EATING aesthetics: New Rivers

RER 8.25.12
JAR 8.25.12
Providence is a changing city. It is becoming more of a destination to those other than out of town parents. And as it is moving ahead in culinary, it is home to a large variety of restaurants and an area privy to fresh, local ingredients. At the foot of College Hill, in view of an old white church, a tiny tea café and the water, sits New Rivers. The vacant parking lot stretches like an asphalt desert in the sun, and gives way to the inconspicuous upscale restaurant, small and hidden on a side street in brick building. The sidewalk just wide enough for single file, felt dangerous and open. And there it is, right where you don't expect it.

The small restaurant consists of two dining areas, both with just a few tables, resulting in an intimate atmosphere. Almost hushed and quiet, people too afraid to talk too loudly, stimulating awe and anxiety.

It is cozy and dark in one of the spaces, with heavy green walls, deep and dark. The white tablecloths and somewhat more delicate furniture and cottage-like booths, create a stark contrast. The material covering the booths is a strange large floral, reminiscent of a Vermont cottage or a summer home in the Poconos; large pink white flowers set on greens, like needlepoint. The rustic element clashes with the refined table clothes, fancy folded napkins, and lovely solitary flower centerpieces.

One side of the room is one large window, facing onto the narrow sidewalk, allowing for diners to look out, but hardly revealing the inside of the dark space. The green wall separates this dinning area from the main one. The ceiling is red, and chases down the back wall meeting more green; the color reminiscent of a red barn, old and tired, goes well with the benches, coming from almost another time. While another wall is just a green shutter divider, separating diner from preparer. Noises float through the divider at times, reminding those right next to the line, that something does exist beyond that wall, something contemporary and current. But those closer to the window, on the other side of the room,  remain oblivious to that other world, as the music and food of their present  drown it out.

The other dining area rests beyond the second glass door of the glass vestibule, the quiet entry to the restaurant. Large windows stretch almost from the floor to the ceiling. There are lighter colored floors and walls, not the deep green and ancient red. Almost like it is a different place from the other dining area, completely opposite; it is flooded with light. The bar is set on the wall connecting the two dining areas, elaborate and large, but almost forgettable.

Right below the ceiling is a decorative element-- wandering brown vines, like wicker basket twigs, entwined with Christmas tree lights, creating a kind of vortex of stars hovering above the dining area.  This imaginative and creative star wormhole, strays from the decorative motif of this seating area, but gives a kind of hominess and artisanal relief to the yellow walls and minimalist details. Almost like the wildly random designs on the booths in the other area.

It strikes as quite a surprise that the two dining areas would be so utterly different, completely diverse feels and attention to details. The brighter area, in ways is more subtle and refined, lacing in some of the strange kitsch, though starker and stiffer at the same time, than its dark green counterpart. The two rooms create two completely different experiences, with only food and perhaps service to unify.  Every table is set to a tee, perfectly spaced, shiny and consistent, even in the dissimilar rooms. Each setting and table looks exactly the same, creating the uniform for New Rivers. Its perfection reminiscent of the quality, crisp and precise.

But, it gives reason to wonder if the food would even taste or feel different in the separate rooms, incite different feelings and arouse different connotations. The varying layouts create distinctive visual experiences, so why couldn’t they affect the taste of food on the tongue. Eating a sandwich on a bench in a park results in a different experience than eating that very same sandwich in the café, it might even taste different. Perhaps this is the same as at New Rivers. Is this then advantageous to the owner, the chef, or even the diners? Something sought after with dining is consistency, in preparation, ingredients, flavor etc. This may not be able to be achieved because of the complete differences of the dining areas and the experiences they might produce.

Just like the light throughout the restaurant, the menu seems to always be shifting, with the seasons, the availability of ingredients and the chef’s whim. What was on the website did not match the menu on the outside window which did not match the menu handed to us by our hostess. This though, did create temporary confusion and rendered mild disappointment, but all was not lost.

New Rivers has two menus. One of which boasts of charcuterie, the chef’s specialty. Red dots marked which items of charcuterie were not available that evening, because of limited supply or ingredients, or just not available. The range is from pork, to duck, to fish, smoked, cured, or otherwise manipulated. Fresh and in-house. The other, the full menu, includes nibbles, small plates, and entrees. Each meal was accompanied by long lists of ingredients and details.

The food and tastes were not all that memorable, but visually stunning. Looking back is all I can do, just look in my memory and see the food. Unfortunately my tongue was not as stimulated as my eyes, though they do say, “you eat with your eyes first.”

The smoked blue fish from the charcuterie menu, paired with pickled cucumbers and crusty bread was delicious, fishy and smoky, flaky and wonderful all at the same time.  The portion was small, leaving the mouth longing for more, but the taste well worth it. The pork belly with melon was also a beautiful starter, a feast for the eyes. The small plate was decorated with tangy sweet pickled vegetables, peppers cucumbers, but also sprinkled with the most delicate cubes of orange ripe melon. The crisp crust of the fatty pork belly, contrasted the garden of color, as well as all the sweet flavors, adding that salty savory to the fresh melon. The colors of the pickled peppers and red onions, popped, bright and visual like a painting.

One of the entrees also had the same kind of visual appeal as the beginning courses. The ribs served with colorful slaw, grilled peaches, pickles and sweet corn bread, were assembled on what was like a wooden cutting board, rustic though artistic. The char of the meat was overwhelming, but the chutney of mustard seeds, onions and pepper, helped to equalize the smoke through its sweet pickled juices. The little mustard seeds burst on the tongue. Smoke ran through the peach as well, that added color and another kind of sweetness to the dish. The slaw, carrots and cabbage dusted with celery seed had crunch, and swirled prettily in the plate. And the last element of this indoor picnic, the cornbread was sweet and light. Everything in the end had a unique sweetness, visually creating a still life, with assorted colors and textures, from the light green of the pickles, to the pale yellow of the cornbread, to the rich meaty brown of the ribs.

The desserts too were works of art, composed with simplicity and balance, not only on the pallet but also through the aesthetics of sight. The lemon tart stood solitary on the plate, dusted with powdered sugar, alone with the citrus of the lemon and the sweet tang of the red raspberries. Centered, garnished with mint, a sole statue, bright and colorful. The peach and blueberry tart, decorated with a raspberry reduction and fresh blueberries, was surrounded with the abstract swirls of flavor. Topped with a mound of quiet rich vanilla ice cream melting slowly into the tart, concealing the sweet peach. They were both visually appealing dishes, simple and monumental, easily read and straightforward to taste.

This experience was more about what met the eye, than what touched the tongue. The food was hardly memorable in flavor, but the presentation really stuck, as well as the construction of the dining areas. It was more of an aesthetic adventure, rather than a culinary one. This is not to debunk the quality and craftsmanship of the dishes, as they were amazing to look at and marvel the technique and skill. However, the flavor profile felt limited and did not resonate. The common threads between dishes were too pronounced and flagrant, giving each dish too much of the same flavors. At the same time, these common threads, like the pickled vegetables and grilled peaches, created an artistic theme, connecting each dish visually, as if our meal was curated for the eyes. Perhaps, eating in the other dining room would make the food more memorable to the tongue, since it is like eating in a completely different place, creating a different experience. Who knows...
RER 8.25.12
RER 8.25.12

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food for thought...