Adesso California Café
Elegant left coast cuisine
by Bill Rodriguez
161 Cushing St., Providence, 521-0070
Open Sun-Thurs, 5-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat, 5-11:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
We're a long way from the left coast. And not. In our age of homogenized
culture and trends traveling at the speed of Oprah's enthusiasms, La-La land
habitués need not suffer culture shock in North Dakota, let alone
Providence. By its name, Adesso California Café lays claim to the
culinary canniness we associate with the likes of Spago and Chez Panisse. While
neither the avatars of pineapple on pizza nor the fresh-local-produce
fetishists of Berkeley would gibber in joy in this stylish boite off of Thayer
Street, the place is a treat.
Actually, the ethnic fusion and exotic ingredients once associated with
California cookery are taken for granted in so many restaurants these days that
the regional claim may be misleading. Think of it as an attitude rather than a
commitment. "Adesso" means "now" in Italian, but here it's not a matter of
slavish attention to trends. Since late summer, Chow Malikorn has been in
charge of the menu. He's a 12-year veteran in that kitchen and was the sous
chef for former head chef Thomas Dahl. Thank goodness Adesso isn't locked in
time and serving up those artfully designed tapas-like morsels that California
nouvelle cuisine was once passing off as entrées. In Rhode Island, where
the platter has been nudging aside the dinner plate as the conveyance of
choice, things could get ugly.
The atmosphere is one reminder of a sunnier clime. Not so much the bank of
windows at this time of year -- it faces a parking lot anyway. No, more the
feeling that you'll be well cared for. You know you're in good hands with a
waitstaff that's informative about the menu and which commits orders to memory.
They wear vests with patterns of muted swirls, a nice combination of formality
and imagination. Angel faces, outlined in white neon, are placed here and
there. The west wall is filled with a restful mural, its palm trees still and
turquoise sea as calm as you are invited to be.
I used to come here with a foodie friend and make a meal of a spread of
snacks. Alongside a few salads are a half-dozen appetizers, but the dozen
pizzas are the big attraction. Thick with cheese, surrounded by puffy,
delicious crusts, they're a reliable start, most about $13. (For an extra $60,
your smoked salmon and shrimp pizza can be dappled with Beluga caviar.) No
tropical fruits are toppings, but the white pizza has fresh chives and
thyme, and the lobster and asparagus one is touched with pungent truffle oil
and has a thinner crust than usual, to let the delicate flavors come through
We shared the antipasto ($10.95) and found it to be several notches above the
usual pile of cold cuts and drippy pepperoncino. Speaking of the latter, a very
un-vinegary marinated eggplant mix was offered in one of several radicchio leaf
cups. Also appreciated were the oregano mushrooms and salty wedges of focaccia,
to pique the taste buds. The provolone and prosciutto were good quality -- a
point made on the menu, which boasts of using only Provimi veal, Lundy pork,
Patrons are given some credit here. Bread and butter or olive oil isn't thrust
upon you, but served only on request -- after all, a drink or prompt appetizer
may be preferable. There are pepper and salt grinders on your table for
fine-tuning, instead of your waitperson making a big show. The diners attracted
here have warranted not only a bar expansion in recent years, but also a major
commitment to wine. The 15 careful selections once offered have multiplied into
scores, and have earned a 1998 Wine Spectator award of excellence.
We were satisfied with our main dishes as well. The real test of al dente was
the angel hair pasta, which kept its bite in a preparation with portobello
mushrooms and assorted vegetables, including both red and yellow peppers and
delicate little pattypan squash ($15.95). The olive oil was flavorful --
although too plentiful for Johnnie -- and was brightly complemented by a touch
of lemon. Similar vegetables were under my black-sesame-crusted tuna ($20.95),
including broccoli florets and thin baby green beans. In soy sauce and sesame
oil, like Chinese noodles, the bed of fettucine was al dente to the point of
rawness in places, a textural contrast I much enjoyed, although some might want
it merely firm. Perhaps I was put in a teeth-tingling mood by the nearly
two-inch-thick slab of tuna, served medium rare as ordered, virtually sashimi.
With its drizzle of fiery wasabi and Chinese mustard, it was exquisite.
We had little room for dessert, but were inspired by the sample tray of eight
or 10 opportunities, all kitchen-made. Spurning the fat square of tiramisu, the
flourless chocolate cake and the mascarpone and chocolate mousse, we had the
trifle ($5.95). Good choice. Lemony custard, studded with blueberries and
strawberries over pound cake. A fine finish.
Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters might find the name Adesso California
Café a bit too much, but if they ever sit down to the fare, I'm sure
they'd be quite forgiving.