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The East Side Culinary Craze

There’s something about our neighborhood that’s attracting – and keeping – the best restaurants in Providence

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Saskatchewan chanterelles, Fruity Pebble-specked donuts and coconut lobster ramen alfredo. Thanks to newcomers Persimmon, PVDonuts and Wara Wara these disparate delectables now call the East Side home. Restaurants come and go, but what’s notable about this recent bloom is that all are transplants or expansions with a record of success elsewhere. Despite its demure window boxes and residential feel, the East Side draws the very best, strengthening an already well-curated selection of restaurants.

Culinary Traditions
It’s worth noting that the East Side culinary scene was not always so magnetic. One of its founding figures Johanne Killeen, who along with her late husband George Germon, did much to establish the area with the legendary Al Forno (577 South Main Street, Providence. 273-9760, AlForno.com). Their culinary journey began in that most enviable state of affairs: dumb and in love. “George and I wanted to do something together to subsidize our freelance artwork… that’s how dumb we were,” she remarks. They opened in 1980 in a very different landscape. The food in Providence was relatively homogenous, mostly familial southern Italian-American food. Killeen recalls, “Ingredients available in Providence were so limited you couldn’t believe it. Romaine lettuce was exotic.”

Against this backdrop, Al Forno’s injection of dishes like Clams al Forno were a breath of fresh air, “totally unheard of in Providence.” Many dishes were born of their foodie courtship while working in Italy: “I wooed George with Tuscan food, and he wooed me with Roman food.” Their willingness to improvise led to the phenomenon of their grilled pizza, hurling them onto a national stage. Killeen is modest, pointing out others that came before, but when pressed on her legacy, she admits, ”I guess in retrospect we did bring a lot of interest to Providence and a lot of interest in food.” They inspired subsequent restauranteurs to see, “that you could have success doing something original.”

As our young and besotted RISD graduates learn, creative spirit alone doesn’t pay the bills. The East Side has charm and character, but also economic opportunity for restaurants. Sidewalks and single families with curb appeal make for a pleasant walk, but they also signal expendable income, low crime, foot traffic and easy parking. Al Forno is like Methuselah in restaurant years, but its longevity isn’t quite as freakish on the East Side. Stability is a tantalizing possibility for a good restaurant that stays sharp. For example, Pizzico has been successful on Hope Street for 25 years, 15 of which have been under Jim Harris’ ownership (762 Hope Street, Providence. 421-4114, StockFoodGroup.com). This continuity often doesn’t tell the full story. Harris took on Chef Daniel Teodoro as a partner eight years ago, and he overhauled and modernized the menu, with a focus on local sourcing. “You have to keep evolving,” says Harris.

Harris is as bullish as ever about Hope Street, saying it’s “one of the best locations in the state.” Harris argues that while other parts of Providence are oversaturated and “fighting for customers,” around him there’s enough to go around. Because it’s hard to get a permit, the scene is usually one out, one in. Even better, each restaurant tends to find its own niche, rather than competing for the same tastes.

Insulated from the boom and bust that can result when it’s easy to build or convert, there’s an established balance of residential and restaurant that has been working well for as long as anyone can remember. Food has only helped the neighborhood. There’s no better example of how ingrained these relationships are than the woman who lives behind Chez Pascal (960 Hope Street, Providence. 421-4422, Chez-Pascal.com). Chef Matt Gennuso says she “loves the smells” and can tell the time of day with her nose. The smell of charred onions? It must be 10pm, when they do onion brulees for their stocks.
Gennuso bristled slightly when complimented about his restaurant being an institution, because of the inertia that connotes. “I feel in order to keep yourself in the game you constantly have to change,” he explains. In 2012 Gennuso opened up the Wurst Kitchen as an informal haute dog companion piece. He’s always searching for “one extra little touch, to make the difference.”

New Restaurants on the Block
While history proves the East Side has a tradition of success and quality, when searching for a location, restaurateurs have varied needs. Champe Speidel of Persimmon (99 Hope Street, Providence. 432-7422, PersimmonRI.com) was wondering where to go after achieving all there was to achieve in Bristol. He wanted to own a space that provided more creative freedom and he wanted something central and visible. When the owners of Ebisu, Chef X Premwatt, and Chef Kazu Kondo began plotting a second restaurant, they were hunting for a place that would embrace a different style of Japanese restaurant, with customers that are adventurous and inquisitive. Lori Kettelle of PVDonuts was ready to jump in the deep end after her food startup enjoyed success. She needed a place she could afford to run as a family business, accessible to eager donut fiends of all ages who appreciate quality. Places like Pasta Beach seem to agree, with designs on siting their third location in Wayland Square soon. The answer to all of these different questions was the same: this is the vibrancy of the East Side.

Buying in and Stretching Out
A six-time James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Northeast, Champe Speidel certainly hasn’t been starved for success at Persimmon in Bristol. So why the much anticipated move? Some of the defining characteristics of the Bristol location – its intimacy and feeling of occasion – had begun to feel stifling. Due to its small size and big reputation, Persimmon became all reservations, often even including the tiny bar. While a good problem to have, this model of fine dining is not what Speidel originally envisioned. He explains, “I think our crew was starting to get restless, I was getting restless creatively, there was nowhere to go in our space. We were stuck.” Now, Speidel and his talented staff have room to breathe.

