firing just about everything. It's thin, crispy, with a light topping of cheeses and garlic. It comes with three sauces. It is utterly fantastic. I mean, drop what you're doing and go get some.

The rest of the menu is backed by a strong selection of pastas and sandwiches. His sauces are all very strong, save for the pink vodka sauce. It's not very pink and it's not very vodka. The wood-fired pizzas are the star, though, and they are truly wonderful. While Al Forno's margarita pizza may be a bit tastier, their sauce is oh-so-delicate, it's twice the price. And Al Forno can't even touch the deliciously wide selection available here. Also, the North Providence location is so small that they grille the pizzas at the Warren and Cranston locations and drive them over, thus making them less-crispy as the fresh ones at the other locations.

A restaurant that feeds you as well as here for such little money is rare indeed. Sepulveda is still young, and as his skills grow, I can only imagine the food that Feast or Famine is going to produce. As with the dinner bread, not all is perfect. Most importantly, the desserts aren't made in-house and are totally underwhelming after the scrumptious foods they follow. If Feast or Famine nailed down quality issues with a few of the touches and sauces, and at the very least outsourced some interesting desserts, I could only call it one of the best places I've ever eaten.

UPDATE: 11/1/2007
After a number of experiences with the North Providence location, I feel the need to knock off a star for that SINGLE location. While Warren and Cranston still more than deserve the full four stars, North Providence's quality drops precipitously, obviously in the crispness of the bread, but also in the preparation. I've returned home with pizzas literally swimming in olive oil. Sometimes I wonder if the person preparing the pizza kept having micro-seizures as he/she tried to put on toppings. Don't even get me started on the pasta. The lack of skill in the kitchen and, if you don't get them home quickly, the sometimes gummy crusts, eats a full star. It's still the best pizza on Mineral Spring, but nothing special.

UPDATE: 11/10/2008
The North Providence location has been closed and the Cranston location, as of last visit, never appears to be open. I'm not sure what's going on, but it appears that the Warren location is the only one still afloat.

UPDATE: 3/10/2009
It's official. I don't know how long it's been, but all Feast or Famine locations are closed. Kicked the bucket. Out of business. It's really sad because their garlic bread was so bloody good.

Feast or Famine (Cranston & Warren): ****
Feast or Famine (North Providence): ***
Price range for two: $20-$40

Feast or Famine
1099 Park Ave
Cranston, RI 02910
401-383-7171 (No reservations)
Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:30pm.
Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 10:30pm.

Feast or Famine
2220 Mineral Spring Ave.
North Providence
401-349-0452 (No reservations)
Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:30pm.
Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 10:30pm.

Feast Or Famine
495 Main Street
Warren, RI 02885
401-289-0422 (No reservations)
Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:30pm.
Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 10:30pm.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

How Do I Love Cheese? Let Me Count The Whey.

Cheese is one of the great foods to be eaten that is, by and large, ignored by Americans. Don't get me wrong. We love cheese, but we don't love cheese.

When someone from Italy or France says cheese, they refer to a massive family of soft, hard, goat's, cow's, dessert, or dinner cheeses. When an American says cheese, they mean Cheddar or American or some yellow-orange, viscous fluid that's poured over fries or chips. The American palate for cheese sucks.

I must admit, I may be writing this lament a bit late, what with advancements made by things like the Food Channel. And I do credit the Food Channel with this. I think its creation has fostered a wave of culinary exploration not seen in America since the soldiers brought back foods from Europe after the war. Where the cheese aisle in my local grocery store once shelved nothing but Cracker Barrel in all its four varieties, and a wide selection of various cheddars, it has expanded to offer over one hundred different cheeses from all over the globe.

I can tell that the mass of those who enter the store never explore the cheese section fully, but they're selling enough to warrant the large display. I think this is great. I know that America isn't the worst offender when it comes to culinary isolationism, but we're bad in just about every other way. We need to make ourselves look good to other countries somehow. We drive around in our rolling boats, speak only one language, can't dress to save our lives, and can, I think, be blamed for the 1980's. By turning our entire country into a land of gourmets, we'll finally have something to laugh about when some Frenchie refuses to eat a taco.

REVIEW: Basil's: ****1/2 $$$$

There is no aspect on which I can focus. No element of the food. No characteristic of the ambiance. Basil's is perfect. Every trip is a journey, and every bite a treat.

Dinner is by reservation only, although they will accept walk-ins on non-busy days. Proper attire is not specifically required, but if you don't come so equipped, you'll feel noticeably out-of-place. The dining area is beautiful. Small and cozy, with Mozart or some classical contemporary always playing in the background. Sealed away from the loud, crude bustle of Narragansett beach front, one feels nestled in a fine, Parisian eatery where people do not eat, they dine. Nothing seems fake or tacky. Only genuine decor graces the walls as though this is how the chef would decorate his own dining room for beloved gusts. My dining partner one night disliked the wallpaper, calling it dour. I think it perfectly matches the personality of the restaurant.

The service is THE BEST IN RHODE ISLAND. Steadfast and vigilant, the service maintains an omnipresent but never obtrusive eye over your table. They perfectly execute European service with words, mannerisms, and attention. They aren't crude waiters from Applebees, merely charged with delivering food. They are as versed in cuisine as the chef himself and an integral part of the restaurant. The menu is without weakness. The filet mignon, the crab almondine, the salmon. They are all perfect.

