Postcard from Tom: In Providence, look for restaurants run by couples

Post food critic Tom Sietsema reviews three Providence, R.I., eateries: Cook & Brown Public House, the Farmstead and Persimmon.

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By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:32 PM

Chefs around Providence, R.I., are quick to give you their recipe for success.

"We have access to incredible ingredients," says Matt Jennings of Farmstead, one of New England's finest cheese shops, and the neighboring bistro, La Laiterie. The region's rich landscape, he says, embraces "farms, seacoast, old mills and meats from local farms."

"The producers make my job easy," echoes Champe Speidel, the chef of the intimate Persimmon in the seaport town of Bristol. "I just have to not screw them up."

One way to winnow down the many choices in Providence is to find out whether the chef is married to his co-owner. Unbeknownst to me while I was navigating the dining scene there late last month, the restaurants that left the best impressions were all headed by couples. Here's a toast to those great relationships:

Even before I have a bite of food at Cook & Brown Public House, I know that I'm going to like the place. From across the street, its big glass windows showcase a spare but spirited dining room. Inside, a long list of intriguing cocktails compels friends and me to belly up to the dark steel bar. The menu reads like haiku - it's short - but even coming as we are from a three-course dinner, none of us can resist ordering a local taste: smoked bluefish rillettes and crisp fritters offered with a horseradish-ignited mayonnaise. There's an easy elegance to the plate, a style that turns out to be the restaurant's signature.

Chef Adam Bolin, who goes by his middle name, Nemo, and his wife, Jenny, opened the 50-seat gastropub in March. "Cook & Brown," Bolin says, is a salute to his maternal grandparents, Roberta Cook and Harding Brown, who raised him in their Martha's Vineyard home. "Public House," on the other hand, conveys "a neighborhood place." The Bolins didn't have a big budget for decoration, but they devoted a chunk of it to a wavy birch plywood ceiling that does double duty as a design statement and a noise buffer.

Tonight there are a mere nine dishes on the menu. Nemo Bolin, 31, who has cooked in such destination restaurants as Rubicon in San Francisco and No. 9 Park in Boston, points to his restaurant's small kitchen but also a less-is-more philosophy. Instead of offering 25 dishes, only some of which are top-notch, he likes the idea that "everything we're doing, we're proud of." Local sweet corn is pureed with corn stock to come up with a soup that tastes like corn times 10. Tabasco butter injects some heat into the equation, while lemon zest makes the bowl brighter. In another dish, feathery hand-cut egg noodles serve as a delicious backdrop for sauteed chanterelles, shaved pecorino and minced herbs. If there's a burger offered, its bun will be baked here. "When we come in every day," says the chef, "we start from scratch."

As with the food, the cocktails at Cook & Brown reflect the owners' desire to "do what we think is great," says Nemo. Cook & Brown mixes a first-rate rye Manhattan and a Jakewalk with just the right splashes of tequila, white rum, elderflower liqueur and lime. Thin stone coasters support each drink. My friends and I are captivated by the attention that mix master Hannah Kirshner lavishes on a trio of anonymous customers; the bar manager's graciousness on a busy Friday night is equaled by her smooth bar skills.

Before we leave, Kirschner passes out handwritten instructions for making the cocktails we like best. I appreciate knowing exactly how much mescal, Aperol, lime and maraschino liqueur go into a proper (smoky and floral) Division Bell. But I know that whatever I whip up back home can't possibly compete with Cook & Brown's version. She is, after all, its secret ingredient.

959 Hope St., Providence. 401-273-7275. cookandbrown.com. Entrees, $23-$25.

"We have burrata and it's phenomenal," raves a handwritten sign on the counter of the tidy Farmstead. Fresh Italian cheese made with cream and mozzarella isn't the only thing that makes me glad to be lunching at this airy homage to fromage in Wayland Square. The dozens of (largely domestic) cheeses include Dancing Cow's Sarabande, a raw cow's milk cheese from Vermont, and Divine Providence, an aged gouda-style raw milk cheese whose sweetness comes from a rum that, like the cheese, is made locally. Be sure to have someone order what the staff rightly refers to as "crack" cheese: An Australian feta marinated with olive oil, herbs and peppercorns, it is, in fact, addictive.

The brief menu consists mostly of sandwiches, and they're all terrific. For the cheese head, there's grilled cheese layered with what the menu calls "lots & lots & lots of cheese," and what my tongue picks up as goat and Gruyere (the melted center varies); like all the sandwiches, this one is supported by a crusty ciabatta. Vegetarians will have to fend off intruders who want in on the fava bean hummus and feta cheese sandwich, gently crisp with sliced radishes and cucumbers. For the carnivore, there are slabs of pork meatloaf striped with a barbecue sauce bolstered with smoked paprika and served with a crunchy slaw of celery root. The last sandwich, which sneaks in ricotta and other cheeses, has a big fan in Mario Batali, who dropped by two months ago and told owners and New England natives Matt and Kate Jennings - he focuses on the savory side, she on the sweets - that it was the best sandwich he'd had all year. ("And considering the amount of sandwiches I eat, and that we are six months into the year already," Batali added, "that ain't so bad!")


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