I love this town. There was a time when a little diner-size place would open
and you'd be thankful if the cook used real meat in the franks & beans.
Now, the dining scene in Providence is at the point where a tiny breakfast and
lunch space like Nick's on Broadway comes along and you don't get greasy spoon,
you get gourmet.
The former exec chef of Agora -- the expense account restaurant in the Westin
-- took over Nick's in March after Nick Sammartino retired from the wee-hours
institution across from the Columbus Theatre. Derek Wagner, a 25-year-old
culinary whiz kid, is a protégé of Castle Hill's Casey Riley, who
is himself an heir of regional-food fetishist Frank McClelland at L'Espalier in
Boston. If you assume that the French toast here will contain thick slices of a
good bread and real maple syrup, your presumptuousness will be rewarded.
But I didn't drop in at breakfast. The menu I'd seen didn't contain any of the
fancy-schmancy combinations -- say quail egg omelet with yak cheese and wild
boar bacon -- that some restaurant reviewers love to describe. A frittata
($6.50) was the only addition to All-American mainstays, but there is a long
list of tantalizing options to add to your omelet ($5.50) -- capers and brie,
No, I came for lunch. The experience was pleasant enough that I came again the
next afternoon. I was accompanied by a total of three fussy, professional
foodies -- two restaurant reviewers and one restaurateur. Johnnie was the only
one who shrugged after tasting her choice. The smiles displayed by my other two
friends gave me another reason to be glad that the taste bud was invented.
Nick's is dinky. Just room for 10 at tables, fewer at the counter. Between the
two people serving, a few people waiting for tables at rush hours, and a
stranger sitting within elbow distance, this is a place for people who like
people more than they like sedate dining and private conversations.
For lunch there's a single soup of the day, ad hoc or as a cup and
half-sandwich ($6.75). There is also only one -- count it, one (1) -- pasta;
more about this later. The lunch menu does an interesting thing to amplify
itself: any of its dozen main offerings can be prepared as sandwich, wrap, or
salad, as well as an entrée. Not a bad idea, assuming that Nick's bacon
cheeseburger ($5.75) would be served aside rather than atop the salad greens.
For the entrée, three bucks extra buys you a starch, usually a red bliss
and sweet potato side. Order lunch instead of the all-day breakfast and you'll
get a free sample of the soup. Both the white bean with touch of tarragon and
the pureed pumpkin with cheddar were winners on the days I came. Nick's goes to
the trouble of grilling the accompanying bread.
The "pan-seared duck breast with roasted pear, toasted walnut & local blue
cheese" ($7.75) sounded so yummy to my friend Stuart and me that we each
ordered it, him as a salad, me as a wrap. It worked fine both ways. The tender
duck was served on the rare side of medium-rare, as we both like it, so specify
if you want it cooked more -- we weren't asked. The blue cheese was whipped
rather than chunky, and there was plenty of it, especially on Stuart's generous
pile of delicate little mache lettuce leaves. Apart from preferring that a
salad be varied with mixed mesclun, he had no complaints. Johnnie, however,
while good-natured about her marinated tofu sandwich ($5.25), declared that it
presented no evidence of marination. Working better were its accompanying wild
mushrooms, cheddar, wilted spinach, and condiment-like smear of sweet potato.
On my return visit, I rendezvoused with fellow food reviewer Dan, who ended up
impressed with the gustatory-delight-per-square-inch quotient of the place. He
had his choice as a wrap: fat sea scallops wrapped in smoked bacon and baked,
accompanied by apple, mache and goat cheese ($7.95) -- which again was local.
To die for. The scallops were so fresh that their delicate flavor wasn't
overwhelmed by the bacon and -- a relief in this combination -- they weren't
overcooked. I had the pasta ($6.75), penne that day, which always comes with
wild mushrooms, good quality sausage, and roasted red peppers in a cream sauce.
Not al dente but a solid medley, to which I added grilled chicken for an extra
$4. For $4.75 you can add garlic-rubbed shrimp or grilled scallops.
For dessert you can go nostalgic and get an ice cream float ($3/$4), with
Yacht Club soda, or go fine dining and spring for their vanilla crème
brûlée ($4.50). The latter was as good as it gets for twice the
price, and the warm apple cobbler ($4.50) was decent, the Granny Smith a nice
tart complement to the sweetness and cinnamon, but arguably not the best apple
for the dish.
Way to go, Nick's. Food good enough to raise expectations.
Bill Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.
Issue Date: January 10 - 16, 2003