[Sidebar] June 12 - 19, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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Stunning color and texture, from food to decor

by Johnette Rodriguez

At the Westin Hotel
West Exchange St., Providence
Open for lunch Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.;
dinner Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. till 10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible

At the Agora restaurant, presentation is everything, as it should be in a hotel as stylishly upscale as the Westin. It starts with the plush decor of heavy brocade drapes and overstuffed loveseats at tables for two and continues with the waiters' dramatic flourishes as they set dishes in front of you.

One of the characteristics of the menu here is its descriptive detailing of the origins of the ingredients. The fish in the chowder is "line caught;" the vine-ripened tomatoes are from Foster, Rhode Island; the pineapples in the frozen dessert souffle are Costa Rican Gold.

At the Agora, herbs and spices are used in unusual ways. Truffle risotto is infused with lavender; salmon is glazed with fennel and red chilis; the pineapple souffle is set off with dollops of tarragon sauce and a sprig of the herb itself.

Chefs Casey Riley and Susan R. Witt also play with color and texture to great advantage. A good example is the appetizer I ordered -- roasted Vidalia onion and spring asparagus soups (yes, two of them) with pimento-capri cheese souffle and toasted morels ($8).

Served in one wide soup bowl, the creamy white and fresh green soups formed two halves of a circle, with the coral souffle perched in the middle and the crunchy morels placed in each puree. Each of the tastes kept its individuality, and each complemented the other as carefully as the colors in the dish did. To my palate, however, the soups were over salted.

For my next course, I chose the North Atlantic chick halibut ($19) with spiced tangerine fume. (Chicks are the 2- to 10-pound fish rather than the usual 50- to 100-pound variety.) The halibut was perfectly roasted and served in the center of a thin, bright orange sauce matched by a bit of salmon roe atop the fillet and crowned with a lacy green pea tendril. The tang of the tangerine nicely brought out the sweetness of the fish.

Side dishes at the Agora must be ordered à la carte, and I perused the possibilities: truffle mashed potatoes, steamed asparagus, fresh fava beans, roasted salsify ($4-$6). The native fiddleheads with garlic ($5), however, eventually called to me.

They were crisp, with a very fresh, almost grassy flavor, nothing like the canned version. Their onion and tomato companions turned out to be more prominent than the announced garlic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, a similar smorgasbord was taking place. The roasted onion and black pepper pasta stuffed with tomatoes, spinach, and taleggio cheese turned out to be grilled cannelloni squares wrapped around the vegetables with an eggplant ragout on the side and a garnish of mesclun greens ($19). Exclamations of delight from my dining partner punctuated the silences of a focussed fresser.

The desserts sounded so decadent, it was hard to narrow the field. Pistachio mousse with blackberry coulis vied with rose sorbet with kiwi-strawberry salsa. There were also six different chocolate souffles -- from Hershey's to Godiva.

My companion chose "semi-sweet" with French vanilla ice cream ($8) and was not disappointed. Nor was I with my pineapple souffle ($8). A pineapple lover's dream, the frozen creaminess was topped by a ring of golden fruit, with slivers of dried pineapple rings arcing from the middle.

Agora's extensive wine list helpfully groups the whites and reds by six descriptive headings, such as "dry & clean" or "berries & earth." The whites are heavy on the French and Californian; the reds on Italian and Californian. Local vineyards are represented by Chardonnays from Stonington, Westport Rivers, and Greenvale Vineyards (the latter in Portsmouth).

In ancient times, an agora referred to a place to assemble. Certainly local businesspeople, out-of-town conventioneers, and visitors to the Westin have made this Agora a place to meet and greet.

Here they are pampered by the waiters, coddled by the chefs, and charmed by a view of the sun's last glow on the New England houses that climb up University Heights. Their contentment inspires them to spread the word about Providence's reputation for good restaurants, and soon even more diners will assemble at the Agora.

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