Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Dorrance: Providence, RI

Glen, watching over the Dorrance
A while back, my friend Jesse, who you may remember from such posts as Jesse's ACK Daic, was pretty darn hyped about a new restaurant venture he would be participating in. As the summer came to a close, he would be stepping into a new role as the bar manager for a restaurant opening up called "The Dorrance" in Providence, Rhode Island. Not only was he excited for the opportunity to truly orchestrate the ultimate bar, featuring creative, diverse, and classic cocktails, but he also had chills running up his spine regarding the chef that had just signed on. Chef Ben Sukle and Executive Sous Chef Edward Davis had previously worked together at another Providence institution known as La Laiterie, and Chef Sukle brings another interesting resume element to the table through his three week experience over at Noma in Copenhagen. Basically what Jesse was so titillated over was the possibility to have refined cocktails, paired to delicious, modern dishes. The space itself was also pretty darn cool, the way he described it, with cavernous ceilings, a vault room, a second floor balcony, and various architectural touches including sculpture work over the entrance by Daniel Chester French.
So, time has passed, Jesse has been working nonstop, and the Dorrance has received some great press from the Providence Journal. Being the good doobies that we are, the bigger half and I agreed to come down to Rhodie yesterday in order to help his mother put up her Christmas tree, and decided that this would be an opportune time to pay a visit to the Dorrance.
At first glance, this place is gorgeous. It's obviously been renovated to bring out specific details in the architecture, but it also has this sort of old school Providence thing that keeps things upscale, but makes it simultaneously familiar and well... less snooty, I guess. Jesse gave us a quick tour of the space, which was broken up nicely by that wonderful long stage of a bar, and the grand upstairs space. That particular night, in the somewhat cordoned off event space to the right of the bar, there was actually a dual Pogash book launch party going on, featuring Mr Boston Bartender's Guide 75th Anniversary Edition and Bloody Mary. Yet another sequestered private table that they reserve for private events and dinners could be found all the way to the left of the restaurant, slightly toward the back. All in all, the entire restaurant didn't seem as cavernous as I had originally thought it might be, mainly because someone took the time to break up the space in a way that still makes each area feels intimate.
Jesse and the Perlini
The Vesperlini
Passion fruit Cocktail
After our short tour, Jesse seated us to the far right end of the bar, and eagerly asked what we had wanted to drink. You know what makes a great bartender though? They know you. They know you either because you're their friend, or because they kick so much ass at the bar that they remember your favorite spirits, and kind of have an incling of where you're going to go as far as food. Mr. Hedberg is nothing short of the best bartender in Rhode Island, a sentiment that I've heard over and over again from people that have become his regulars, plus I've seen it all go down in the Rhode Island Iron Tender competition a year or so back... i.e., there was no competition. It was a massacre. This all makes Jesse more than qualified to pick out a drink for me that I know I'm going to like, but may have not had the insight to order on my own, or even better, he might have something special up his sleeve. So the bigger half and I say "we surrender" and the man in the apron whooshes down the bar to retrieve a device mentioned in the ProJo article, called the Perlini. Using the device, he is able to introduce carbonation into a cocktail, and with this he creates one of the most interesting martinis I've ever had the pleasure of drinking: a Dorrance original, known as the Vesperlini. The martini itself is a mix of Citadelle gin, Sobieski vodka, Cocchi Americano, and dandelion burdock bitters. But it's the slight carbonation that results from shaking the drink in the Perlini that adds that extra zing to what would have been previously just a wonderful martini with interesting bitters. This was a great cocktail to begin a meal. The bigger half received a slightly less potent cocktail that featured house-made passion fruit syrup, bitters, and rum, among other items that I can't remember. This was a drink that I don't think actually appeared on the menu, but as is often the case with Mr. Hedberg, the unique combination of passion fruit syrup and all those bitters came to him "in a dream."
With our cocktails safely in hand, the food began to emerge from the kitchen, and as with the drinks, we simply told them to bring what they thought were their greatest hits. The constructed menu was delicious.
1. Ceviche. This was among the best ceviches that I've ever had, featuring a delicate white fish, my bigger half says blue fish, and a generous helping of bite size scallops. The tangy sauce was a combination of lime and other citrus, as well as tomatillo, and a hint of chilis. The acidity-cooked seafood was succulent, tender and fresh, while the chef also took care to add sweet potato chips for crunch and various microgreens and a topping of red saffron for additional texture and flavor. This dish, as a starter, hit all of the marks, tangy, sweet, bigger, savory with crunch and a beautiful presentation. I would order it again.
