|Oysters as Aphrodisiac? At Nicks on Broadway, Rhode Island, it's all about the love|
Consider this your official Culinary Cupid’s arrow or two - and a quiver-full of exciting and delicious food and drink destinations located in the Ocean State -- that’s Rhode Island for the landlubbers and others who are not yet smitten with the US’s second smallest state.
Why consider Rhode Island for a romantic Valentine’s weekend? There are dozens of reasons; I’ll give you more than a few:
- It’s easier to get to than the Hamptons (no snaking traffic jams.)
- Newport and Providence, in particular, have long hosted some of the world’s wealthiest travelers and country estate owners -- think Vanderbilts, Astors, Belmonts, Henry James and Edith Wharton, -- and today’s “It Girl:” Taylor Swift. They know a thing or two about where to stay.
- Good things come in small packages -- so despite being small in size - there is great diversity in things to do: from the ocean to restaurants to wineries to shopping to artisanal foods.
- It’s the home of the famous culinary school, Johnson & Wales so there is a food-centric pedigree that permeates and elevates the state’s approach to dining.
Don’t you agree that a big part of true love is that sense of discovery - always learning something new while a certain spell is cast? Visiting Newport and Providence - and seeing the state's delightful countryside is a lot like that fascination.
Make plans to stay at the grand Providence Biltmore either on the front end of your trip or as a finishing touch to end your stay -- it’s located convenient to Amtrak and the train station. Take the train -- it’s easy and fun and you feel transported from the moment you find your seat. View the scenery while sipping some wine and nibbling a snack. It’s the way to go.
|View of Rhode Island scenery from Amtrak seat|
You must stay at the luxurious Ocean House home away-from-home, but oh-so-much-better hotel - a replica of the 1937 showpiece.
Ok, so you will at some point want to motor that Benz over to a few restaurants and explore a winery or two.
Not to be missed is The Midtown Oyster Bar. Come prepared for a true bivalve adventure!
Brian Ashness, the Midtown’s Raw Bar chef, came up with a brilliant strategy for oyster newbies after seeing a kind of tutorial place mat in Chicago that inspired him - and here’s how it works.
So slurp away! I love that full, crisp, herbal or smoky oyster. The Block Island oyster is spectacular - unexpectedly salty, very bright flavor; so too the Poppasquash oysters from nearby Bristol are spectacular.
Paired with local, craft beer and you’re just this side of heaven because you’ll be seeing stars. (Too bad there’s not local wine available at the restaurant -- you know the saying, “If it grows together, it goes together.” The white wines - especially the dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer - we tasted later at the Nunes Farms’ Newport Vineyards would’ve been terrific.)
The only thing better is the Midtown Oyster Sauce that Chef Brian created.
Every menu item sampled at this casual restaurant was top-tier.
|You love this chef - and his brilliant creations!|
The Newport Vineyards was frankly, a surprise. While the vineyard is celebrating its 20th anniversary, I had no idea the extent of the wine-making available there. And that it’s good-tasting wine made me blush for not being aware of this regional gem. The Nunes preserved the land that had been in the brothers John and Paul’s family for generations. The geography provides a microclimate that is positioned to take advantage of the “warm waters of the Gulf Stream to the south and the moderating effects of Narragansett Bay. These conditions provide a long, cool growing season ideal for developing complex flavors in wine,” according the winery.
The Vineyard boasts tasting rooms, tours, an extensive shopping area stocked with gifts and wine -- you can have customized labels made -- and a casual cafe for eating and take out (I’m told the locals frequent this spot as well as the Farm to Market Fridays), along with an event space, terrace with a view adjacent to the vines in the field, an event space, and a full restaurant upstairs. I loved the fireplace there and long, winding bar - a kind of rustic romantic perch.
Here we got lucky during our two flights of wine tasting:
|Chef Andy Teixeira, Newport Vineyards|
|Lardons, parsnip & wow!|
|Chef Andy's culinary tatoos!|
With reluctance, we peeled ourselves away from Chef Andy and the Newport Vineyards and headed to what was then the StoneAcre Pantry.
I’ll describe the menu and dishes in a minute but please note that since I visited StoneAcre Pantry, the restaurant announced it was closing temporarily - after three years -- and re-opening La Vasca at its present location -- and plans to reopen Stoneacre Pantry in the summer in the Historic Washington Square area.
