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