[Sidebar] September 11 - 18, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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XO Café

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
Handicapped accessible

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 desserts.

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.

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