The key to its success is excess
by Bill Rodriguez
125 North Main St., Providence, 273-9090
Open Tues-Fri, 12-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
Tues-Thurs and Sun., 5-10 p.m.
Fri. & Sat., 5-11 p.m.
Major credit cards
Forget what went on the plates -- enjoying that was a given at this level of
restaurant. What most impressed me about XO Café was its atmosphere, and
I don't mean the paucity of smokers. No, I was struck by the delicate balance
of formality/informality. (Or was it the other way around?)
The waitstaff wear blue jeans, with white shirts and ties. Their playing
dress-up is only polite, a token of consideration, with the jeans certifying
that the gesture isn't just pro forma. Combine this dress code with a
decor that mixes fun with refinement, and you've got a place where you can dine
graciously without feeling as though your parents are watching.
Co-owner Cheryl Bready, described on the menu as the "resident Romantic," is a
designer by training. After our meal, she ticked off the various businesses
that had inhabited this North Main Street space prior to XO and said she'd
considered it a great spot for a restaurant long before there ever was one.
Of course, the late, great Angels restaurant was its last occupant, and
executive chef John Elkhay, another of the XO owners, worked there as well.
Today, while John works on food presentations that please the eye, Cheryl has
created just the right ambiance.
The copper-and-mahogany bar dominates the entry room, and an open kitchen
presides in the adjoining room. There are elegant sculptures of diaphanous
metal mesh and stone -- and an entertaining diptych of characters ranging from
Winston Churchill to Buddy Cianci, Groucho to Pavarotti. "Best wishes" graffiti
scribbled during XO's opening-night party three months ago adorns the faux
marble walls in the entryway. Once again, the urban/urbane contrast works.
So does what all the fuss is about. Appetizers here are mostly Oriental, with
even the calamari ($7) fried in a rice flour batter (although it is served with
smoked jalapeño mayonnaise). We were most curious about the "Portabello
Mushroom Fries" ($6), which were later set before us as a tall stack of a
half-dozen lightly battered tempura-fried slices. The dipping soy sauce was
flavored with anise, and the presentation included balsamic vinegar atop olive
oil puddles, for some variety in flavor. Succulent, copious, delicious.
The rest of the dinner menu consists of wood-oven pizzas, three meal-sized
salads, four pastas, and five entrées, in addition to the day's
specials. What caught both our attention, though, was the angel hair with
lobster ($17). Thankfully, I won the toss.
The capellini was not overdone, of course, and came swimming in a white wine
sauce containing butter and olive oil as well as fresh, sun-dried
tomatoes among the herbed ingredients. The lobster was also in generous
presence, with the meat of three claws and half a tail's worth.
Unfortunately, another regular menu item, fried potato-wrapped shrimp
($16.95), wasn't as successful. The idea was clever -- to wrap a half-dozen
partially cooked jumbo shrimp in strands of extruded potato and to deep-fat fry
them for a nifty textural contrast. But the split-second timing crucial to such
a feat went amiss this time, and the shrimp were quite overcooked under their
tangy dollops of vinegared avocado puree. Perfectly rendered, however, was the
accompanying Arborio rice with roasted corn and the round cake, which was
well-crisped on both sides and topped with a mini salad of tender greens.
At a place like XO, where thought goes into details, the pleasant little
touches add up. The crumb scraper arriving at the right time, the well-chosen
wine list, the refusal to resort to typical hyper-chocolate cake among the
Here, the kitchen-made desserts (listed eagerly before the appetizers) are few
but distinctive. The strawberry shortcake ($6), for example, is on peppery
shortbread and served with lemon mascarpone. The crème
brûlé tray ($7), which we chose, consists of three variations of
the baked custard -- chocolate, white chocolate, and anise -- suspended in a
triangular wrought-iron contraption. Drizzled sauces of lime, raspberry, and
mango decorated our plate, a reminder that, in desserts, nothing succeeds like
excess. Sounds, and tastes, like a fine policy to me.