Saturday, August 2, 2014

Not Your Average Run of the Mill Cuisine at Mill’s Tavern

One expects greatness at Mill’s Tavern, one of Providence’s most revered dining spots located alongside Brown University. Chef Edward Bolus’s thoughtful, innovative approach to his cuisine certainly seems to match the neighborhood’s academic, presitigious vibe. Like Brown’s Ivy League-educated students, Bolus has lofty aspirations for his menu. Take, for instance, his modern, whimsical interpretation of foie gras ($21), the goose liver’s flavors elevated by chocolate ancho shortbread, candied bacon crumble, pickled citrus sorbet, and mango chili leather. Similar to Brown’s rigid admissions criteria, unambitious, unadventurous dining candidates need not apply for this unique dining experience.

Mill’s Tavern is situated in the historic Pilgrim Mills Building. While the restaurants is only 12 years young, its interior, like the food, is sophisticated, resembling a centuries-old tavern with its red brick walls, vaulted casement ceiling, dark woods, and linen tablecloths. If you can, snag a quieter, more romantic table alongside the giant floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking bustling N. Main Street. An elongated bar sits to the left, while a wood burning oven blazes in the open kitchen towards the back.

Oh, and that wood burning oven so happens to produce a mean pizza pie. The wood fired pizza ($18) is served with an herbed citrus ricotta base, arugula, braised duck, balsamic fig glaze, and a sunny side duck egg. The pizza is wonderfully charred, and possesses a fine balance between sweet and tart flavors by way of the fig glaze and ricotta, and whose texture is enhanced by the egg’s creaminess. I stated weeks ago that nearby Bacaro’s wood-fired pie reigned supreme in Providence, but I now stand corrected: Mill’s Tavern’s complex version closely rivals it. Equally memorable was an appetizer of braised littleneck clams ($18) in smoked tomato and Naragansett lager broth packed with grilled chorizo and sweet onions. Our waiter strongly endorsed this dish, suggesting it was a crowd favorite and menu staple since the restaurant’s inception, and he did not steer us wrong. The clams were clean, luscious, and meaty, the chorizo tender and spicy, while the garlic bread served alongside the bowl was quickly used to sop up what proved to be a zesty, comforting, addictive broth.

Entrees were solid, if not nearly as spectacular as the preceding small plates. Less successful was the lemongrass glazed Long Island duck breast ($28). While the duck was featured as one of the eatery’s wood-fired entrees, I barely detected a trace of crackle or smokiness to the meat that one would come to expect. Nor did I find the meat, which admittedly was perfectly cooked medium rare and tender, to be all that well seasoned, as the accompanying mango-papaya salsa’s dry, canned corn-like texture was bland. The plate would have greatly benefitted from a sauce of some sort (perhaps that terrific balsamic fig glaze?). A side of unique yucca tater tots, however, was exceptional, with their crispy exterior and warm, gooey, slightly sweet interior. The finest entrée of the evening was once again a customer favorite/longtime menu staple: the 12 oz. soy-brined pork chop, a cut of meat so massive that it was playfully presented in two strips served upright. A luscious grilled peach compote and peach mustard barbecue sauce demonstrated Bolus’s expertise in utilizing seasonal ingredients, and they wonderfully complimented the tender meat, once again cooked to perfection.

Desserts were a bit uneven. A warmed Veronha chocolate cake ($10) was slightly overcooked. While seasonal sorbet offered refreshing, interesting flavors such as coconut and strawberry hibiscus, other flavors were less successful, such as mango and the excessively icy key lime pie. Things rebounded nicely with the lovely, airy blueberry crumb cake, served with white-chocolate cremeux, yuzu caramel, and crème freche ice cream, which, just like the aforementioned duck pizza, struck just the right balance between sweet and tart.

Mill’s Tavern’s cocktail program ($12) is as sophisticated as its fare. While a coconut mojito and a Just Peachy (orange vodka, peach, cointreau, pineapple and lemon juice) are light and refreshing, more adventurous libations are worth trying. Same Difference was a sweet, smoky blend of blackberry-infused tequila, port, and lime and lemon juice, while She’s a Knockout was just that: an intoxicatingly semi-sweet, sweat-inducing mix of bourbon, Gosling’s rum, Cointreau, lime and pineapple juice, punctuated by bright red habanero bitters. This is a complex, stiff, and well-balanced drink. The establishment’s wine program extends from California to Italy to France. A glass of Belle Glos “Melomi” Pinot Noir ($13) from Central Coast has robust fruit flavors and a smooth, velvety finish, pairing perfectly with that unforgettable duck pizza.

Sadly, however, it’s our mediocre service that prevented us from having a truly great dining experience and that also prohibits me from providing Mill’s Tavern with a ringing endorsement. Service began promisingly enough, with our waiter amicably providing recommendations while demonstrating a deep understanding of the menu selections along with the restaurant’s history. When we ordered our pizza, my wife – who has a dairy allergy - had asked if a slice of the pizza could be prepared without cheese, which our waiter swiftly confirm could be accommodated. After a prolonged period of time that elapsed after our orders were taken, and only moments before our appetizers arrived, he stated that the kitchen cooked the ricotta into the pizza’s base, and that my wife’s request could not in fact be accommodated. The timing was terrible, and after we politely voiced our displeasure, we noticed a dramatic shift in our waiter’s demeanor the rest of the evening. He suddenly seemed unengaged and inattentive. A second round of cocktails were late arriving with nary an apology (aside from our waiter stating that the bar was behind that evening) while cappuccinos were served far ahead of our desserts’ arrival. It’s unfortunate that such a lovely (and yes, expensive) dining experience at Mill’s Tavern could be sabotaged by lackluster service that does not match the quality of its cuisine.

Overall, I’d gladly return to sample several other exciting options on Chef Bolus’s menu (Melon gazpacho? Braised shortribs soaked in Port wine? Yes, please.). It’s the uneven service, however, that gives me pause to venture there anytime soon. While Mills’s Tavern graduates with ease, it fails to do so at the top of its culinary class.

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