Seated in the main dining room at a fantastic table facing the room I was soon met by my primary server, a friendly young man named Steven and was later greeted by multiple other members of the team – each excellent and extremely knowledgeable of the chef, his menu, and the techniques. In addition to the flawless service, I was additionally impressed by the staff’s willingness to talk about life in Los Angeles, their personal interests, and even the in-house soundtrack (provided that evening from Mathew’s Ipod and featuring Radiohead, Neko Case, and the Decemberists) – as a solo diner it is great to have servers with personality. The menu was explained and my distaste for beef noted before I made the selection to experience the spontaneous chef’s menu of the evening. “The Chef’s tasting usually lasts approximately three and a half hours” said Steven…”excellent” I replied.
Shortly after ordering the meal began as Steven brought out a selection of warm breads from the Kitchen – a French Roll, Bacon Brioche, and Nori Forcaccia. While all were good and it is really difficult to find fault with Brioche, especially with Bacon, I was especially impressed by the Nori Forcaccia and its unique briney Pizza-crust taste and texture – a truly remarkable bread and amongst the best table breads I’ve ever tasted at a restaurant. Served with the bread was a relatively sweet house-butter with sea salt.
Approximately 10 minutes passed before my first amuse of the evening arrived – Chef Cimarusti’s dabble in mg a la Adrià entitled Greyhound and Mojito Ravioli and Gin n' Tonic Cube. Using the now-infamous emulsification technique employed by the likes of Cantu, Andres, and countless others two small raviolis were served on spoons with a small gelee centered between. Instructions were given to eat each bit whole and then to bite the lime. Though not a drinker, I must admit I found this amuse to be a perfect way to open the palate as each item provided a vastly different experience from the sweet berry wash of the Greyhound to the minty lime of the mojito and finally the sharp bitterness of the Gin n’ Tonic. I was additionally amused as the evening progressed as many other diners experienced the dish and reveled in the unique presentation.
The next course was a second collection of amuse bouche – this time with more focus on the savory. Presented on another long plate, Cured Tasmanian Trout, Gougere, Soy and Wasabi Marshmellow, and Carrot Soup with Vadouvan was another rollercoaster of tastes and textures ranging from the meaty succulence of the trout to the smooth cheese of the gougere to the airy spice of the Marshmallow and the woodsy Indian flavor of the Vadouvan. While the gougere certainly did not live up to that of Thomas Keller’s at TFL, the Marshmallow was truly brilliant and simply exploded with flavor.
Starting the mains, my first dish set the tempo for each incredible fish presentation thereafter. Entitled Kanpachi with Soy Creme Fraiche, Crispy Rice Crackers, and Coriander Blossoms the dish was quite simply the most delectable presentation of raw fish I’ve ever experienced – better than that of TFL or Charlie Trotter. Flawlessly fresh fish that melted in the mouth was perfectly balanced in its meatiness by the velvety smooth crème fraiche and contrasted sharply by the rice crackers and ‘scented’ with coriander – remarkable in all ways and generous in portion, a winner by any justification.
A short wait and some chat with the neighboring table – an pleasant elder group amused by my picture taking – brought the second dish of the evening; Uni in a Farm Fresh Egg with Champagne Beurre Blanc, American Caviar, and Brioche croutons. A huge fan of all-things involving poached eggs I was delighted yet skeptical as this dish arrived given a bad experience with Uni (admittedly in Ohio) a few years back, however after the first bite all skepticism was resolved. A wonderfully creamy egg served in the shell and much akin to that at The French Laundry concealed delicate Uni tongues beneath, warm and buttery brioche mixed within, and a healthy scoop of American osetra on top. Despite the caviar and uni, the briny aspects of the dish were well balanced by the buttery brioche and creamy egg plus the slight air of champagne throughout. While not quite as good as Keller’s, this was potentially the second best egg dish I’ve ever experienced.
Savoring my egg, dish three arrived only a few moments after I finished scraping my shell clean. First of the Season Dutch White Asparagus, Maine Lobster, Coral Sauce, and Miner's Lettuce was yet another in the procession of superb dishes and once again amongst my top five of its kind in terms of taste, texture, and quality. Perfectly poached lobster cooked in a manner similar to sous vide was complimented by crunchy asparagus and mildly bitter miner’s lettuce and then accented with Coral Sauce foam. Having experienced Coral sauce only once before, at Alex, I actually preferred chef Cimarusti’s version of the lobster-row based sauce despite the fact that the lobster didn’t quite stand up to Stratta’s incredible European Blue in taste.
Dish four, Halibut with Burdock, Shiso, Lemon, and Sake is apparently a personal favorite of the chef’s and a dish he prepared on Iron Chef in the past. Poached in the same humidity-lock device as the lobster the fish literally fell apart with the touch of a fork and melted on the tongue. Possessing none of the fishy flavor that often plagues Halibut the lemon and burdock were the heaviest accenting flavors while the shiso and sake resided as a bass-note that lingered on the palate after each bite and provided a refreshing minty-bitter contrast. A truly complex dish that likely “isn’t for everyone” I think this dish redefined the generally boring halibut and worked quite well.
Dish five, Foie Gras Saute with Apple Shallot Compote, Applejack Brandy, and Apple Espuma was my first non-fish of the evening and showed off the chef’s talents even further. Though a fan of terrine’s over seared Foie preparations, this dish was excellent and almost served more as a study of apples than as a study of the Foie itself. Well seared foie with some minimal sinew was sharply contrast by the pungent yet sweet Apple-Shallot compote while the Brandy formed a bitter foil that prevented any aspect from being “too sweet” like the version at Gary Danko. I particularly found the Espuma interesting in its airy consistency , but do wish that perhaps there had been something crunchy on the plate for contrast.
