[Sidebar] November 11 - 18, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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Jake's Bar & Grille

An appealing neighborhood bar

by Ian Donnis

373 Richmond St., Providence, 453-JAKE
Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Fri until 2 a.m.; Sat, noon-2 a.m., Sun, noon-1 a.m.
Kitchen open daily until midnight
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

The best neighborhood bars live on in the collective memory of a community long after they've passed from the scene. So it is with Leo's, shuttered in 1994 after almost 20 years at the site now occupied by the Atomic Grill, and still fondly recalled by admirers as a wonderfully polyglot joint where an improbable cast of pols, artists and other colorful characters mixed for intoxicating discourse.

Leo's easygoing spirit was the direct inspiration for Jackie Nichols, who waited tables there for eight years, when she waylaid her son, Jake, from his European travel plans with the notion of opening a place of their own. London and Paris have to wait, but the junior partner got to put his name on the enterprise.

Located next to an enamel shop in Providence's Jewelry District, Jake's has established a pleasant presence since opening in July in a former service garage. With a long bar and a dozen tables set nearby on an elevated dining area, the renovated space is airy, casual and bedecked with changing works by local artists. The visual focal point is Jessica Van Daam's striking mural on the back wall, unveiled by the mighty Bud-I over the summer, which features Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra and other luminaries who have passed from this bash. An outdoor patio is open during warmer weather.

Jake's menu features the traditional bar round-up of appetizers, burgers, soups, salads and sandwiches, along with a batch of entrees -- including lemon sesame chicken ($10.95), grilled pork chops ($11.95), seared yellowfin tuna ($12.95), baked penne pasta ($9.95) -- that are served after 5 p.m. Half a dozen beers, including Bass ($4 a pint), Sam Adams, and Guinness are offered on tap, and the friendly folks behind the bar make a swinging cosmopolitan ($4.25). Eleven wines are available by the glass, including the crisp Clos du Bois chardonnay ($4.75) and the undistinguished Jekel cabernet sauvignon ($5.50).

Chef Rabbit Hoffinger (who, like Jake Nichols, cut his teeth while working at Leo's as a teenager) shows his flare with the nocturnal selection of daily specials. On a recent visit, these included shrimp risotto with tomatoes and garlic ($14); prosciutto and caramelized onion ravioli in a Sambuca cream sauce ($13); and grilled salmon in a soy-cilantro sauce with rice and roasted vegetables ($14).

A cup of black bean-sausage soup ($3), a selection of the day, was hearty even in its pureed form and offered a pleasantly spicy bite. Jake's steak ($13.95), a grilled 10-ounce sirloin strip, was tender, well-seasoned and cooked to a perfect medium, with a bright red center and brown exterior. It was joined by some nice garlic mashed potatoes, and roasted vegetables.

A seeming concession to nervous eaters, a recommendation in the menu recommends that diners order their seafood and meat thoroughly cooked. But no timidity was evident in grilling the salmon, which was sushi-grade inside and tangy and slightly crisp with a concentrated soy flavor on the exterior. Although the advertised cilantro was MIA, the dish was delectable. A slice of day waitress Chris Anderson's cheesecake ($4), creamy and rich without being cloying, made for an excellent finale.

Given the obvious ability of Jake's kitchen, it's hard to understand occasional shortcomings, such as an overcooked grilled portabello mushroom sandwich ($6), which was way too salty (this from a salt fan), almost to the point of being inedible.

On another visit, the Jake's burger ($6.50), stuffed with a little blue cheese and served with bacon and scallions, was just right. A take-out order of grilled pizza bianca ($7.25), topped by roasted vegetables, ricotta and romano cheese and truffle oil, was both greasy and tasty. Slices of roasted red pepper, mushroom and onion worked well as toppings, but carrot has no business being astride a pizza.

Only time will reveal where Jake's ultimately places in the pantheon of Providence's most-loved saloons, but it's off to a promising start.

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