Sunday, November 30, 2008

Al Forno (46 of 50)

Restaurant: Al Forno
Cuisine: Tuscany/Provence
Price: Pricy
Score: 46

After 28 years in business under the same ownership, Al Forno is one of the best restaurants in Providence. It isn't cheap, they don't take reservations (unless you are a party of 6+ tuesday-thursday), they are open 26 hours a week (closed sunday and monday), and it is usually packed.
And it is packed for good reason. Al Forno is all about the food. There are other restaurants with longer wine lists, fancier decor and table settings, or more formal dining, but that doesn't faze the owners of Al Forno. While everyone is professional and polite, there is a decidedly casual feel to the entire dining experience. T-shirts next to suits next to children. They focus on technically exacting food with flavors that are mature, full, and balanced.

I had not eaten at Al Forno for several months, and could not let winter arrive without hitting up some of their classic autumn dishes. Pizza with pumpkin and spicy oil is possibly my favorite pizza, ever. Jo's upside-down cranberry baby cake, and chocolate bread pudding. Caesar salad with grilled to order croutons. Rigatoni with veal bolognese, and the spicy clam roast. I could go on- everything is very good and often memorable.

Expect to pay $40-$50 per person all told. This is a lot, but there are several other restaurants in the area where you pay far more and get far less decadently prepared dishes.

Al Forno now claims the top spot on our growing list of Providence restaurants! I look forward to the meal that will unseat it, but don't expect it any time soon.

Al Forno on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Noodles 102 (37 of 50)

Restaurant: Noodles 102
Cuisine: Asian Noodle
Price: cheap
Score: 37

Noodles 102 is an american take on a classic chinese noodle house. It is a small, nicely decorated place (seats about 20-25) that smells heavenly due to the kitchen being so close to the tables. Located on the increasingly popular strip on Ives Street, Noodles 102 opened in the summer of 2007. The owners are very present- when we visited both the husband (in the kitchen) and wife(out front) were there and hard at work. This direct attention to the service and food is much appreciated- it feels like you are at a friends house having a good meal (right down to the BYOB policy).

Drink options are fairly limited due to the BYOB- but it can be a fun change of pace- plus you get to drink exactly what you want. The menu is focused around two dishes- noodles in broth, and claypot baked with rice- all you have to decide is which meat and sauce you want. We tried the claypot with beef and thai coconut curry, and udon noodles with shrimp. Both were very tasty and fully seasoned. My coconut curry was actually pretty incredibly hot. I am not sure if the spice was intentional, but I would recommend that some warning be put on the dish for while I was comfortable with it, many people would be completely overwhelmed.

Noodles 102 is a very comfortable, welcoming restaurant with some great basic dishes at an excellent price. Bring a bottle of wine and enjoy!

Noodles 102 on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Kartabar (26 of 50)

Restaurant: Kartabar
Cuisine: American/Mediterranean
Price: Somewhat cheap
Score: 26

Kartabar, Andreas, and Paragon all fall into the same category to me- where the food is a means to an end- and that end being alcohol.  Not that the food can't be good at Kartabar, but rather it feels like a side note (i.e. if we give the customer a burger then they can keep on drinking longer!)  To be fair, when you are located on Thayer Street near Brown, RISD, and not far from Johnson and Wales and more, this is a pretty good idea.  Most customers here are not looking for fine dining- but rather to drink with their friends.  

Kartabar does this pretty well- they have an extensive drink menu and 2 well-stocked bars.  In the past I have been pretty happy with their pizzas and burgers and a beer- this time it was not so good.  The Sam Adams Oktoberfest tasted like the keg head was dirty- maybe the beer was just off, but it is unusual to have a Sam Adams that is actually bad.  We were not pleased.  

The food all tasted like it was pre-prepared frozen food from Sam's.  Perhaps it is- the prices seem a bit cheap for food actually made from scratch.  Calamari and fries felt like the frier temperature wasn't quite hot enough, and the littleneck clam pasta was seriously oily.  

Kartbar will always be popular, as it is primarily a place to drink.  Food can be hit or miss and we had the misfortune of a strikeout on our visit.

Kartabar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tini (43 of 50)

Restaurant: Tini
Cuisine: small plates
Price: Average
Score: 43

Tini is a restaurant owner's fantasy brought to life. Tired of cooking endless hours in a kitchen? Only stay open from 5-10PM, have twenty seats maximum capacity, and offer a total of ~15 items on the menu, including appetizers, specials, veggies, main bites, and desserts. It feels like George and Johanne (founders and owners of Al Forno) have created a space where they can do exactly what they want without regard to standard rules- knowing full well that their reputation will pull plenty of curious diners in for a meal. The only trick is, if you are going to make an unusual eatery, it better be pretty damn good.

It is.

When you enter Tini (right across from Trinity Rep) it feels like you are in the front bar of a posh restaurant. Except that is the whole restaurant. Somehow they manage to fit 20 seats into an area that feels about the size of a 15 passenger van. Seating is on the outside of a U-shaped bar, with two multi-function bartenders snugly placed in the middle. The only printed menu you get is for drinks- the food menu runs on a powerpoint style loop on a flat-screen TV on one wall. Neat idea, except for the 8 people sitting in front of the screen are a bit out of luck, and the 8 people on the far side never get to put their menu away.

Drinks focus on the pink cocktails (genus cosmopolitanus), the mar(tini), and an offering of very reasonably priced european wines. We had a great bottle of french white for $30, that offered a fruity body with well balanced sweet and acid notes.

Everything on the menu is small, but priced accordingly- the most expensive item was $10 on our visit. We grazed our way through 7 items (half the menu!) over 2 hours, including an endive caesar salad, homemade fries with a garlic mayo and hot sauce, magic beans, poached pear with gorgonzola, pomegranate, and frizze, steak tartare, and a dessert of 3 panna cotta shots, and a chocolate icebox cake. Everything was good. Flavors were mature and well rounded, hitting all your taste buds in a fashion similar to Al Forno. The poached pear salad was outstanding- probably one of the best prepared dishes I have tasted in the last year. Overall the food was very solid, with hints of perfection that I hope soon reach to more of the menu. With a little tweaking I think Tini has the potential to offer the best food around (they have only been open a week).

Service was perfect- fun, friendly and polite, and water glasses were always full.

The final key to Tini, and what makes it stand out for me was the seating arrangement. By sitting everyone around a single bar, and only having the one menu on the wall for the whole restaurant to read, it is unavoidable that you will end up talking with your neighbors at the bar. Being forced into this intimacy with complete strangers is most unusual for us New Englanders, but it was a great experience and it lent to a very cozy, homey feel for the entire night.

Tini is a unique offering in the Providence food scene. Good food combined with a memorable dining experience and impeccable service earns Tini the highest rating yet. Well done.

Tini on Urbanspoon