Cured Bonito Special
2. Cured bonito. An item not normally on the menu appeared. House-cured bonito, thinly sliced, and delicately placed over tender baby endive leaves, scattered with shaved radish, and spotted with what Jesse later told us was a reduction of lemon and olive oil to produce a kind of aioli. Another delicious dish. The cured bonito was briny and salty, with the texture of what you might imagine the world's most delicate air dried fish jerky to be. Each bite combined with the sharpness of the thin radishes, and the only slightly bitter flavor of those little raw endive leaves gave the dish a complex profile, all brought together with the creamy lemon sauce. This is a dish I have not had before, and worked perfectly together.
Hen of the Woods
3. Hen of the woods. Another show of the chef's desire to combine flavor forward ingredients in new ways. The plate arrived with lovely sections of broken apart, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms. In addition to the mushrooms, there were cubes of wonderful sweet, roasted pumpkin, and all of this was placed over a smear of a yogurt-like cheese called labne. Generous dots of house-made mayonnaise, and scatterings of tangy, sharp pickled mustard seeds brought the entire dish together. A little bite of mushroom topped with a tiny piece of sweet pumpkin, a little smear of the yogurt cheese, and a few individual beads of pickled mustard seeds, and again there is a flavor combination that no one could have anticipated would produce such a symphony of sweet, earthy, savory, dairy and pickled tang.
Baby Sweet Potato
4. Baby sweet potato. I am a complete sucker for the sweet/salty thing. All about savory things with a touch of sugar or that fine dark chocolate with a touch of sea salt. But sometimes dishes can go above and beyond. New England sweet potatoes, especially now that the season is over, are bursting with sugar and sweetness. They're delicious, and as the farmers market makes its desperate last stand, I plan to buy up a few of the potatoes for storage to prepare during February when I'm deep into my cooking doldrums. But the chef at the Dorrance has found a way to elevate our wonderful, tiny baby sweet potatoes by roasting, cutting into bite size pieces, and then adding two other elements to introduce salty punches. There were the wonderful, crisp squares of tasso ham that applied heavy smokiness and salty, savory notes to the dish. But then, in conjunction with this, they had dotted the dish with small clumps of cold-smoked salmon roe in order to fully compliment and enhance the smokey tasso. As a sauce, the chef added dots of sour cream, because what else, let me ask you, would you intuitively serve with a baked potato of any kind? This was my favorite dish of the evening. Not only because again it had brought in all manner of taste profiles, and done so in an interesting way, but because I just thought that the combination of flavors was so familiar, and yet elevated. Plus, I have a soft spot for ikura... and to smoke ikura? Be still my heart. Jesse let us know that this dish, this technique of combining flavors was something that Chef Sukle had concentrated on during his time in Noma.
At this time, I was onto my second cocktail, an excellently prepared Negroni. Erik opted for a sherry spritzer of sorts, which always goes well with food, as it's a fairly light beverage. But it was now time to move onto the larger plates section of the menu. We would be starting with a fish course, and then move onto duck and steak.
Roasted Blue Fish
1. The fish course: I love blue fish. I'd love it as a kid when my dad would come home with a big blue, taller than I. The trick, however, to cooking blues is that they get really fishy and oily with the longer that they are out of the water, so freshness is key, otherwise you end up with something that will repel many a diner. I was not prepared for the elegant blue fish dish that appeared before us at the Dorrance. A perfectly roasted fillet of fish arrives at the table, topped with the most crispy of skin. The white flaky flesh was moist and fell apart with each application of the fork. The fish itself was served with roasted royal trumpet mushrooms, one of my favorite meaty mushrooms, nicely scored, and divinely savory. Then there were about three little neck clams, two of them extracted from the shell, and one left in the opened shell, and all topped with a clam broth foam. Interspersed with the foam and smeared strategically on a plate was a lovely nutty, garlicky romesco sauce, and then for a vegetable element, he had added the perfectly wilted leaves of endive. The combination of seafood flavors, roasty, delicate, and above all, honest, was simply remarkable. If you love local fish, this is your go-to entre.
