[Sidebar] March 11 - 18 1999
[Food Reviews]
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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
No access

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 sauce.

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.

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