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Most Memorable Dishes of the Year
by Bob Mariani
It’s time for a little retrospection to see which dishes and tastes stand out in my mind from the past year— these are a few of the highlights of my dinning experiences in ‘05.
I shall probably never forget Lot 401’s remarkable Steak and Egg, an 8 oz. filet with pomme purée, poached asparagus, bordelaise sauce, and a truffle-fried egg. This is a perfectly grilled, piece of filet mignon you could cut with a butter knife, topped with a truffle-infused fried egg with its eggshell shape in tact and encrusted with— I couldn’t tell what, but it was sensational! You could taste every detail of flavor and each one worked to enhance the other - subtle and at the same time intense.
In the heart of lovely downtown Warren at the Downstairs Bistro of the 2nd Story Theater, I experienced Chef John Michael’s remarkable Maui Pineapple Burger, and if you think you’ve had just about every version of the hamburger there is, try this one. It comes fresh and juicy from the grill, topped with a lightly seared slice of pineapple oozing with fresh sweetness. It’s served on a semi-soft bun and accompanied by some very home-made tasting potato salad.
In the cheese plate department, the real standout in my mind is Bristol’s Persimmon’s Cheese Experience. Chef Speidel’s plate arrives looking a lot like an artist’s pallet, which is just what it turns out to be. Arranged so that you can taste from the very mild and firm cow’s milk cheese to a slightly sharper blue, and then finally to an incredibly intense goat and cow’s milk cheese, this was a miniature masterpiece. In between the mouthfuls of cheese samples were a wide range of dainty accompanying tastes such as figs purée, leechie nuts, and marinated cherries – a cheese-lover’s orgy!
Unforgettable among the many fish entrées I’ve had is Nappa Valley Grille’s Crab-Crusted Cod Loin. It’s a masterful blending of flavors with great nuance and skill. The flaky white cod fish is set upon a bed of black squid ink spatzle and baby spinach that have been cooked to perfection in an exquisite smoked tomato broth. The mingling of the smoky tomato broth with the slightly salty spatzle and the quietly elegant texture of the cod is simply brilliant.
One of the appetizers that sticks with me is Bruce Tillinghast’s of New Rivers’ oysters on-the-half-shell with a totally surprising ginger and raisin topping. Leave to Bruce to find a new way to re-focus an old favorite.
While we’re talking about starters, it’s back to De Wolff’s Tavern in Bristol again for their truly unique lobster popover. Light and airy and split down the middle, it makes a perfect little soup dish for a ladle-full of savory lobster bisque with juicy lobster chunks. I will also never forget Chef Sai’s masterful blending of roasted trout stuffed with chorizo cornbread and served on a bed of creamed spinach sag.
One appetizer I’ll always remember, not because it was especially flavorful, but because it just looked so darn funny, is Bella Vista’s Black Sea Cocktail. It’s a cupful of whole, tomato-red octopi with little round bite-size heads that reminded me of nothing so much as Elmer Fudd’s bald skull. They were slippery and moist and almost as much fun to chew as they were to look at.
I’ve always enjoyed paella, but none so much as the Cheeky Monkey’s in Newport. Every ingredient-- the spicy sausage chunks, the tender scallops, the shrimp, the baby steamed mussels, and the tender lobster meat— each was cooked to its own level of perfection. When added to the rich, spicy red sauce and rice, every mouthful became its own little meal.
For French food, there’s little to equal the fare at Chez Pascal’s on the East Side of Providence. I‘m smitten by their slow roasted duck served with wilted dandelion greens, some intoxicating warm cherries and a deep, rich sour cherry sauce. And who can forget their sautéed Bomster scallops, always fresh from the dock that day in Stonington, Connecticut, cooked to perfection in a brown butter vinaigrette sauce with a wonderfully refreshing combination of tiny mussels, tidbits of bacon and— perhaps, most delightful— dainty slivers of toasted almonds.
For desserts the choices are overwhelming, but I think I’ll have to go back again to Providence’s Lot 401 for their house-made London Bridge, a beautiful slab of intense dark chocolate pate’ with a touch of lemon confit, accompanied by a soda fountain glassful of Grey’s ice cream milk shake. Well, I’m pretty full. How about you? Until next time, then.
Bob Mariani is a Southeastern New England freelance author. Besides his "Your Table is Ready" restaurant reviews found here, he also writes jazz articles on allaboutjazz.com.