Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chez Pascal Brings French Chic to Providence

Who needs Paris when Chez Pascal, a cozy French-influenced bistro and wine bar, is a much closer dining destination? Nearing its ten-year anniversary (the restaurant opened in March, 2003), Chez Pasal – like a fine French wine – seems to have only gotten better with age. The bistro utilizes local, seasonal produce in its cuisine. The menu, while small in stature (selection-wise), provides dishes that are hugely creative and flavorful. And you know you’ve discovered a serious culinary restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as evidenced by both its servers decked out in jeans and its menus playfully inserted underneath many of its platings.

The bistro is divided into two intimate rooms, with a cozy bar to the side. We’re seated in the back room, with its yellow-splashed walls, that are decorated with a local artist’s (Anthony Salemme) jungle-themed paintings, a perfect complement to the leopard cushion seating. Tables are situated side-by-side, perhaps a bit too close if one does not want to hear an arrogant 21-year old Brown graduate endlessly boast about all of his knowledge on all things political and wordly. Fortunately, Chez Pascal’s extremely polished, yet casual waitstaff comes to our rescue. Multiple servers cater to every empty water glass while politely, unintrusively inquiring about how each course is.

And is each course ever delightful. For starters, we order the chacuterie ($18). With the exception of a couple of cured meats (which are made at nearby Daniel’s Catering), all other meats and pates – including a silky smooth, heavenly duck liver mousse topped with sweet onion relish – are produced in-house. This beautifully plated dish is sinfully good. Traditional escargot a la bourguingnonne ($12.50) are anything but, as six giant snails soak in an aromatic, warm garlic sauce, perfect for spreading on parsley-scented brioche. Pork of the day ($34) – which our server is nice enough to split into two plates – is a generous portion of tender meat prepared three ways, accompanied by sauerkraut and fingerling potatoes.

Desserts provide an immensely satisfying conclusion to the evening. Chez Pascal’s seasonal sorbets ($8) include a trio of blood orange, green apple, and lemon flavors that are light and refreshing. A tasting of three French custards ($10) was sensational, including a mocha pot de crème (the last of which, while quite good, was the weakest of the trio, as the mocha flavor was barely discernable amongst the dense, bitter dark chocolate flavor), a unique eggnog crème brulee, and a ridiculously good, silky maple scented crème caramel.

Providence might be more renowned for its Italian cuisine in Federal Hill, but if you head a shade beyond the Pawtucket border into Providence, Chez Pascal’s romantic ambience, attentive service, and creative French cuisine will make foodies forget Paris.

Caffe Bella Strips Away Strip Mall Restaurant Label

Randolph may not be widely regarded as a fine dining haven, unless one considers Not Your Average Joe’s fare to be above average. But look more closely, however, in a rather nondescript strip mall of all places, and you’ll find a gourmet gem in the rough. Caffe Bella is an Italian bistro that has long been popular with locals, and it is easy to understand why. An extensive menu boasts large portions of surprisingly creative, mouth-watering Italian cuisine at a fairly reasonable price point that falls below what you’d be accustomed to doling out for similar fare in Boston (although some may still find the prices a bit excessive for the strip mall setting).

            For appetizers, head directly towards Caffe Bella’s impressive assortment of fresh seafood offerings, including a heaping serving of Cape Cod littlenecks (there’s nothing little about these plump clams) and P.E.I. ‘Icy Blue’ farm raised mussels alongside spicy sausage ($21.50). Everything is playfully served up in a giant sauté pan, perfect for allowing the seafood, meat and two buttery-good pieces of wood grilled bruschetta to soak in an aromatic, intensely flavored, spicy broth infused with plum tomato, jalapeno, chile, garlic, scallion, and basil. The broth, in and of itself, could be served as a stand-alone dish. “We’ve had customers actually ask to bring just the broth home, it’s so good,” our affable server explains.

            Entrees are just as strong, including a hearty portion of Caffe’s Bolognese sauce tossed with fresh hand-cut parpadelle noodles ($16). It’s meaty and the perfect comfort food on a chilly, snowy winter evening. Wood-grilled duck breast and slowly roasted leg ($28) are moist and perfectly cooked medium, laced with a lovely sweet apricot fig glaze. Sides of lima beans and frisse salad are merely superfluous here, bland and seemingly for display. As impressive as the duck tastes, however, the dish’s piece de resistance is its accompanying house-made sweet potato prosciutto ravioli, one of the most memorable pastas I’ve sampled in the last couple of years (since that wonderful sweet pea lobster parpadelle dish at Providence’s woefully underappreciated restaurant, CAV). This version includes two raviolis that are uniquely prepared: they’re cut razor-thin, while the prosciutto is finely minced in with the sweet potato. A touch of sweet cream is then layered atop the pasta, enhancing the ravioli’s already ethereal flavor. It’s a stunning accomplishment, and quite frankly, left this critic stunned as to why it is not served as a stand-alone entrée. I’d gladly order it time and time again.

            Desserts, all of which are made in-house, provide a scrumptious conclusion to the evening. I forego the more traditional tiramisu and gladly dig into espresso ice cream topped with broken biscotti pieces and creamy nutella.

            Service is extremely polished and genial. Our waitress effortlessly recites the menu from front to back and confidently makes suggestions based on the fact that she has sampled every item (an impressive feat). Earlier in our meal, when I inquire if Licor 43 (a vanilla-flavored Spanish licquer) is available, she warmly smiles and recalls enjoying Licor 43 and Coke during her days studying abroad in Spain several years ago. When she reveals that she studied in Sevilla - where I, myself studied as well – a fun conversation ensues. Before we know it, my wife and I have been at Caffe Bella for over an hour and a half.

            Where did all the time go? And how did I end up so thoroughly enjoying my experience in this strip mall locale? Caffe Bella casts conventional wisdom aside by proving that there is always a time and a place for great food and exceptional service, strip malls be damned.