Foodies in and around Providence have been buzzing about the “new” New Rivers, that precious jewel box of a restaurant created by Bruce and Pat Tillinghast in 1990. (Sadly, Pat passed away in 1999.) After more than two decades of winning local and national accolades, Bruce decided to retire this year, and he quietly sold his much-loved restaurant to Beau Vestal and Elizabeth LaMantia. Beau has been at New Rivers since 2000, quickly working his way up to executive chef, and Elizabeth was hired there as a cook in 2009.
I’ve always thought of New Rivers as one of the most romantic restaurants in Providence, so it seems quite right that the love story there continues, from Bruce and Pat to Beau and Elizabeth, who were married in late June. After a honeymoon in California wine country, the young couple is back to work with Beau in the kitchen and Elizabeth serving as the restaurant’s hostess and general manager. History really does have a curious way of repeating itself.
If you haven’t been to New Rivers in a while, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with additional changes – a new entrance into a new bar area with expanded seating and a private dining area on the second floor, perfect for what else but engagement parties and small weddings. The entire building is drenched in history dating back to 1793, when it was an iron works warehouse.
In sharp contrast, the food is modern bistro cooking at its best: a true celebration of local produce, meats and seafood. I rarely say this, but our recent dinner at New Rivers was perfect, and beautifully served by our waiter, Nico. It being a Tuesday, I took advantage of the restaurant’s “dollar night” and ordered one each of the four oysters on the half shell. I totally agree with the menu descriptions, starting with the Plum Point oyster, which was petite, delicate and bracing. Both the Duxbury and Wellfleet oysters had that desirable mineral taste; the former was tangy and salty, the latter had a clean finish. My favorite was the Spinney Creek oyster from Maine, sweet and grassy with a coppery finish.
The Baby Greens ($10) offered up enough baby lettuces and herbs for two to share, although you’ll want to keep this salad all to yourself with its warm goat cheese toasts and delicate shallot vinaigrette.
If I have the chance to go back soon, I’ll try the house-made Lardo ($10) with its slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, ripped basil and aged balsamic vinegar. Lardo is Italian charcuterie at its finest, delicate strips of fatback cured with rosemary and other herbs.
For the main course, there are a dozen possibilities ranging from New Rivers’ famous prime sirloin burger on a Portuguese sweet roll served with hand-cut frites ($18) to the Carpetbagger Sirloin decadently showered with tempura oysters and gilded with horseradish butter ($34). Somewhere in the middle we found our humbly named entrees: Bluefish ($26) and Pork Chop ($26), artfully presented so that we ate with our eyes first, and then with our mouths. Conversation at our table ceased while we consumed every bite of food placed before us.
On a stark white, narrow, oblong dish sat three servings of roasted Rhode Island bluefish garnished with all sorts of local goodies – glazed harukei turnips, bonsai basil and a julienne of crisp snow peas, dappled with a charred tomato vinaigrette, just acidic enough to cut the oiliness of the bluefish. The chef’s use of bonsai basil impressed me. The amazing, aromatic basil with tiny light green leaves is usually grown in a pot. To use it, you must pinch the leaves by hand and you must have a great deal of patience. The chef tells me that the bluefish arrives whole, to be butchered in house, from the Trace and Trust day boat fish program out of Point Judith. This system provides restaurants with the freshest sustainably caught fish. E-mails from the boat detail what species are being landed, and chefs place their order via smart phones for delivery that same day. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
The robust serving of pork, nicely glazed and fork tender, got my full attention, and deservedly so. This dish represents the best of summer on a plate. The organic pork shoulder is rubbed with warm spices and grilled to caramelize the outer surface. Then this hunk of meat is placed in a huge antique cast iron Dutch oven along with molasses, garlic, smoked chilies, smoked pork bones and tomato to cook all day at a very low temperature. The melt-in-your-mouth pork is sweet and spicy, served with house-made bread and butter pickles and shaved cabbage salad. Also on this dinner plate are a small stack of corn griddlecakes and grilled apricots, which put this dish right over the top. Ever since that night at New Rivers I’ve been grilling apricots in my outdoor kitchen.
When we were first seated at our table for two by the window overlooking Steeple Street, I had to ask Nico what that wonderful aroma coming from the kitchen was. “Those are our cookies just coming out of the oven,” he explained. I knew then what I’d be having for dessert, and the eight delicate cookies ($6) brought to our table tasted as dreamy as anticipated. Just as Pat Tillinghast baked her famous cookies for New Rivers back in the 1990s, that tradition continues with Elizabeth creating cookies that will change with the seasons. The Mayan chocolate cookie is always on the menu, in homage to Pat.
Beau Vestal is one of the few chefs I follow on Twitter, which is the best way to find out what’s new on the menu that changes almost daily. And via Twitter you’ll be among the first to learn the exact date in August when New Rivers will start to offer lunch service and the details on a trip to the prestigious James Beard House in New York in September.