[Sidebar] September 23 - 30, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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Some winners and a few miscues

by Ian Donnis

1 Providence Washington Plaza, South Main Street, Providence
Open Mon-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., and 5-10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., and 4:30-11 p.m.
Sunday, noon until 9 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

It was on the third of a string of recent visits to Hemenway's that everything clicked into place: a trio of super-fresh Moonstone oysters was wonderful, washed back with minced horseradish, cocktail sauce and Bass Ale. A generous hunk of grilled tuna and creamy mashed red bliss potatoes delivered substance and flavor. Nearby, after starting with a winning cup of clam chowder, a friend happily devoured a large portion of beef tips served over more of those lovely mashed potatoes.

The lunchtime feast showcased Hemenway's strengths: hearty fare served up in a casually elegant atmosphere at a prime location. This combination has fueled the restaurant's success since 1985, when Edward P. Grace III opened the place as a tribute to his late grandfather, Charles M. Hemenway, an entrepreneur and avid fisherman, who used to fly in fresh lobsters daily to his restaurant on 52nd Street in Manhattan.

Hemenway's has something of a celebratory feel about it. The restaurant and its patio are surrounded by a pretty stretch of South Main Street, Providence River Park, and riverfront views of the downtown skyline. Inside, high ceilings, an elevated bar, lots of dark wood and glowing neon squiggles of aquatic creatures lend a sense of expectation about the meal to come.

But although the service was unfailingly friendly, welcoming and efficient during my visits, the food emanating from the kitchen sometimes came up wanting. As one who is wary of the corporate influence in dining, I was not surprised to learn that Hemenway's is now owned by Atlanta-based Rare Hospitality, which operates the Capital Grille and Bugaboo Creek, among other concepts.

That said, some of the essentials for a self-respecting seafooder -- the raw bar, chowders, fried seafood and, somewhat improbably, the beef -- were excellent. On a dinner visit, an ample serving of pan-fried calamari with hot cherry peppers ($7.95) evidenced clean, greaseless frying, and the peppers added a welcome bite. Since this appetizer arrived as a friend and I were still mulling what to order for dinner, our waiter thoughtfully removed our menus and returned them a short time later.

Hemenway's starters feature an array of seafood in various preparations, from crab and lobster cakes with house tartar sauce ($11.95), to smoked salmon with capers, onions and dill mayonnaise ($8.95). The dinner selections include lobsters, fried seafood dinners, various catches of the day, and a few chicken, steak and seafood pasta options. There's a plentiful supply of wine, draft beer, and comfort food desserts, like apple crisp and cheesecake.

A friend, a certified landlubber, chose the filet mignon ($19.95), during my first visit. Things seemed auspicious with the arrival of some warm herb rolls. A Caesar salad that came with my dinner was overdressed, but the freshness of the vegetables was appealing. My friend almost began to sigh with delight after digging into his steak, the very essence of meat, as he pronounced it. Broiled grouper ($19.95) was my choice, but it was unavailable, so I opted for a mixed grill of scrod, snapper and swordfish ($18.95). The selection of fish, accompanied by unexceptional mashed potatoes, was a dull and underseasoned disappointment, especially for the better part of a $20 bill.

Returning for lunch, a cup of seafood chowder ($3.45) was the real deal -- a tasty concoction featuring tiny shrimp, a few chunks of fish, and a tiny sliver of lobster in a tangy, slightly creamy base. But a special of swordfish kabobs over mesclun greens ($11.95) was a little skimpy on the fish and poorly constructed, using mostly iceberg lettuce and tasteless canned black olives, instead of a flavorful kind, like kalamatas.

My third visit was the charm. The trio of oysters ($5.40) was outstanding. Seared on the outside, and sushi-grade on the inside, the grilled tuna ($10.95), accompanied by a useful lemon half and a tin of dill butter, was a pleasure, and the mashed red bliss potatoes had improved markedly since the earlier visit. The beef tips ($11.95) enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. After the earlier miscues, it was worthwhile to see that when Hemenway's is good, it can be very enjoyable.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

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