The duck a l'orange may be the best on the East Coast. The wine list is without peer in most of New England. It is the best I have ever seen. The desserts are simple in design, austere in presentation, and flawless in execution. The chocolate mousse may be the best I've had. Old, worldly people come here to escape the crass, noisy reality of the modern world. They hide here to reminisce about trips on the Mauretania, African safaris, Mercedes Torpedo roadsters, and dodging bombs during the Blitz (All actually overheard). Set to Brahms, the stories transport you. This is an old-world restaurant in a time when they are dying.

There are many restaurants which have excellent service, or cuisine, or decor in Rhode Island, but none of them bring all of those together with the vision that Basil's does it. They do it this way because they believe this to be the only way it's done. The prices indicate no pomp or arrogance, yet its food shows the hand of a master who would not be faulted for having them. Basil's is a culinary wonder.

UPDATE 6/5/2009: I eliminated half of a star. Again, as with my edit of the Emilio's Bakery review, it is not because quality went down, it's because I wrote this review years ago and have grown as a reviewer and gourmet. Five stars to me means a place that is not only perfect, but offers something unique. Basil's is perfection but the recipes are what you would expect from French and continental cuisine. I still stand by my statement that Basil's is one of the best restaurants in the southern New England.

Price range for two: $50-$100+

Basil's: ****1/2;

No stars - Utterly Abysmal
* - Bad
** - Edible
*** - Average
**** - Very Good
***** - Excellent

Basil's Restaurant and Lounge
22 Kingstown Rd
Narragansett, RI 02882-3340
401-789-3743 (Reservations recommended)

Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 to 10:00pm

REVIEW: L'Epicureo: *** $$$$

I must admit, I was disappointed at L'Epicureo. Its fame certainly preceded itself, what with the AAA Four-Diamond award. Entering the lobby, the bar area seems well appointed and very classy. I liked the textures and wood used. The whole of the restaurant is well lit but romantic enough. Still, if you want someplace to noozle your loved one, this is not it. The table dress was superb, and service was spot-on.

The classy ambiance was ruined, though, upon entering the dining area. Flowing away in a small enclave is a fountain that I suspect was purchased at Sam's Club for $149.99 and would look more at home in a suburban garden. On the walls are gigantic(!) prints from Italian masters such as Da Vinci and Botticelli. Some may find this interesting or charming. I found it tacky. Those two pimples damage an otherwise well-appointed dining area. The large windows overlooking Westminster Street are especially nice. They give you a wonderful view of the surprisingly eccentric people who roam around Providence.

I got a white bean soup which was luke-warm and serviceable in its taste. My three dinner partners got salads which were... green. For our entrees we received two pork tenderloins on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes, a serving of Carbonara, and slow-roasted Atlantic salmon. The pork was tough and poorly cooked, but was well combined and very tasty with the bed of potatoes. Still, it would have been easy enough to brine the pork instead of merely throwing them on the fire. If it wasn't for the well balanced taste, they would have been unacceptable.

The Carbonara also technically good, but without flair. Still, I guess we should have counted our blessings after the technically abysmal pork. The salmon was also well done, but was nothing more than good salmon. My salmon-loving compatriot didn't even finish it.

For dessert, we ordered the cheesecake for two, two orders of creme brulee, and the chocolate mousse L'Epicureo. Color me impressed by the desserts. The creme brulee had a deep, rich vanilla flavor that was perfectly paired with a crisp biscotti. The sugar on top was paper-thin, though, not delivering the satisfying crunch of breaking through. The mousse was excellent, and the cheesecake was like none other I've had. A deep, powerful cheese flavor.

At first, my mouth rebelled, expecting sweet, but soon I was licking the plate. The only problem was the fried cheesecake, which tasted more like a mozzarella stick. It needed a sweet sauce on top, perhaps caramel or chocolate. I was also the only one at the table to enjoy the cheesecake, so it's obviously not a dessert for everyone. One of my dinner partners expressed a desire to have cheesecake taste of cheesecake and not cream cheese. It's hard to argue with that.

Overall, the portions were decently generous, service was great, and the desserts were fantastic, but the high prices for fair-to-decent food do not a Four Diamond restaurant make. The only aspects of the dinner which were worthy of such a review were the service and the desserts. Everything else was totally, completely, 100% blah.

UPDATE 3/19/2009: This will be old news to most people, but L'Epicureo is no longer. The original chefs/owners have left and started a new eatery, The Troup House, while the old location has morphed into Aspire.

Price range for two: $50-$100

L'Epicureo: ***

No stars - Utterly Abysmal
* - Bad
** - Edible
*** - Average
**** - Very Good
***** - Excellent

Hotel Providence
311 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903
401-521-3333 (Reservations recommended)

Tuesday through Thursday 5:00 to 10:00
Friday and Saturday 5:00 to 11:00
Sunday 4:00 to 9:00

Piano Bar/Lounge Hours
Tuesday through Thursday 4:00 to 11:00 PM
Friday through Sunday 4:00 to 12:00


Welcome to my new blog, The Watery Gourmet. I'll be writing restaurant and general food reviews for Rhode Island and Southern New England in this blog, so check back for all my newest food-based musings and reviews. I also regularly post to the website