Prior to the meat courses arriving, Jesse arrived with two wine glasses, and gave us each a little pour of a nice Pinot Noir to accompany the red meat that we were about to enjoy. Yet another sign of a great bartender who knows his chef, and the flavors that can only be enhanced by a nice glass of wine.
Roasted Duck
2. The duck. Duck is one of those meats that I don't typically enjoy at home, because I rarely see it in stores to prepare for myself. So when it's on a menu, I consider it a treat. The duck breast was seared to produce a crispy skin, with a nice unctuous layer of fat, and roasted to a perfect, red rare. Duck is an irony, rich meat and unique from other poultry dishes that are perhaps a bit boring. This chef chose to thinly slice the breast and serve over a puree of quince, a nice fruity flavor that departs from the typical cherry or cranberry red wine sauce that I think can occasionally overpower the meat. There were also matchstick pieces of kohlrabi, which has the appearance and texture of a crisp granny smith apple, but the flavor of the freshest cabbage. Finally, he added a few perfectly roasted baby red beets, and a small pile of seeds and grains, including lemony poppy seeds that really added a nice crunchy pop to every bite of duck. What a wonderful entree.
Sirloin with Carrot, Marrow Jus
3. Our final savory main course was a classic preparation of sirloin steak. The roasted steak was served medium rare, perfectly deep pink, with a wonderful char on the outside, and cut into medallions, making the dish easy to share. The star of the dish was the sauce that the chef chose to accompany his meat: a lovely carrot, marrow jus, which was rich and borderline sticky from all the fat, but hit you with the lovely sweetness of carrot throughout. Roasted onions and carrots were also artistically placed on the white plate over a silky smooth, elegant potato sauce that features one part potato to one part pure butter. Steak and potatoes never had it so good.
God damn what a meal. At this point we knew that there was no way to walk away from the decadence just enjoyed in Providence without having a look at the dessert menu. Plus, Jesse had promised a very unique original beverage that he had been saving just for us. So we decided on the parsnip panna cotta entry, which sounded delicious, and waited for Jesse to make boozy magic.
Parsnip Panna Cotta
The parsnip panna cotta was incredible. The silky, jiggly pudding was perfectly molded, and so delicious I was slightly upset that I hadn't ordered my own despite being a little overly full (mark of a true glutton!). It melted in the mouth with hints of vanilla, and the sharpness of sweet, peppery parsnip. There were also bits of housemade granola, that tasted faintly of dulce de leche, along with bottle cap sized ginger snaps, and little rounds of poached apple. Every bite of crunchy cookie, delicately poached fruit, and the creamy, only slightly sweet panna cotta was a lovely way to end a meal.
Jesse's Smoky Negroni Smith
And then Jesse hit us with the big show. That bastard. He's really outdone himself. In a sealed sous-vide bag, he approached us with a concoction that included blood red/orange liquid and what looked like charred bits of wood. He explained that the mix inside of the bag was very similar to what we would find in a classic Negroni, but he had taken the extra steps to char apple wood in a metal pan, place this along with the drink ingredients into a sous-vide bag, and intensely suck all of the air out of the mixture. Ideally what he wanted to do was force a sort of oak barrel dry aged flavor on the drink itself. And what was produced was nothing short of genius. He calls it the Negroni Smith, largely influenced by the fact that apple wood is being used, and after straining through a little sieve and pouring into a glass with a single large ice cube and the zest of an orange, we were hit the best after dinner cocktail that I've ever had in my life. It was so smoky. The bitters and the gin played beautifully on each other, all flavor notes kissed by the lovely charred flavor of those sacrificed apple wood chips. Sure, this is a boozy drink, and goes above and beyond your typical digestif. But god damn it was good.
The meal that we had at the Dorrance exceeded expectations. It was easily the best meal that I've had in Providence. If it were located in Cambridge, it would definitely be a major part of the food scene there, giving all other heavy hitters a little healthy competition. But because the restaurant is located in Providence, uniquely preserves the history of the neighborhood, and takes pride in being both old school in decor and playfully flavor forward in food and cocktail, I would be shocked if the Dorrance doesn't grow in popularity to become the most talked about restaurant in Providence, and later, New England. What an incredible meal.

The Dorrance
60 Dorrance St
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 521-6000

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