To say that Providence, Rhode Island, has some of the best restaurants in the country is by no means an overstatement. The incredible meals I ate when I lived there (before leaving in 2008) have me yearning perpetually to return. Everyone asks me, how could Providence, a city of less than 175,000 people, have such good restaurants? Though the city hosts the largest campus of the Johnson & Wales culinary empire, I'd say the proliferation of exceptional eateries has more to do with the number of nearby farms (1,219 in the state at the most recent count), all within an hour's drive from the capitol.
These days it's almost a prerequisite for new restaurants in major U.S. cities to espouse some brand of slow food ethic, to the point where "sustainable" and "local" lose their distinguishing tone. Not so in Providence, where chefs cook locally and seasonally out of genuine convenience, and because they want to, infusing their preparations with a passion you can taste.
Here are the five most unforgettable dishes at my top five Providence restaurants.
Grilled Greek Sardine: La Laiterie
Though I hesitate to call La Laiterie my favorite restaurant in the U.S., I can comfortably say there is no restaurant I enjoy more (though Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, comes close). Unlike most ambitious restaurants with rotating menus of exotic meats and strangely-named accompaniments—think smoked beef tongue bruschetta and salads with "torn herbs" and flowers—La Laiterie presents their strange creations matter-of-factly, letting the food speak for itself.
The most memorable dish I've eaten there, and one of the few that has stayed on the menu for years, is the whole fresh sardine, grilled until crispy and served with a charred lemon and black pepper honey glaze. It takes a bit of surgery to eat the thing, requiring the removal of the entire inner bone structure, but the extra effort makes it taste that much sweeter (the honey helps too).
La Laiterie at Farmstead
188 Wayland Avenue, Providence RI 02906 (map) 401-274-7177
Spring Salad: New Rivers
Though I've only heard stories of the Two-Hour Salad at Trellis outside Seattle, I can't imagine it tastes any fresher than the seasonal salads at New Rivers. Squeezed into the middle of an inconspicuous block on the Rhode Island School of Design campus, New Rivers focuses on a limited roster of locally-sourced sea and land animals, but they work their magic most remarkably with simple vegetables. The spring salad—spring lettuces, green peas, crispy parsnip slices, beets—garnished with the requisite "herbs and flowers" and a roasted garlic vinaigrette, lives as vividly in my mind now as it did years ago when I first tried it.
7 Steeple Street, Providence RI 02903 (map) 401-751-0350
Catfish Taco: Red Fez
With nothing more than a wordless sign depicting the restaurant's namesake and a long-outdated MySpace page, the Red Fez has been content to fly under the radar for more than 10 years now. If someone happens to know about it, they've probably been to the upstairs bar for a beer or whiskey, skipping the food menu all together. Best described as American cooking with whispers of French, Moroccan and Caribbean cuisines, the signature dishes are refined but affordable versions of mac 'n' cheese and a pulled pork sandwich.
The best items, however, tend to come from their handwritten chalkboard of daily specials.The fish taco, made from local New England catfish and crusted in cornmeal, was one of the best I've ever eaten. Though it quickly disappeared from the chalkboard several years ago, I still check the web now and then, hoping for its return...
49 Peck Street, Providence RI 02903 (map) 401-272-1212
Beets & Frites: Al Forno
If you've never lived in Providence, Al Forno might be the one restaurant you still know about. Opened in 1980, Al Forno's wide-ranging Italian cuisine has inspired multiple cookbooks and pilgrimages spanning as many state lines. Famed for their grilled pizzas and signature "dirty steak," the best dish on the menu hides near the bottom of the appetizers section, if at all.
Though I only ever ate them once before they disappeared indefinitely from the menu, Al Forno's "Beets & Frites" may be the single most memorable dish I've ever eaten. The roasted beets come topped with ultra thin-cut French fries and a swirl of fresh warm mayonnaise that, when tossed together, become something that resembles a plain old salad. I've tried to recreate this dish at home to no avail, requiring, as it does, impossibly stringy and crunchy frites. Of course, now that I've skipped town, according to the online menu, the beets and frites have returned. Get them while you can.
577 South Main Street, Providence RI 02903 (map) 401-273-9760
Sticky Rice: Sawaddee Thai
While not as refined as, say, Portland's Pok Pok, or as varied and complex as the regional cooking of Los Angeles' best Thai restaurants, Sawaddee does simple Thai recipes better than many restaurants I tried in Thailand. Patrons of NYC's Wondee Siam will know what to expect, both in size and taste, but Sawaddee benefits from its location in a converted home on a quiet residential street behind College Hill. Amongst outstanding renditions of tom kha and chicken with cashew nuts and pineapple, Sawaddee's greatest contribution to Providence dining is their pitch-perfect sticky rice. It's slightly crunchy but soft and gooey enough to form into balls for sopping up fresh garlic sauce, pra ram peanut sauce, or the sweet chili dipping sauce with an order of gai yang chicken. And at $1.50 per order, you won't feel guilty about ordering more than two, or three.
93 Hope Street, Providence RI 02906 (map) 401-831-1122