Fusion Food Done Right at North in Providence, RI
The Dan Dan Noodles ($11) are a must-order at North, the 30-seater box tucked into a quiet corner of Providence's mostly Italian Federal Hill neighborhood. They're nothing like the Sichuan original, except for their ultra-savory depth that's a little hot and tangy on the back end, a flavor that can only be from fermented chiles. Most of that effect comes in the form of an addictive heady broth that you slurp from a tinny Chinese soup spoon. The rest of the bowl consists of chewy, nubby Korean rice cakes (arguably, one of the world's greatest textures), delicate squid rings, goat meat cooked until it's so tender that it practically disappears into the liquid, fried shallots, lots of black pepper, and lots of fresh cilantro.
The dish is the best example of what can generously be described as Asian fusion, a much-maligned term that's got a new life at a place like North, where the kitchen doesn't just bend rules, but breaks them entirely, confidently, and incredibly skillfully.
Same goes for the other cephalopod feature, the Charred Squid and Grits ($12), which strays about as far from the Low Country classic as you can get while still paying homage to the basic concept: smoky seafood meets nutty-rich corn. The rings and tentacles taste like they've soaked up the best flavor a grill can offer while maintaining clean ocean brininess and a remarkably delicate texture. Grits are packed into triangle wedges and fried up crisp. Other corn-like elements include snappy pickled kernels and hominy nuggets that are nice to chew on. And then the flavors take a curious but delicious turn towards Latin cuisine with green chiles and crumbles of salty cotija cheese.
My other favorite of the six plates we tried (I'd skip the Hidden Oysters, Crispy Dumplings and Fall Squash, and maybe even the Warm Apple-Gooseberry-Creme Fraiche mash-up dessert) was the so-called Spicy Cauliflower, in Various Forms ($9). The crispy florets, attractively in white and purple, match up with more fried shallots and cubes of fried Shan tofu, a Burmese inspiration that replaces soy milk with chickpeas. Instead of being jiggly and silky-smooth, the pieces are rich and plush. Roasted lemon and coconut milk drizzled over the top present as bright and rich but not sharp—think of it as the perfect dressing on a perfect salad.
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Senior Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.