Monday, July 16, 2012

Persimmon is a Pleasant, Pricey Treat

Persimmon, located in the quaint seaside town of Bristol, Rhode Island, is an unabashedly upscale, nationally renowned bistro that you may never have actually heard about. I certainly hadn’t, until a recent conversation during a home-cooked dinner with another couple, who raved about this intimate (thirty-eight seats), modern establishment. Chef/owner (and James Beard nominee) Champe Speidel, alongside his wife, Lisa, opened Persimmon (named after the yellow/red-orange colored fruit originating in Japan but now grown across Italy, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and even in parts of the US) in 2005, and it has gained a loyal following.

Persimmon’s ambience oozes romance. The sleek room is dimly lit (miniature rotund candlelit glasses rest atop each table) and includes portraits of fruit adorning the walls and cozy banquettes across the walls. When the bistro fills up (and indeed it does, as co-owner Lisa Speidel warmly shakes hands with regular customers), you may have to shout to be heard given the relatively small space and low ceilings leading to poor acoustics. And you’d never guess there’s a state financial crisis here, as Persimmon attracts a plethora of wealthy clientele. Listen closely to nearby conversations and you’ll overhear stories about customers arriving from the Newport tennis festival, the golf course, or even their boats. One downside during the evening: an out-of-order restroom forcing customers to use a neighboring restaurant’s facilities.

Speidel’s use of seasonal ingredients, technique, and creativity are readily apparent in his food. We opt for the 5-course chef’s tasting ($65, $100 with wine pairing; a 7-course tasting is also available for $80, $130 with wine pairing). A couple of amuse- bouche (complimentary bite-size hors d’oeuvres) are a welcomed pleasure, including a red pepper sorbet with spicy oregano, although the sorbet theme becomes a bit tiresome throughout the meal (for instance, a peach sorbet followed by an apricot soup adds little flavor contrast-wise). Most impressive is a beautifully seared sea scallop whose succulent fish is accentuated by a rich pork jus and accompanied by celery, radish, avocado, basil, and cilantro flowers. Like most menu items, it’s edible art on a plate and is the quintessential summer dish – light and refreshing. Also memorable is a non-traditional, non-pureed, fully constructed gazpacho in which fresh tomatoes and arugula surround a small dollop of basil sorbet placed in the bowl’s epicenter. An oyster swimming in vibrant green cucumber broth also demonstrates Speidel’s dedication to sourcing local products.

The middle of the meal falters a bit. While the 21-day aged skirt steak with sauce Bordelaise, king trumpet mushrooms, scallions, glazed cippolini onions, and fingerling potatoes packed complexity in terms of flavor, the portion itself bordered on pretentiousness. Three small strips of beef plus two small potatoes equates to one hungry stomach. This problem was further compounded by the fourth course that followed. While I received a perfectly fine duo of artisan cheeses with fresh berries, my wife’s meal was substituted with a thin slice of apple given her dairy allergy. We expected something much more substantive and imaginative from a restaurant of this pedigree.

Desserts, however, almost make up for this dining hiccup. My wife’s fresh fruit tart with a slightly buttery crust is delicious, while my chocolate ganache tart – with a chocolate halo playfully placed on top – albeit a tad dry/overpowdered in a couple of small spots, is a decadent treat, filled with caramel, a crunchy contrast of hazelnut praline, and smooth coffee-hazelnut ice cream. It’s divine.

So is Persimmon’s extensive, moderately-priced wine selection, which Speidel’s staff thoughtfully pairs with his food. Most selections, which are heavily weighted towards Italian, French, and Napa varieties, are available only by the bottle, with about a dozen by the glass (at about $10-11). You’ll even discover a local wine or two, such as Gewurztraminer, a white wine produced out of Little Compton, RI ($40 per bottle). A unique glass of Pinotage resembles a light, yet full-bodied, smoky version of Pinot Noir.

Service for this price-point should be nothing short of flawless, and I swear that our server could have recited each and every ingredient from each menu item down to the herb. His knowledge of the menu and his recommendations for wine pairings were breathtaking, and his calm, patient, oh-so polite demeanor made for a service experience on par with the most respected restaurants I’ve frequented, such as Boston’s Mistral. Our waiter’s timing between courses was impeccable. Take, for instance, his ability to ask if I’d like another beverage just as I was about to flag him down for one right between our second and third courses. Even more impressively, I glimpsed Ms. Speidel casually ironing a white tablecloth in between customers. Now that’s service.

Overall, Persimmon’s culinary reputation is well deserved. Value-wise, there are certainly better fine dining options across both Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, and it’s certainly no cakewalk driving to Bristol. Given the restaurant’s innovative approach to food and exceptional service, however, there’s plenty of appeal and charm to be had. Will I be returning to Persimmon anytime soon? Most likely, no. But like most things in life, the restaurant provides a unique dining experience that is worth trying once.