The restaurant’s web site says, “La Vasca is (a) Basque style wine bar (beer and wine) offering Pintxos, Tapas, hot and cold appetizers and a selection of entrees including Paella, whole roasted fish and beef. We will follow the same sourcing and sustainability practices we have focused on at Stoneacre.”
Congratulations to StoneAcre Pantry and its foodie fans.
The evening I dined there, the food was as spectacular as that outsize visit from Santa.
First off - the wine list is extraordinary, as is the local, craft beer. Fitting that their location was a former liquor store. The wine and beer list reads like a poem - an homage. I have kept the printed list -- there are five pages of wines to explore. It’s a kind of love letter from the owners -- I was able to meet and dine a bit with co-owner David Crowell. His partner is Christopher Bender - colleagues at Gotham’s Mas Farmhouse. The two grew up in Rhode Island: their roots are waterfront, working class, Crowell notes.
Their philosophy? Working people, hospitality… The restaurant is run as a kind of co-op with the staff -- the team is paramount, according to Crowell. He shared how they want to keep the charm, the vibe, and the hub of activity they provide.. He loves the “pitter-patter” of the place… agreed.
Their Bistro is open year-round; the bar looked into the kitchen.
I loved the Charred Pt. Judith Squid with Pickled Peppers, Fingerling Potatoes and Romesco, for the Appetizer; Local Fluke with Ginger, Lemongrass, Bok Choy and Radish for the entree -that was like a soup -- with the fish accented with cilantro --this dish is in the style of Le Bernardin.
If you do nothing else - go to the restaurant for the cheese selections. They offer three for $18 and 5 for $28 -- and the local cheeses from Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York is a well curated list that needs to be savored with more of their sublime wine list.
We enjoyed a beet and pineapple granita palate cleanser! Be still my heart…
After a happy stay at the Providence Biltmore, the next day we dined at Nicks on Broadway
Without a doubt, Nicks and its superlative chef/owner, Derek Wagner is the consummate professional cook; blending comfort, hospitality, and an elevated, handcrafted menu that celebrates the seasons and the ingredients. And he does it for three meals a day! Incredible…
Not only was the menu and food outstanding - but his team produced a detailed menu for the visit, and Chef Derek took the time to talk and expand on his menu, his approach to culinary art, and his restaurant business (he’s been at it for more than 15 years; seven in the present location and plans to expand).
You cannot miss the opportunity for a meal here: breakfast, lunch, dinner, or brunch. Or all that! You cannot be dissapointed.
Here, I’ll take the time and space to share the press brunch menu Chef Derek and his staff meticulously prepared and presented - with all due modesty - and bravado. It’s a tour de force; deserving of a second show.
It’s long a truism in gastronomic spheres that the “eyes eat first” and Chef Derek and the team cued up every visual delight to be found within their precious, luxurious ingredients - so much so that the presentation served to further the integrity, taste, and beauty of the dishes.
Dolin Blanc Vermouth (my favorite for nightly martini), Louis de Grenelle sparkling rose, orange twist. The drink was pretty and bright.
Local, seasonal fruit with house-baked granola, Aquidneck honey + Narragansett Creamery Yogurt. The locally-sourced yogurt was oh-so-heavenly light, as was the honey. The mint was a refreshing touch.
Schartner Farm carrot cake muffin with apple-carrot jam. This was a muscular muffin and the jam flavor combo was jazzy good! A nice counterbalance to the yogurt and fruit course.
Narragansett Bay Oysters two ways: Chilled with pickled apple-shishito-pepper + mustard seed vinegar and Roasted with kale, horseradish, black pepper, parmesan + garlic butter. OK - you know that I adore oysters but these recipes served to gild the lily; the flavors were balanced yet plentiful, the taste was refreshing, bright, and rich.
Prior to sliding to the half-way milestone of the meal, Chef Derek, himself a graduate of nearby Johnson & Wales, told us how he participates in creating greater awareness of the state’s small, family farms (think apples, cranberries, maple syrup), local fishermen (it’s the Ocean State!), artisanal makers, building sustainable community, and embracing the region’s edible bounty. At the same time, he works on the Board of the the Chefs’ Collaborative and together with associations and convention bureaus promotes travel and tourism in Rhode Island, his home state. I remarked it must be the food that keeps him so calm in spite of all the work. With obvious pride, he pointed out how Nicks’ customers exemplify the vibrant energy that draws tourists, foodies, and eventually, residents to locate here. There was that palatable, frisson when a nexus of sophistication, art, and culture naturally, organically combust and grow.
