[Sidebar] September 21 - 28, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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The more things change, the more they stay the same

by Johnette Rodriguez

151 Weybosset St., Providence, 331-9217
Open Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Sun-Thurs, 5:30-9 p.m. (Fri and Sat until 10 p.m.)
Sat and Sun brunch, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Over the last decade, Downcity restaurant, in its early diner phase and its current chic mode, has been a mainstay in the city. It has survived in the midst of incredible changes by being willing to change. In fact, much of the decor in the expanded Downcity -- the Art Deco mirror behind the bar, the swing-era floor tiles (in black, white and coral), the '40s-style kitchen chairs -- was on the cutting edge of the swing trend that swept into popularity in the '90s.

Despite its transition from funky diner to trendy dining spot, Downcity has retained its unpretentious feel, from the friendly, helpful waitstaff to modest menu items such as meatloaf with mashed potatoes ($12) and Maine crab cakes with sweet potato fries ($15). But chef/owners Anthony Salemme and Paul Shire are also fond of tweaking old favorites and trying new things, such as Rhode Island jonnycakes with rock shrimp and lobster salad ($11), or a tamarind BBQ sauce on the pork chops ($15).

A friend who joined us praised his martini, and Bill enjoyed his traditional Manhattan, while I was thrilled to have a zingy ginger beer. Cocktails at Downcity ($6), always creative, have acquired a South-of-the-Border leaning over the past couple years, with mojitos and tequila-spiked pink lemonade leading the way. There's also a broad selection of beer, wine and cordials, both domestic and imported.

For dinner, our friend gravitated toward the pan-roasted littlenecks and shrimp with fried calamari over tomato risotto ($17), and we could scarcely get any samples away from him. The littlenecks and shrimp were expertly cooked, as was the fried calamari, which was placed atop the seafood-risotto mound. I loved the combination of flavors in the risotto, and the rice was done just to my liking, still firm but cooked through.

Bill had been eyeing the meatloaf ever since an order drifted past to another table: two large slices, looking not unlike some kind of chop, piled on shallot-roasted potatoes with mixed vegetables that included a round of corn-on-the-cob. His expectations were amply rewarded. The potatoes were creamy and not overpowered by the delicate shallots. The veggies were carefully sautéed and assembled. The meatloaf had a nice crust and a moist middle, although Bill did long for a bit more spiciness in the gravy.

I chose a pasta dish called Wild About Mushrooms ($14) that featured porcinis inside the ravioli, portobellos and baby spinach in a hefty sauce and a bit of melted fontina on top. The latter was one touch too many in what seemed a rich dish already. But the mushrooms and their friends were quite delicious.

Downcity makes wonderful desserts ($6 each), and it took us a while to make a decision. I tend to look for something other than chocolate after a substantial meal, but there are two chocolate tempters on the menu: flourless chocolate torte and devilish chocolate cake. Fruits lured me, especially the "lusty passion fruit torte," but so did the homemade ice creams, such as peach and dulce de leche, made from sweetened condensed milk.

Predictable predilections prevailed: I went for the mango-ginger bread pudding (made from Portuguese sweet bread, yum!), and Bill chose the peach cake with blueberry compote, on the urging of our friend, with whom he shared the quite generous portion. Both were scrumptious, though I'd stick with the mangos -- the peaches were somewhat hidden by the blueberries.

Salemme and Shire change the menu four times a year, both to accommodate local produce and to keep their cooking fresh and exciting. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Their interest in new dishes will not take them very far away from offering the best of Rhode Island's best: seafood, pasta and great veggies. Downcity has made itself a Providence classic.

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