When Speidel and wife Lisa had the opportunity to own rather than rent, they jumped on it, ending a protracted and at times indecisive search. Speidel said he’d been in love with the standalone building for years, which was home to another East Side founder, Deborah Norman’s Rue de L’Espoir for the last 39 years. He describes it as a perfect restaurant location, “You feel like you are totally in the middle of a neighborhood. It’s not some stone or brick building at the bottom floor of a tower, yet you are only a minute away from the city. It’s a nice oasis up here.”

With twice the seats, Speidel can finally do walk-ins, as well as have room for a 15-seat bar. This is much more fun for his talented bartenders and allows Speidel to design a larger menu with smaller plates. This makes for a restaurant that can accommodate a more casual after-work crowd who want a couple quick bites, as well as those who want to have a more indulgent dining experience.
More room on the menu allows Persimmon to explore microseasons, for instance the flush of Saskatchewan chanterelles they just got in thanks to some rain in the dry Canadian province. These mushrooms are renowned for their unmatched intensity of flavor. Speidel’s speech becomes more animated as the topic turns to food: “they’re the best chanterelles you can find. Right now we are featuring them with the sweetbreads. We can really highlight two or three ingredients and make them shine.”

Sharing and Sake on Hope
When the owners of Ebisu on the far south side of Providence looked to spawn another restaurant, they brought in Nick Mazonowicz of Salted Slate and played a cold-sake-sipping, noodle-slurping version of Goldilocks. What they found to be just right was a familiar conclusion, Fox Point or Hope. When Blaze closed on Hope, they seized the opportunity and opened Wara Wara (776 Hope Street, Providence. 831-9272, WaraWaraRI.com). They wanted to introduce Providence to their take on Izakaya, an informal, drink-centered, small-plate fixture of Japanese nightlife. Izakaya has slowly made its way across the country, starting all along the West Coast. Co-chef and co-owner Kazu Kondo echoes Johanne Killeen about the well-travelled taste buds of East Side customers: “When you talk to people Japanese means sushi, or Japanese means hibachi, so we were trying to change that. People around here definitely knew that. They travel more, so it was easier for us to market.”

The truest expression of Izakaya is found in their commitment to sake, which Kondo believes is second to none in Providence. Sake pairings and flights are available, with a wide range of sake on offer. Kondo made some noble sacrifices in pursuit of higher learning: “I went for a course in New York, you get to try hundreds of varieties of sake, and then you have to take the test which is kind of hard. It’s like you are making someone run a marathon, but at the same time you are feeding them alcohol.”

You can get something you expect, like beautifully plated yellowtail crudo to share, or you can get something different entirely, perhaps with a dose of co-owner and chef X Premwatt’s Thai influence. Kondo explains one such dish, an atypical lobster claw alfredo, “we don’t want to do it in the Italian way, so we thought, ‘coconut milk, why don’t we use that instead of heavy cream [and] use our fresh Ramen noodles.’” That’s the East Side in a nutshell, the traditional and the transgressive, with seafood, of course.

Craft Donuts Fill a Hole in Fox Point
Lori Kettelle hasn’t even moved into her new location yet, but she’s already getting messages from her new foodie neighbors, such is the buzz around her PVDonuts (77 Ives Street, Providence. PVDonuts.com). Herself an East Side resident, she will soon be the East Side’s first craft donut shop, independently and locally run.

With lines out the door at her current location in the Jewelry district, I had to know what makes her donuts special. The answer, as it so often does with food, came down to time, attention and ingredients. In addition to making fresh fillings daily, and her commitment to butter, Kettelle uses a 24-hour delayed fermentation to relax her brioche dough. This produces perfect texture and more developed flavor. This is a method used in French bakeries for their pain a’lancienne, and just like a good boulangerie, Kettelle’s temporary home at Sin Bakery is sold out by mid-morning, each and every day. Her repeat business is built on eliminating disappointment. “We go through so many steps. When frying, if a donut doesn’t look up to par, we put it aside. When dipping, if it isn’t up to snuff, we put it aside […] on some days we have more loss than we want, but would we rather lose the customer or the donut?”

The rise of her dough might be slow, but the rise of her business has been explosive. Only a year or so ago, her husband was bringing her donuts to his gym. Next, PVDonuts briefly stopped at Hope & Main, but outgrew their small fryer immediately with wholesale orders quadrupling in her second week of business. Kettelle found a perfect place to get a foothold, sharing Sin’s kitchen, but had to hand-off the kitchen at 7:30am, unable to meet all her demand. When her husband found a place available at 77 Ives Street on Craigslist, they signed a lease a week later.

Take a moment to think about Ketelle’s new food neighborhood. Imagin a latte from The Shop in between bites of donut, or perhaps the donut is the post-Tallulah’s Taqueria dessert instead? Finally, turn to nearby Silver Star Bakery, and plan to pick up some Portuguese sweetbread for French toast. Under its current ownership for almost 30 years, there has been a bakery there in one form or another for most of the last century. It’s no accident that exactly like Kettelle’s fantastic donuts, their sweetbreads are all-butter and slow-risen; it’s just the right way to do it.

Whether it’s pasteis de nata or a peanut butter and fluff donut, this neighborhood supports quality, new or old. Confidence in that fact breeds more quality and lately that’s happening faster than ever. Parking, permits, personal consumption indexes: these are the mechanics and they are real. At the root of it, good food works here. That’s all a great chef wants to know.