[Sidebar] November 18 - 25, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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New Rivers

Revisiting a standard-setter

by Bill Rodriguez

7 Steeple St., Providence, 751-0350
Open Tues-Sat, 5:30-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
No access

Time was, whenever someone would ask me to recommend a restaurant, "Try New Rivers" would automatically pop out of my mouth, the Usual Suspect down by the Hot Club having plenty enough worshippers. That was back before the standards in town got so demanding. Now, restaurateurs had better think about a first-rate kitchen, before snazzy décor and cantilevered desserts, if they want to survive, never mind thrive, and the must-get-to places around town exceed a listing on fingers and are beginning to exhaust the toes.

With all the competition, New Rivers still has no trouble standing out. Chefs/proprietors Bruce and Pat Tillinghast have stuck to their culinary virtues for more than 10 years in the Steeple Street space where Al Forno was born. Ingredients remain the best and the freshest, with local sources sought out long before that was fashionable. As always, menu items are eclectic, drawing from Far Eastern ingredients and accents as readily as from Latin or Italian. Service remains knowledgeable and amiable. The wine list is extensive and trustworthy, with several regional vintners represented. Accolades keep coming, including more than one pleased visit by New York Times' food critics.

The environs are intimate, with fewer than 20 tables -- reservations recommended -- but not excessively noisy. In the tiny space to the left of the entrance, where smoking is allowed Tuesday through Thursday, the bar has room for just one tender. The ambiance is soothing. Forest green walls accented by burgundy, with white café curtains on the windows. Paper is clipped over the tablecloths, bistro style. A couple of marigolds adorned our table in a tiny creamer glass, as though in parentheses. Wait staff in ties, for politeness, but in blue jeans, to lighten the atmosphere. New Rivers' visual motif, in the entry and repeated in a main room still-life, is particularly apt: pears -- graceful, tantalizing, luscious, a declaration that the subliminal will be complementing the overt.

The bread basket is a cornucopia: delicate cheddar cheese bread sticks, sour dough studded with olives, as well as slices of French and Italian bread. It was served with a complimentary portion of hummus, and guest-quality olive oil was brought out upon request.

Among the appetizers, New Rivers' version of calamari ($10) takes a fascinating Asian turn: the grilled squid is miso-dressed and served with sweet rice, pickled radish and roasted peppers. As unexpected but appropriate is grilled shrimp on sugar cane ($12), but we chose the special of the evening, pot stickers ($10). Five fat dumplings, steamed and then pan-browned, stuffed with minced lobster, ginger, and -- here's the delicate touch -- lime leaves. They were served over a pile of mesclun that amounted to a salad, with a mildly hot tamari dipping sauce. Superb.

Tuesdays through Thursdays, $20 prix-fix meals of salmon or chicken are available. The menu is small, but every taste preference will get at least a couple of choices. Only eight entrées are offered, including the night's special and excluding the half-portions available for the grilled pork tenderloin and pan-seared bluefish, each in four-ounce and eight-ounce servings ($16/$21 and $15/$19, respectively). There was a new menu at the beginning of the month, and the nime chow is gone, but the popular half-pound burger on Portuguese roll remains.

My dining companion was a vegetarian for the evening and chose the pumpkin tortellini ($16) without the optional grilled chicken ($19). Served in a mushroom broth, the al dente pasta pillows were dessert-sweet, accompanied by wild mushrooms and tiny pieces of roasted "autumn veggies," including much neglected and also appealingly sweet parsnip. Her only complaint was the paucity of vegetables, which were closer to a garnish than an equal partner; but this was, after all, under the "Small Meals" choices.

Arriving with a considerably larger appetite, I chose the Bulgogi ($19), Korean barbecue, literally "fire beef." The hefty portion of skirt steak slices was fork-tender and full-flavored, marinated in a soy sauce and sesame oil blend that was marvelous over the sticky rice. Shiitake mushrooms were a welcome companion, as was the thick slice of grilled Vidalia onion and the soy sprouts. The spicy pickles, however, were more like dill chips with pretensions, pallid rather than zingy; a bit of kimchi (spicy fermented bok choi and cabbage) would have better fulfilled the promise.

New Rivers is worth a visit for their desserts alone -- all kitchen-made, time-tested and scrumptious (most are $7). The tangy lemon tartlet has been on the menu from the restaurant's beginning, so that obviously comes recommended. A chocolate dessert changes nightly. We chose the sorbet, that evening a mango and passion fruit concoction startling in its intensity. It was served with three cookies (a plate of eight is $5), each as subtly flavored as a haute cuisine entrée.

This pleasant visit was a good reminder to me. The next time someone asks me to recommend a restaurant, I know what will be on my mind.

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