Monday, January 27, 2014

Cook & Brown a Pleasant Dining Alternative

Cook & Brown Publick House, a New England-inspired version of a European gastropub, warrants a culinary excursion to Providence (well, East Providence, as Hope Street lies just a stone’s throw away from Pawtucket’s border). Chef/owner Nemo Bolin – whose impressive resume includes stints at Boston-based staples No. 9 Park, the now shuttered iconic spot Locke-Ober, and Craigie St. Bistro – has put together a thoughtful, if somewhat limited menu consisting of seasonal New England cuisine executed with European technique.

While Cook & Brown’s ambience strives for modern-chic, its minimalist interior seems a bit outdated. The restaurant is dimly lit with Ikea-like lights, with a bar that immediately welcomes customers and a small dining room to the right. Tall windows allow for people-watching along Hope Street. While an abstract pattern of brown wooden tiles on the ceiling strikingly resemble mismatched jigsaw puzzle pieces, the walls are practically bare, sans a couple of nondescript framed paintings.

The food, however, is relatively good, sometimes top notch, and other times inconsistent. First, the good – no, the superb: a bowl of piping hot smoked bluefish and potato fritters ($9), which possess an ultra-crispy exterior, and an interior so moist that you’d swear that these were creamy croquettes (surprise – they are dairy free!). These spherical-shaped fried balls are absolutely heavenly, packing the perfect contract of smokiness with subtle sweetness, and you’ll be reluctant to share them with others. Herb flatbread ($10) with caramelized onions, bacon lardons, and goat cheese is also tasty, once again providing a balanced contrast between sweet, tart, and salty flavors while the bread is nicely charred. The four-piece serving, however, is a bit small for the price, while the fritters present a much better value.

Entrees are also decent, if not nearly as strong. I gravitated towards my wife’s grilled Boyden Farms sirloin tip steak ($25), the meat served medium and nicely plated high in stacks, accompanied by cippolini onions, almond romesco, chimichurri vinaigrette, and crispy potato. Less successful was the grilled pork shoulder steak ($23). While the medium-cooked meat was quite moist due to it soaking in a littleneck clam broth, the fatness of the meat – which in fairness, our server warned us ahead of time about but whose purpose was to enhance the overall tenderness of the meat – was so excessive on one slice that it rendered the portion size to be less than desirable. In addition, the accompanying sides of beets (nicely cooked), leeks, oyster mushrooms, puffed rice, and charred citrus felt wildly out of synch with the meat, which would have been better paired with a starch such as the aforementioned crispy potato.

Fortunately, innovative desserts brought a satisfying conclusion to the meal, including a moist, non-dairy chevron cake with raspberries and a decadent Pot de crème – a rich, chocolate pudding studded with kumquat jam and house-made whipped cream, a chocolate lover’s dream.

Cook & Brown’s cocktail menu is well-regarded, and for good reason. The libations are complex, nicely balanced, and very potent. I enjoyed the Yerba Buena ($9), a refreshing starter consisting of agavales tequila, green chartreuse, cacao, carpano antica, and mole bitters. My wife’s C&B DTO (playfully stands for Daiquiri Time Out - $9) was subtly sweet, packed with diplimatico rum, lemonhart 151, lime, cinnamon, and velvet falerum. Later that evening, I felt compelled to order the Bartender’s Choice ($13) when contemplating a beverage to pair with my pork entrée, whereby you provide the bartender with your preference of liquor and or flavors. The bartender then mixes a surprise cocktail and arrives tableside to describe the drink’s ingredients in detail. Mine consisted of three different rums, including diplomatico, and a maple-infused liquor. Needless to say, it was slowly sipped given both its potency and unique layers of flavor.

Service was casual, yet highly commendable. A duo of jean-wearing servers was genuinely friendly, attentive, and informative, providing thoughtful recommendations that were also geared toward my wife’s dairy allergy.

Given its fine service, unique, if not always consistent cuisine, and its relatively affordable price points, Cook & Brown succeeds on the whole. I envision stopping at this establishment for those dreamy fritters paired with a stiff drink. If, however, I am frequenting Hope Street in the near future for a full-course dinner, I’ll be heading across the street to the superior European-inspired eatery, French bistro Chez Pascal.