Neath's New American Bistro
Teaching us how to enjoy food
by Bill Rodriguez
262 South Water St., Providence, 751-3700
Open Tues-Sun, 5:30-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
There's an old helipad just across South Water Street at Neath's, the new
restaurant where Grill 262 used to be. You'd be forgiven for assuming a causal
relationship: when word gets out, those looking for upscale fine dining will be
flocking -- if not helicoptering -- in. The food's elegant, exotic and
exquisitely prepared. And the chef-proprietor has helped set the standards at
some of the best places in town.
Cambodian-born Neath (pronounced NEE-it) Pal got his degree as a zoologist,
but while working at a Newport restaurant, he discovered that he wanted to be a
chef. He studied cooking in France and returned to work at no less than
Providence's top restaurant, Al Forno. From there, he helped start the kitchen
at L'Epicureo, which quickly gained national attention, as well as Grappa,
another of his current first-rate competitors.
At Neath's, you enter through the downstairs bar and walk upstairs to the
spacious dining room, passing the bustle of an open kitchen that is visible
across a low partition. The décor is pleasant, burgundy and textured
peach. A bank of windows gives a river view, and a black-and-white Thai mural
decorates one wall.
The menu choices at this "New American Bistro" are simple, a half-dozen
appetizers and the same number of entrées, plus four daily main-course
specials. A quick perusal of the offerings shows a common theme: the
combination of New England ingredients with Asian preparations and accents. For
instance, the steamed littlenecks appetizer ($8) is in a miso and kombu seaweed
broth. And included among the West-meets-East entrée specials on the
evening we visited were rack of venison with a tamarind glaze and sirloin in a
sesame and miso marinade.
If you're unfamiliar with Southeast Asian cuisine, you might try Neath's "soft
spring roll" ($7) for an appetizer -- a standard Vietnamese nim chow,
although large and tasty, complete with Thai basil and peanut-dipping sauce.
What we enjoyed more, however, was our shrimp-and-shiitake-filled dumplings
($7). Three dumplings, first steamed and then seared on a grill, with soy sauce
on the side. Delicious.
For my main course, I was tempted to have the grilled chicken ($16) I'd
enjoyed on a prior visit -- it is rubbed with lemongrass and served with a
papaya salad. But I chose the sea bass ($19) instead, a specialty served with
cool cucumber slices and jasmine rice. The wonderfully moist and thick filet
had been marinated with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and fermented black beans,
then served in a reduction of the marinade. The latter ingredient is a Korean
staple, and Pal spent a couple of years there as a boy, before his family moved
to the States. In Korea, it is used in a fiery chili paste, but Pal's version
demonstrates the finesse of the Cambodian cooking style, usually less spicy-hot
than its Thai cousin.
There was heat in the dish across from me, though. The braised lobster ($23)
had been removed from its shell and prepared with coconut milk and red curry in
a marvelous balance of hot and sweet. It was served over wide Cantonese rice
noodles, which were appreciated for their help in not wasting that delicious
When you're in such an innovative restaurant, it's a wicked affront not to
have dessert. In this case, another reason is that the fried chocolate wonton
($7) is to die for. No, the three wonton wrappers aren't chocolate, but the
filling sure is. Bittersweet and heavenly. Accompanied by three cruelly small
(European gelato-sized) melon balls of ginger ice cream. On a plate drizzled
with tangy raspberry syrup. I'm sorry; I'll stop.
Neath Pal learned in France to merge flavors and learned in multi-ethnic Rhode
Island that local diners will accept far more than scrod and boiled potatoes.
Neath's is the kind of restaurant that can teach us how to enjoy food.