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

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. 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!")

Turning the sandwiches into something more special are classical music playing in the background, sweet house-made pickles and thick potato chips that have me filching from friends' plates. The key to the chips' decadence involves a four-letter word: l-a-r-d.

Farmstead's soups change daily. If the corn chowder I try is any sign, add a bowl to your order. The cool combination of corn and buttermilk, elegantly set off with diced bell peppers, went down like summer in every spoonful.

Adjoining Farmstead, which opened in 2002, is a delicious excuse to return for dinner, the four-year-old, 34-seat dining room called La Laiterie (French for creamery). There are the expected cheeses and charcuterie to eat, preferably with Kate's house-baked biscuits spread with herbed butter, but also snack-size "treats" including tender grilled octopus tweaked with pickled tomatillo and fennel and bruschetta topped with smoked beef tongue. I can't decide which part of a small plate of chicken livers and onion rings I like best: the seared livers beefed up with thyme, lemon verbena and "our own bacon," or the sweet, beer-battered bracelets. Together, however, the meat and the vegetable make beautiful music in the mouth.

With the memory of lunch at Farmstead still fresh in our minds, my posse of diners votes to get a sandwich before bidding farewell to La Laiterie. It's crafted with pedigreed Benton's ham, pimiento cheese, piquillo peppers, roasted garlic and crisp apple: my kind of dessert.

186 Wayland Ave., Providence. 401-274-7177. Sandwiches at Farmstead, $8-$9; large plates at La Laiterie, $13-$29.

"I was supposed to be a rock star," says Champe Speidel. The 38-year-old chef and co-owner of Persimmon, an easy 30-minute drive from Providence, is sharing his life story on the telephone as he's breaking down chicken ahead of a full house on a recent Saturday night.

The Cliff Notes rendition of his bio goes like this: Raised in a tiny town in Florida. Learned to butcher at a local grocery store in high school. Played drums in a band called Watertown in the '90s. Fell in love with the idea of cooking while watching the "Great Chefs" series on PBS. Went to Johnson & Wales in 1998, during which he spent time in an all-French kitchen in St. Thomas and after which he cooked at the esteemed Empire in Providence (since closed). With the help of his wife, Lisa, Speidel opened a place of his own five years ago.

Persimmon seats 35 in a beamed and candle-lit setting that appears to have been carved from someone's home. The prime tables are those in two corners of the room, pillow-strewn banquettes made intimate with half-walls. You may not remember these details after a meal here, however; instead, Speidel's enchanting food tends to dominate a diner's thoughts.

Selfishly, I'm thrilled that his band dissolved. If Speidel had gone on to drum for a living, chances are I might never have experienced one of the most amazing soups of my life, a clear gazpacho that tastes like the distillation of a garden's worth of tomatoes, cucumbers, celery and bell peppers. Little balls of tomatoes in different hues and a scooplet of cucumber sorbet further distance his soup from what the chef calls the usual "red sludge." The chef's petite interpretation of a clambake gathers clams, lobster, crisp corn and spicy chorizo, and slips in a surprise: a trail of smoke, reminiscent of a campfire, when the lid of the dish is lifted. The beautiful food is worthy of a magazine cover - say, Vogue. Speidel freely admits that he prefers "artsy-fartsy fussy" food to that which is not.

Risotto, the chef says, is "my favorite thing to make because it's the first thing I learned" to do. Practice clearly has made his version perfect. While I was drawn to the dish by the menu's promise of sweet corn and chanterelles, what blew me away was how much flavor it packed in: butter, genuine Parmesan Reggiano, fresh tarragon, native corn, creme fraiche - everything whipped into an emulsion before being stirred into the grains of Carnaroli rice. One of the sweetest pleasures on the menu was the simplest, a plump local oyster nestled in its shell with a bit of buttery seaweed and a drop of ginger oil. Proving that Speidel also knows his way on land is lamb sirloin arranged on a pretty hash of pole beans, potatoes and charred corn, lighter for fresh mint and tarragon in the mix. In October, the chef plans to open a 900-square-foot butcher shop in nearby Barrington. "Our pantry," he's calling it.

Speidel says that "there's no clever story" behind the name Persimmon. Originally, he wanted to call the restaurant Purslane, "but no one liked it." He enjoyed the way Purslane rolled off his tongue, however, and pushed forward with p-prefaced words ("Pur, pur. . ."), eventually landing on Persimmon. "It's a lovely word," he says. And a luscious restaurant.

31 State St., Bristol. 401-254-7474. Entrees $20-$29.

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