Restaurant tasting menus are like the stock market: You have to invest if you want to play, you should know a thing or two about where you’re putting your money, and there are no guarantees. But if you’ve done the research, and you play the long game while willingly riding the waves of uncertainty, there’s a good chance you’ll be handsomely rewarded.
Ellen Slattery may have the best perspective when it comes to tasting menus in the Ocean State. The proprietor of Ellie’s Bakery and Gracie’s restaurant in Providence introduced a tasting menu to the latter in the early 2000s, and to most diners then, it was a foreign concept. “I don’t think a lot of people knew what a tasting menu was back then,” recalls Slattery. “It’s really exciting for us to see the evolution of it.”
Today, Slattery says 80 percent of Gracie’s diners order the tasting menu, a five- or seven-course experience that can be paired with wine if the guest chooses. The rate was even higher before Trinity Rep across the street resumed live performances, which often brings in diners with less time to linger.
Gracie’s menu is a blind tasting, meaning diners put their trust in chef Matthew Varga to deliver a series of perfectly composed dishes that pack an impressive punch of flavor profiles in fun-size portions. Save for any dietary restrictions or foods that are simply off-limits, the diner is typically at the chef’s culinary mercy, as is the case with many but not all tasting menus, and the experience can last up to three hours if diners dawdle in the deliciousness of it all. Persnickety palates: be warned.
Once reserved as a decadence for the deep-pocketed, tasting menus have become decidedly more approachable, even playful in recent years, but such epicurean adventures still maintain a degree of exclusivity that sets it apart from à la carte options.
“The tasting menu is something I love doing because nothing on it is on the regular menu,” says Champe Speidel, the James Beard Foundation-recognized chef who owns Persimmon in Providence with wife Lisa. “You really get some fun experiences on any given night, and it’s never the same experience twice.”
Here are some of the Rhode Island restaurants offering tasting menus.
“I wanted to push people out of their comfort zone a little bit more,” says Milena Pagán, owner and head chef of Little Sister in Providence. Last month, Pagán was one of three local chefs named as a James Beard Foundation Awards Best Chef semi-finalist. Along with her husband and co-owner, Darcy Coleman, Pagán introduced the tasting menu in October, “just wanting to put the culture a little more front and center.” The all day bakery and cafe specializes in Puerto Rican and Latin American inspired dishes, but Pagán isn’t afraid to add her own creative interpretation. Though a blind tasting, subscribers to the restaurant’s email newsletter sometimes get a hint at what Pagán is cooking up. A recent dish that made an appearance was ñoquis de malanga, a Puerto Rican twist on Italian gnocchi made from taro root with garlic and recao cream sauce, roasted cherry tomatoes and queso fresco gratiné. There’s a philosophy, however, to keeping her culinary cards close to the vest. “If people see a menu full of things that they don’t know… they are just going to choose what sounds familiar,” Pagán said. “I think in this setting, people are more comfortable trusting us blindly with the menu.” Five courses, $65 per person. 737a Hope St., Providence, (401) 642-9464, littlesisterpvd.com
Chef Champe Speidel says diners at Persimmon won’t find any dishes from the restaurant’s à la carte menu on his five-course tasting menu, a strategic decision on his part that empowers him and his team to “be hyper creative” and use extraordinary ingredients that might not have the bandwidth to be widely served in greater quantity. “It could be something brought in especially for the tasting menu,” said the chef. “It allows us to highlight a certain ingredient that I don’t need to buy a thousand pounds of. I can just focus on one part; one area or two different parts of the animal.” Guests at the East Side restaurant actually won’t receive a menu at all, which Speidel says allow them to sit back, relax and enjoy the culinary ride. This time of year, guests may enjoy a truffle course or foie gras, and later in the month, seasonal vegetables like European white asparagus will be brought in. “So you really get some fun experiences on any given night and it’s never the same experience twice,” he explained. Five-courses, $90 per person. Wine pairing additional. 99 Hope St., Providence, (401) 432-7422. persimmonri.com
Cara at The Chanler at Cliff Walk
Starting at $155 per guest for five-courses (plus tax and gratuity), Cara at The Chanler in Newport boasts one of the priciest tasting menus around, but it’s also one of the most unique. “You should be able to close your eyes and know when you taste something, that we are doing this for you; you’re somewhere on the seaside of Rhode Island in a beautiful mansion that has been meticulously restored — that is what we are trying to give to guests when they come,” said executive chef Jacob Jasinski. The intimate Forbes Five-Star restaurant is partitioned from the property’s cafe by a pair of glass doors, creating an instant air of exclusivity — and curiosity — as course after course is whisked into the private, oceanfront space, with Jasinski or one of his colleagues eager to wax poetic about about each dish’s complex components. “There is a certain allure about it,” said the chef, adding this time of year, the menu has an emphasis on seafood. Seating one: 5 p.m., five-courses, $155 per person. Seating two: 8 p.m., eight-courses, $225 per person. Wine pairing additional. 117 Memorial Blvd., Newport, (401) 847-1300. thechanler.com
