Revisiting a standard-setter
by Bill Rodriguez
7 Steeple St., Providence, 751-0350
Open Tues-Sat, 5:30-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Time was, whenever someone would ask me to recommend a restaurant, "Try New
Rivers" would automatically pop out of my mouth, the Usual Suspect down by the
Hot Club having plenty enough worshippers. That was back before the standards
in town got so demanding. Now, restaurateurs had better think about a
first-rate kitchen, before snazzy décor and cantilevered desserts, if
they want to survive, never mind thrive, and the must-get-to places around town
exceed a listing on fingers and are beginning to exhaust the toes.
With all the competition, New Rivers still has no trouble standing out.
Chefs/proprietors Bruce and Pat Tillinghast have stuck to their culinary
virtues for more than 10 years in the Steeple Street space where Al Forno was
born. Ingredients remain the best and the freshest, with local sources sought
out long before that was fashionable. As always, menu items are eclectic,
drawing from Far Eastern ingredients and accents as readily as from Latin or
Italian. Service remains knowledgeable and amiable. The wine list is extensive
and trustworthy, with several regional vintners represented. Accolades keep
coming, including more than one pleased visit by New York Times' food
The environs are intimate, with fewer than 20 tables -- reservations
recommended -- but not excessively noisy. In the tiny space to the left of the
entrance, where smoking is allowed Tuesday through Thursday, the bar has room
for just one tender. The ambiance is soothing. Forest green walls accented by
burgundy, with white café curtains on the windows. Paper is clipped over
the tablecloths, bistro style. A couple of marigolds adorned our table in a
tiny creamer glass, as though in parentheses. Wait staff in ties, for
politeness, but in blue jeans, to lighten the atmosphere. New Rivers' visual
motif, in the entry and repeated in a main room still-life, is particularly
apt: pears -- graceful, tantalizing, luscious, a declaration that the
subliminal will be complementing the overt.
The bread basket is a cornucopia: delicate cheddar cheese bread sticks, sour
dough studded with olives, as well as slices of French and Italian bread. It
was served with a complimentary portion of hummus, and guest-quality olive oil
was brought out upon request.
Among the appetizers, New Rivers' version of calamari ($10) takes a
fascinating Asian turn: the grilled squid is miso-dressed and served with sweet
rice, pickled radish and roasted peppers. As unexpected but appropriate is
grilled shrimp on sugar cane ($12), but we chose the special of the evening,
pot stickers ($10). Five fat dumplings, steamed and then pan-browned, stuffed
with minced lobster, ginger, and -- here's the delicate touch -- lime leaves.
They were served over a pile of mesclun that amounted to a salad, with a mildly
hot tamari dipping sauce. Superb.
Tuesdays through Thursdays, $20 prix-fix meals of salmon or chicken are
available. The menu is small, but every taste preference will get at least a
couple of choices. Only eight entrées are offered, including the night's
special and excluding the half-portions available for the grilled pork
tenderloin and pan-seared bluefish, each in four-ounce and eight-ounce servings
($16/$21 and $15/$19, respectively). There was a new menu at the beginning of
the month, and the nime chow is gone, but the popular half-pound burger on
Portuguese roll remains.
My dining companion was a vegetarian for the evening and chose the pumpkin
tortellini ($16) without the optional grilled chicken ($19). Served in a
mushroom broth, the al dente pasta pillows were dessert-sweet, accompanied by
wild mushrooms and tiny pieces of roasted "autumn veggies," including much
neglected and also appealingly sweet parsnip. Her only complaint was the
paucity of vegetables, which were closer to a garnish than an equal partner;
but this was, after all, under the "Small Meals" choices.
Arriving with a considerably larger appetite, I chose the Bulgogi ($19),
Korean barbecue, literally "fire beef." The hefty portion of skirt steak slices
was fork-tender and full-flavored, marinated in a soy sauce and sesame oil
blend that was marvelous over the sticky rice. Shiitake mushrooms were a
welcome companion, as was the thick slice of grilled Vidalia onion and the soy
sprouts. The spicy pickles, however, were more like dill chips with
pretensions, pallid rather than zingy; a bit of kimchi (spicy fermented bok
choi and cabbage) would have better fulfilled the promise.
New Rivers is worth a visit for their desserts alone -- all kitchen-made,
time-tested and scrumptious (most are $7). The tangy lemon tartlet has been on
the menu from the restaurant's beginning, so that obviously comes recommended.
A chocolate dessert changes nightly. We chose the sorbet, that evening a mango
and passion fruit concoction startling in its intensity. It was served with
three cookies (a plate of eight is $5), each as subtly flavored as a haute
This pleasant visit was a good reminder to me. The next time someone asks me
to recommend a restaurant, I know what will be on my mind.