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