Italian for “just right,” Giusto in Newport lives up to its name with a tasting menu of just-right dishes at just the right price. Living up to its self-described “freestyle Italian” approach, chef Kevin O’Donnell eschews the formulaic course-after-course blind tasting experience — which he says sometimes “feels rigid” — for one with a more relaxed vibe. “A little more laid back, but still very thoughtful [with] attention to detail and very smart when it comes to how dishes are prepared, [and] the order in which they’re coming out,” is how he describes it. O’Donnell takes into account if the guest is a first-timer at Giusto, in which case they’ll receive some of the restaurant’s “fan favorites,” like the ricotta frittelle, honey and truffle pillowy fried fritters dusted with parmesan. The five-course menu is meant to be shared and has a purposeful blueprint. “You start out with snacks, and they’re fun and playful, and as the meal progresses, the plates become more and more substantial,” said O’Donnell. Five courses, $55 per person. Beverage pairing additional. 4 Commercial Wharf, Newport, (401) 324-7400. giustonewport.com
Perhaps the most long-standing and highly-touted blind tasting menus in Rhode Island are the five- and seven-course chef’s tastings offered at Gracie’s in Providence. For more than two decades, owner Ellen Slattery observed how the once curious concept has morphed into a must-try experience. “I think that the beauty of a tasting menu is putting your trust into us and sitting back and relaxing,” she said. When restaurants reopened amid the pandemic, Slattery and chef Matt Varga thought they’d ease back in with an à la carte or prix-fixe menu; something “more approachable,” she described. But then the two noticed guests were coming in and building their own multi-course tasting menus — a DIY dine out. “They had been home all the time and that they wanted to come out and have an experience, and we saw a huge demand for it,” explained Slattery. For Varga and his team, Slattery said, the tasting menus provide an opportunity to explore and experiment; to test out new techniques and see what resonates with guests — a litmus test that sometimes finds a course migrating to à la carte offerings. Similarly, the tasting menus’ wine pairings allow the restaurant to introduce more small producers and pour wines not necessarily on their wine list, but sometimes wind up on it after making an impression. Five courses, $110 per person. Seven courses, $145 per person. Wine pairing additional. 194 Washington St., Providence. (401) 272-7811. graciesprov.com
You might be halfway through the six-course tasting menu at Foglia in Bristol before you realize you’re eating at an entirely vegan restaurant — and that’s just the way chef-owner Peter Carvelli likes it. Dishes like the tortellini en brodo, a hearty, house-made jumbo pasta stuffed with what seems like cheese-based ricotta but is in fact made of tofu, resting in a rich vegetable broth, showcase the chef’s talent for making exquisitely presented, complex dishes. If the idea of a dairy-free baked Alaska with chocolate olive oil cake and from-scratch ice cream sounds impossible, Carvelli proves otherwise. Like Foglia’s à la carte menu, tasting dishes change on the regular, but frequently booked-solid reservations prove there’s a hunger for inventive, plant-based dining. The demand may be driven in part by Vegetarian Times naming Foglia as one of the best new vegetarian restaurants last fall — one of less than a dozen to garner the national spotlight in the popular publication. Six courses, $75 per person. Wine pairing additional. 31 State St., Bristol, (401) 235-1195. fogliabristol.com
Castle Hill Inn
Perched on a grassy hilltop overlooking the confluence of Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the cylindrical dining room at Castle Hill Inn in Newport exclusively offers a tasting menu to guests, promising “a curated tasting experience that is inspired by both the flavors of coastal New England and influences around the globe.” Chef de Cuisine Dylan Cadrette said that in March of last year, the restaurant restructured, trading their three-course menu for a six-course tasting to diversify dining options and capitalize on his fine dining experience. Instead of a blind tasting, diners can choose two dishes from each of the six courses, and all guests dining together will be served the same selections. “It’s meant to be a comfortable experience so that anybody can enjoy it, even if they have never done a tasting menu before,” explains Cadrette. Right now, one of the first course options he’s excited about is oysters from Quonnie Rock Oysters from Quonochontaug, just 30 miles away. “I love the profile they have as far as the salinity,” said Cadrette. “We have some of the best oysters here in the whole country.” Six-courses, $135 per person. Wine pairing additional. 590 Ocean Drive, Newport, (401) 849-3800. castlehillinn.com
Because of incorrect information provided to the reporter, an earlier version of this story misspelled ñoquis de malanga, a dish offered by Little Sister restaurant in Providence.