Dish six, Pork Belly with Carrot Orange Puree, Pickled Ramps, Mizuna, and Carrot Miso Butter presented a second land-animal intermission in the menu and actually topped the Foie in almost every way. Fatty and succulent the Pork Belly was so tender it was spreadable (akin to that at Gramercy Tavern) and the best I’ve ever tasted. Adding to the experience, the crispy skin added a salty and crisp contrast while the carrot-orange puree had a sweet potato-esque flavor. Finally, the butter with spices added a subtle undertone that balanced the mustardy essence of the Mizuna wonderfully and the pickled ramps…what can I say? I love ramps and these were incredible.
Dish seven and back to the fishes – this time Arctic Char with Sweet Peas, Pea Puree, and Black Truffles - possibly the most ‘simple’ of the fish presentations yet still very effective. This time focusing on pan-searing in simple olive oil, the char was cooked rare with a rich and fatty texture well complimented by smooth and creamy pea puree and pea tendril foam with small shavings of black truffle and truffle butter lending an extra degree of earthiness.
Dish eight, the final of the meats, was a replacement for the night’s beef dish and a wonderful replacement to say the least. Turbot with Ramps, Central Coast Chantrelles, Crispy Fin, Turbot-Truffle Sashimi, and Juliet Tomato was a collection of small bites that each offered a new angle and new taste that wowed the palate – literally like 4 dishes in one. First, a wonderfully poached turbot was served simply over a bed of Chantrelle Mushrooms and tomatoes that provided excellent tastes of sweet and savory. Second, the pan fried ramps with parmesan foam and shavings was another unique yet simple flavor that truly highlighted the early season’s rich and moist pungency. Third, the crispy fin was panko dusted and pan-fried, oddly fishy yet unique in texture and well complimented by the ramp puree. Finally, the Turbot belly and truffle sashimi was wonderfully smooth and earthy with a small amount of sweetness from tomato puree.
Following the turbot was the cheese cart and not knowing much about cheeses in general I allowed my server to make the selections with the simple preference for smooth and nutty over pungent or smokey. Four choices were made and included Capriole Farms Goat Cheese Sofia, French Double Cream Cow Cheese, Denver Cauliflower Goat Cheese, Le Marechal Raw Cow's Milk Cheese plus the accompaniments of Rye Fig Bread, Apricot Riesling Puree, Apple Puree, Candied Walnuts, and Mission Figs. While each selection was excellent, I must admit a particular fondness for the Sofia with its veins of ash and the Raw Cow’s Milk Cheese with its creamy butter-like finish. The Mission Figs and Apricot Riesling Puree were also quite stellar, as expected.
Feeling quite full I was informed that dessert was next – four courses to be exact – thank goodness for my hollow leg! The first dessert, a palate cleanser of sorts, was Kalamansi Gelee with White Chocolate Coconut Milk Soup and litchi-shiso sorbet. My first experience with Chef Vasquez’s unique style was a definite winner with the room temperature coconut milk soup and white chocolate tapioca providing a smooth and sliken contrast to the icy cold and sweet/sour combination of lime sorbet and Philippine-Lemon Gel beneath.
The second dessert, by far the most unique, was entitled Vanilla Mandarin Capsule with Fennel and Basil Salad, Black Olive Brittle. Living up to its description, the capsule was a vibrant orange Popsicle that housed a liquid vanilla bean cream which spilled forth when broken. Beneath the capsule lied a flavorful salad of fennel and basil that was poached and smooth while the Black Olive Brittle provided a strong savory crunch. Small sections of incredibly sweet mandarin orange lent yet another degree of texture and flavor to the dish.
Dessert three, Pumpkin 'Pie' with Curry Ice Cream and Pecan Streusel, Balsamic Vinegar was a deconstructionist take on the Pie and quite ‘ordinary’ compared to the previous desserts. A sphere of creamy fresh pumpkin and a dollop of smoky-spicy ice cream were served over a buttery streusel with dots of aged balsamic and salted cream with dramatic effect to the eye but not much more than a standard pumpkin pie flavor to the tongue. Certainly not “bad,” but aside from the stylish presentation nothing overly impressive either.
The final dessert, declared the ‘piece de resistance’ by Steven was indeed incredible. Chocolate Ganache with Peanut Butter, 'These Pretzels are making me Thirsty' and Chably Noire Beer Ice Cream was served as a thick layer cake of chocolate and rich peanut butter topped with chocolate covered house made pretzels and a raked “river” of peanut butter leading to a savory and creamy ice cream with hints of cinnamon, hops, sugar, and barley. Truly unique and as pleasing to the mouth as the eye I can honestly say this was one of the five or six best desserts I’ve ever had despite not even being a fan of beer.
After dinner I sat and chatted with the staff while drinking a wonderful small french press of LA-Mill coffee with high-notes of berry and almonds and enjoying a small plate of petit fores including Chocolate Hazelnut Truffles, Mushroom Caramels, and Olive Oil Gelee. Without requesting it I was brought a personalized copy of the menu (with my fish substitution in place of the beef) and Matt even stopped out to discuss his Ipod selections and his love for the Decemberists.
All told, Providence was a wonderful dining experience and possibly the best “bang for the buck” meal I’ve ever tasted. While not as refined or excellent as The French Laundry (the 20ish year old girl playing Nintendo DS at the table across the way while her parents enjoyed caviar, for instance) the price was less than half for food that was almost as good andwhile not as elegant as Charlie Trotter’s or Alex, the portions were more substantial, the food equal, and the service much less stuffy. As I noted prior, there is definitely a difference between the LA “scene” and that of other major cities, but I can definitely say that no matter where it was located the food, service, and quality of Providence definitely warrant its “Two Star” Michelin status and I will invariably be back.