Cigar Aficionado

X.O. Cafe, Providence, Rhode Island

Providence is home to more artists per capita than any other city in the United States, according to a survey by the Rhode Island Council for the Arts. Given the profusion of dining establishments opening around town, this former industrial graveyard on Narragansett Bay may well be able to claim more good restaurants per capita than anywhere else as well.

Judging from the jazzy look and delicious food you'll find at the X.O. Cafe, hip cuisine and contemporary art make excellent partners. Opened just over a year ago in a ramshackle brick building dating back to shortly after the founding of the United States, X.O. has quickly built a reputation as a trendy and high-quality bistro with a sense of fun and style that adds up to a great place to spend an evening.

X.O. is part of an extraordinary renaissance in this once-dreary city, New England's second largest. Providence long languished in the shadow of Boston, an hour's drive up Interstate 95. Local restaurants were noted more for the gangsters who were gunned down within than for their food. The choices were generally veal with pasta, baked scrod, or get outta town. Blessed with some beautifully preserved historic structures and the creative graduates of the superb culinary institute at Johnson & Wales University, Providence has emerged from the shadows as a charming city with a culinary and cultural identity all its own.

John Elkhay, a veteran of the Providence food scene and co-owner and self-described "food architect" of X.O., characterizes what's going on in Providence and its restaurants as "a renaissance of appreciating who and what we are."

The X.O. Cafe--the name is an homage to a tangy and fiery Filipino sauce, the great Cognacs and, say happy patrons, friendly hugs and kisses--has brought together the flavors of Asia, the Mediterranean and old New England while emphasizing local ingredients and style. The clever and deft hand of chef Jules Ramos creates such appetizers as plump, sweet sea scallops--garnished with red and black caviar and a sunny mango sauce surrounding a crown of vinaigrette-dressed arugula--and crispy strings of portobello mushroom fries with a star anise dipping sauce. Signature entrées include a grilled pork tenderloin done Cape Verdean style (the region is home to the largest Portuguese-born population outside of Lisbon) with local clams and spicy Chourico in a sweet hot sauce, and a wood-oven-baked pizza topped with lobster, white-truffle oil and Asiago cheese.

Desserts include crème brûlées in three flavors, arriving in cups arrayed one above the other, and sweet potato bread pudding that is like no comfort food you remember from childhood. Sometimes, X.O. seems to go a bit overboard in the creative department, but when it tastes this good, you've got to go with the flow. Each dish arrives looking like a culinary sculpture. The food presentation is almost as pretty and fun as the sharply chosen, museum-quality works of contemporary art by local artists on display throughout the two small rooms. At the bar after dinner, you can savor one of X.O.'s private-label Arturo Fuente coronas or several other thoughtfully selected cigars while enjoying your choice from an extensive wine and liquor list. The menu proclaims, "Drink California, Kiss French," but for those whose tastes range beyond the West Coast, choices are ample.

Afterwards, stroll a block to the recently reopened downtown riverfront. The river, formerly covered by a huge metal culvert that was bemoaned as the world's widest bridge, has now been opened to view. Take a gondola ride or enjoy the frequent riverside festivals. You'll agree with Elkhay's declaration: "This town's hot as a pistol and it feels great to be part of it."--Marc Wortman

Marc Wortman is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.


X.O. Cafe
125 North Main Street
Phone (401) 273-9090
Dinner $27 without wine