Friday, August 6, 2010

Four Meals in Providence, Rhode Island

For my first time outside the city since the beginning of May, I went to... Providence, Rhode Island (of course) to meet my brother and parents for a long weekend. As usual, I was tasked with finding worthy restaurants in the area, and any excuse to avoid real work is fine with me.

Providence has a large Portugese community, so we had to find a representative restaurant that would provide plenty of chorizo and clam bounty. Madeira, in East Providence (where much of the Portugese community is located) consistently came up, both online and as recommended by locals.

The place is a huge, multi-floor, peach-colored, many-roomed complex. We sat in the corner of what I assume is the main dining room, but there was also a bar and outdoor seating area on the other side of the restaurant that can handle even the planet's most popular Portugese person's party with panache (alliteration is fun!).

I think our order encompassed the highlights of Portugese cuisine (although no goat). To start, we got a dozen littleneck clams on the half-shell, an order of littlenecks baked in a garlic, olive oil and white wine sauce, plus a massive piece of flaming chorizo. The littlenecks were fresh and briny, while the baked ones were eaten almost instantly. The charred exterior of the chorizo provided a nice counterpoint to the meaty, slightly spicy interior. All of this was washed down with sangria, making for a very good start to our meal.

Each of our mains were generously portioned. I got the "Paelha A Valenciana" (pictured above). The saffron rice was topped with copious shrimp, mussels, squid, crab, fish, chorizo and pork (plus a lobster tail). There was so much that, even shared, we could barely finish half.

My brother got the "Espetade A Albertino I," a 20oz. sirloin served on a massive skewer. He ordered it medium rare, but it looks closer to medium. Either way, it was a nice piece of steak.

My mom got the "Gambas Recheadas," which were shrimp with a seafood stuffing. I only had a bite, but it was very good, tasting (and looking) like there was sweet potatoes in the stuffing. Yet, when we asked about it, our friendly waiter looked at us like we were nuts. Either way, this is a good dish and worth trying.

Finally, my dad got "Carne de Porco Alentejana," or marinated pork with roasted potatoes and littlenecks. Very flavorful, with tender pieces of pork, but also extremely heavy.

If you're craving Portugese food in the Providence area, Madeira is definitely worth checking out (although I hear that the closer you get to Fall River, Mass., the better the Portugese food).

Madeira on Urbanspoon
Madeira Restaurant
288 Warren Avenue
East Providence, RI 02914

Al Forno

One of the places that seems to have left a huge imprint on the local cuisine is Al Forno-- famous for fresh, seasonal Italian food and grilled pizza. I read mixed reviews and heard about excessive waits and poor service, so I figured we could do better and/or less overwhelmingly popular. Unfortunately, that morning, USA Today ran some fluff piece on the best places to eat in the country, with Al Forno being mentioned. That was all the prodding my mother needed and we were soon locked in.

We arrived at Al Forno for an early dinner-- meeting up with a friend of my mom's from college and his wife. The hostess seemed confused about what to do with us, but we were eventually led upstairs to our table. To my surprise, Al Forno was as big, if not bigger than Madeira-- and much more crowded.

A glance at the menu revealed that "native corn" is apparently a huge deal at Al Forno (although we passed on all the dishes utilizing it). We started off with a grilled margherita pizza, which was interesting, but not life-changing. The crust tasted strongly of olive oil, but could have used a little more seasoning, while the pizza was topped with shredded green onions. This confused me. 

As my mom and her college buddy caught up, I noticed he used the word "literally" a lot. This word has become so overused that it is now virtually meaningless, and I had already joked with brother about it earlier that weekend (I won't get into it any more, because I'll sound like more of a jerk than I already do). I whispered to my brother that we should drink every time he said literally-- and we literally needed a second round of drinks after two minutes.

Our waitress seemed well-meaning, but was scatterbrained and ultimately completely worthless. For every round of drinks we ordered, we watched them sit at the bar, waiting to be picked up for 15 minutes at a time (despite the fact that they apparently have a policy of turning tables after two hours). Our mains were fine, but nothing life-changing. Agnollotti and ravioli, though labelled differently, were the exact same. I couldn't detect the rabbit advertised in my agnolotti, and the cheese filled ravioli was much better. Dirty steak, which apparently meant it was cooked on the grill, directly over the coals, was served over garlic mashed potatoes and probably the best dish of the night. The linguine left no impression whatsoever, but the cod cakes were nicely flavored and perfectly fried.

