[Sidebar] November 2 - 9, 2000
[Food Reviews]
| by cuisine | by location | by restaurant | hot links | previous reviews | reviews |

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
Sidewalk access

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 better.

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, etc.

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.

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 2000 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.