Soup of Cauliflower, leek + olive oil, with creme fraiche. The soup was creamy, smooth - with just a hint of leek.
Lemon roasted Point Judith Scup with autumn vegetables, soft poached egg + herb hollandaise. The brussels sprouts, broccoli, mustard greens - all sourced from local farms - was an orchestral tribute to the other, fresh ingredients and the egg yolk was a silky, rich sauce made all the more mmmm with the touch of herbs. I love that Chef utilizes the scup, aka porgy -- which heretofore was considered not worthy of a white linen restaurant. But he - and other creative chefs in this brigade - pursue ingredients that are overlooked and then delight us with their versatility and taste. Rather than an obstacle they view the pursuit as a creative challenge. The scup has a lobster-like texture that integrated with the vegetables; a perfect foil for the savory dish.
Wishing Stone Farm pumpkin sorbet with sea salt + bubbles. This iced treat was utterly refreshing and delicious. It was so nice to see a palate cleanser -- after they became nearly ubiquitous some years back - and because they were nothing more than sugary sherbet made them intermezzo-non-grata. If this is what we can expect in the next iteration of this classic, then even food recipes deserve a second-act in America.
Rhode Island mushroom, Baffoni Farm Chicken + chicken sausage risotto with pecorino, pea greens + sunny quail eggs. Brilliant and beautiful. The quail eggs were a happy, tasty ingredient. The mushrooms added a salty taste and the cheesy risotto along with the “smooshed” chicken was just so much good comfort food...
Walnut + buttermilk crumble with rosemary ice cream + cranberry-lemon sauce
Cocoa chiffon cake with butterscotch ice cream, dark chocolate ganache, caramel sea salt. This confection was nuanced with all my favorite sweet flavors. It was crazy, eyes-closed, transcendentally good…
Le Pere Jules Pommeau de Normandie
That I was able to interview Chef Derek at the same time was the “icing on the cake.” Thank you, Chef.
|The incredibly talented culinary artist: Chef Derek Wagner, Nicks on Broadway|
Chef Derek and his team are impeccable. His food story is inspiring and visionary. You can’t help but root for this kind of chef. Nicks on Broadway is an exciting, authentic food experience to be savored -- again and again.
We took a little break to check out the local markets in Providence’s Little Italy section. I loved Antonelli Poultry - the decades-old store where one can purchase fresh, live fowl -- from pigeon to quail to duck to yes, Rhode Island Red chickens.
Incredibly, it was then off to lunch at Cafe Nuovo. One would be forgiven for thinking the location at the Gondola Landing is not unlike being in Venice. I was told the spot is the place to be for the Providence’s light festival -- with bonfires fireworks and music and art. Sounds dreamy. The restaurant is a traditional, white linen dining spot with a classic menu and wine list. The dishes appeared influenced by Italian and French recipes. Forbidden Rice tickled my curiosity and it didn't’ disappoint -- it was elegant black and tasted full-bodied. The pizza anglaise with bechamel and apples was tasty; the sweet potato soup with cranberry chutney was especially good and a nice surprise, as was the sambuca cream. I loved the crispy sage leaves Cafe Nuovo served - and as a matter of fact, I’ve recreated this side dish at home. This is a restaurant you’d want to take a business associate to. It is contemporary and dependable - you know what you’re getting.
Like a Cinderella foodie, I was then whisked away on the train, back to to Gotham.
I can honestly report that the Rhode Island hospitality venues, including the restaurants, possess a dedication to their craft; the culinary prowess is carefully considered and valued. Go for a romantic, food-fueled weekend. And you too will be humming, “More, please.” Thank you chefs and entrepreneurs for sharing your talent and energy.
I must confess that my husband and I honeymooned in Newport; we used to return every year for a long weekend visit but i hadn’t been back for some time. I’m happy to report that the sense of magic for the place continues to cast its spell... Make your own dreams come true in Rhode Island.