We were commanded to order our desserts with our mains, since they apparently take an extremely long time to make fresh. Whatever. My dad and I decided to share a blueberry tart, but after all the other desserts arrived (including a weak ice cream and brownie sandwich and chocolate cake), our tart was nowhere to be found. The waitress gave a weak apology and removed it from the bill, but it's extremely stupid that they make a big deal about ordering desserts then forget them completely.

Al Forno on Urbanspoon
Al Forno Restaurant 
577 South Main Street
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 273-9760

Sometimes you roll the dice and get lucky. Our first choice, and a Chowhound favorite, Nick's on Broadway, turned out to be closed for a month, so we drove aimlessly around downtown Providence and Federal Hill for almost an hour looking for a restaurant as tensions mounted in our rental car (my family has no problems swearing loudly at each other). Finally, we saw a row of restaurants, one with a giant neon "EAT" sign outside. We certainly wanted to eat, so we parked the car and went inside.

We soon discovered that the place was in fact called Julian's, and, after a five minute wait we had menus in front of us advertising a variety of strange combinations, many vegetarian and vegan friendly, plus a chalkboard of daily specials. To me, the offerings looked like a vegan Shopsin's fantasy (probably an inherent contradiction there). Also, lots of beers were available both bottled and on draft.

For the New Yorkers: this place definitely has a Williamsburg-y vibe (this also applied to the service, which was spacey), with hipsters filling nearly every table. My family may have been the only group in the restaurant without a single tattoo (although I'd have to check with my mom). I knew we were not the least hip people there when I saw an old couple walking out. As soon as the door shut behind them we were alone in our unhipness.

I ordered a Bloody Mary, which was supposedly vegan, but tasted distinctly of Clamato (not my problem, though it was still damn good) while we waited. Our food probably took 45 minutes to arrive, but once it did it was solid. First up was a coconut squash soup off the daily specials. It had a nice consistency and a good amount of heat... a surprisingly successful combination. Much to my dismay, both my mom and I ordered steak and eggs benedict, which turned out to be quite good... especially the Hollandaise, which seemed like it had cheese added, plus a fair amount of rosemary. My brother got the eggs benedict with smoked salmon, which was good, but not a combination I'm really in favor of. I also got a side of potato hash with house-made ham, broccoli and cheddar cheese. The potatoes were crisp and the ham had a great smokey/salty flavor.

Julian's on Urbanspoon
318 Broadway
Providence, RI 02909
(401) 861-1770

According to a local magazine, Julian's serves the second best brunch in Providence, while Cav has the "best." My parents liked Cav better, although my brother and I disagreed. Maybe it's a generational thing, but Cav felt a little stuffy. The restaurant doubles as an antique store, which clearly makes it difficult to seem like anything other than old-fashioned, so choose your brunch location based on the crowd your with.

However, I had no complaints about the food. A crab cake topped with a poached egg over sriracha mayo was full of big, flaky pieces of crab (very little filler here). The sriracha mayo was fine, but after seeing it a million times, it gets old (put some Hollandaise on it instead). Lobster scrambled eggs, like the crab cake, was filled generously with chunky pieces of lobster. I barely remember the french toast, made with what I'm pretty sure was brioche, although I'm pretty sure I liked it, especially with some candied raisins in the mix. Cav's eggs benedict is served on toasted French bread (unlike the thick toast at Julian's), flanked by some weak herb-roasted potatoes and applewood smoked bacon. The Hollandaise was a more traditional version than Julian's, but was also very good. If I had to drink a glass of each one, I'd be totally satisfied (and have excessively high cholesterol). 

Cav on Urbanspoon
Cav Restaurant
14 Imperial Pl
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 751-9164

There's definitely some interesting eats in Providence-- though I missed out on some places I wanted to try, plus some favorites from earlier visits (like Casserta pizza and tons of seafood joints), I look forward to going back. In any event, we ate very well that weekend, and you could do far worse than these four restaurants in a city with many great dining options.


  1. Loved the reviews..thanks so much for the Julians take.. I was planning to stop in on my next visit. Just an FYI...For Portuguese food, you might also try the "Casual Inn" in Bristol..Fantastic!!!
    Thanks again, I have taken notes :)

  2. Glad you liked it. I'll probably be up in the area again this year, so I'll have the chance to try some more places. Will definitely try to check out Casual Inn.