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
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
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