Among the restaurants that recently opened in Providence — yes, even in a pandemic new restaurants are springing up in this resilient food-lovers’ city — is a place called Aguardente, a Portuguese tapas restaurant with an extensive takeout menu.
As an inveterate grazer who loves tapas, I was eager to try it out. I happened to place my order on the day after the CDC announced that we could take off our masks. So when I got to the tiny restaurant, located in the traditionally Portuguese neighborhood of Fox Point, I found it packed, and I was happy to still have a takeout option.
From my days working in Fall River, I was familiar with the flavors of Portuguese cuisine: reddened with paprika, laden with sausage, spicy, salty, rich. So rich, in fact, that if I ate at a Portuguese restaurant for lunch, there was no need for dinner. Happily, though, Aguardente’s menu offers plenty of seafood and vegetarian options, more often rich with flavor than with oil. (Aguardente means “fire water,” the name of a Portuguese liquor that, alas, was not offered on the takeout menu.)
True to the tapas philosophy, we tried a little of everything.
Lupini beans held a slight crunch amid the tasty marinade of garlic, lemon, and a touch of hot pepper. “Tula fries” were fried plantains with a cilantro cream dip. Tacos nopal featured cactus with onions and lime in a blue-corn tortilla — the cactus looked and tasted like mushrooms and seemed a bit bland.
But the seafood paella provided a delightful Portuguese spin on the traditional Spanish specialty, with mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid — meat-free and paprika-scented. Plato de huitlacoche, sauteed mushrooms with tomatoes and onions, surprised with the slight bite of jalapeno. The aguacate relleno, an avocado stuffed with fried chorizo and topped with cheese, was my favorite, the creaminess of the ripe-to-perfection avocado contrasting with the crunchy, salty sausage.
One offbeat menu item comes under the category “Curated Tins.” These are tiny fish marinated in various sauces, imported from Portugal in tins and wrapped in paper. We ordered the mackerel pate. Its pop-top gave it a disconcerting resemblance to cat food, but it proved smooth and savory, not the least bit fishy.
Despite all this we managed to leave room for dessert, and indulged in pastel de nata, a custard in a flaky pastry, and a chunk of tres leches cake so moist and silky that when I close my eyes I can almost still taste it.
Aguardente, 12 Governor St., Providence, 401-414-7324, aguardente.com. Appetizers $4-$15, entrees and small plates, $10-$20, desserts $6-$7.50.
Frolic and Detour, Acton
Frolic and Detour is a new restaurant that recently opened in Acton in a building that’s a familiar landmark to many area residents. Located across from beautiful Nagog Pond, the space was previously occupied by the Red Raven, and longtime locals will remember it as the former home of the Rusty Scupper and Scupper Jack’s.
With a new menu and a fresh look, Frolic and Detour aims to become a destination for folks seeking locally sourced food, handcrafted cocktails, and live entertainment. The interior is warm and inviting, featuring a two-story fireplace and modern décor and a spacious upstairs loft for private events and functions. There’s also outdoor seating with a waterfront view (which we look forward to experiencing once the weather gets warmer).
The name of the restaurant was inspired by a legal phrase. We’ll spare you the legalese to explain exactly what it means, but the mission statement on the restaurant’s website is clear: “One who is said to commit a frolic and detour has deviated from his or her obligatory duties in order to perform some other activity that brings that person great joy. That is what we aspire to provide — joy.” And that aspiration — to provide joy — was definitely fulfilled when we ordered their takeout on a recent Friday evening.
Frolic and Detour’s menu features an array of appetizers (from Brussels spouts to Buffalo cauliflower) as well as a variety of soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and entrees that include vegetarian and vegan options. For our takeout order we tried the boneless chicken tenders and pan-seared tuna appetizers, and both were excellent. The chicken tenders were meaty and tender, and the tuna was superb and presented nicely with wasabi mayo, sweet ponzu sauce, and a lovely seaweed salad. We were overjoyed to try Al’s chicken, an entrée dish of pan-seared chicken breast with jalapeños, tomatoes, and onions in a lemon butter sauce that was served over jasmine rice and broccoli. Everything was cooked perfectly and tasted delicious. The salmon entrée was just as impressive. The generous portion of salmon was topped with mango salsa and served with white beans and arugula — a tasty combo, indeed.
Frolic and Detour, 3 Nagog Park, Acton, 978-274-2231, www.frolic-and-detour.com. Appetizers are $9-$17; salads $12-$15; burgers and sandwiches $16-$18; entrees range from $21-$35. For more information, visit facebook.com/frolicanddetouracton or instagram.com/frolicanddetouracton.
Mary Chung Restaurant, Cambridge
Mary Chung Restaurant, a Central Square landmark since 1981, and a favorite among some of us for “Jewish Christmas” (movie, Chinese food) for almost as long, has been takeout-only since the beginning of the pandemic and, somehow, it’s kept going. Thank Father Christmas.
From the typical Chinatown-style over-abundant “Mandarin/Szechuan” (read: Taiwanese) menu of more than 200 items, our group choices may vary, but one item, for me, sets Mary Chung apart and is indispensable: suan la chow show. It is possibly the best pork dumpling dish I’ve ever eaten (also available with shrimp). Six warm wontons are served in a soup bowl atop a bed of cool bean sprouts in a pool of a vinegary soy-based sauce. The dumpling wrappers are thin and delicate, the generous meat filling a savory blend of ground pork and herbs. Maybe it’s the flecks of pepper in the sauce that account for the intense heat — a Scoville rating that I dare say would rival anything from “Hotter Than Hell Night” at the late, lamented East Coast Grill. As in the best super-hot dishes, the fire only intensifies flavor. But you will be grateful for those bean sprouts, and do keep a bowl of rice nearby for good measure.
The one relative splurge from among Mary Chung’s eminently affordable dishes is Peking duck ($49.95), serving two or more. It requires ordering a day in advance, but at our last Jewish Christmas (at home, Netflix), my wife and I were told that the duck was being offered as a special. If you’re lucky enough for this to happen to you, don’t hesitate: order it. Crackling crisp skin, moist, tender meat. Scallions cut into traditional decorative, practical florets serve both as brushes to dab your pancake with hoisin sauce and as a tangy condiment for your sandwich. Take a bite, close your eyes, and you’ll feel like you’re sitting in one of Mary Chung’s cozy booths, or at one of their boisterous eight-tops, in a full dining room, ready to take a healthy, uninhibited breath before that next mouthful.
Mary Chung Restaurant, 460-464 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, 617-864-1991. Soups and appetizers $4.95-$9.95, entrees $14.95-$17.95; $49.95 (Peking duck).
Felice J. Freyer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer. Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.