Maybe once a year, if I’m lucky, I get to eat somewhere that blows my mind. I just got my taste for 2013. Which is why I’m going to tell you to get in a car and drive to Providence to eat at a tiny restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. It will be worth it.
North opened last September, a project from three cooks under 30 — they refuse to call themselves “chefs” — James Mark, Tim Shulga, and John Toon Chester. (Chester currently oversees the bar program.) They met at Johnson & Wales, which almost all North employees attended, and working at local spot Thee Red Fez.
North accommodates about 30 people, with six tables and a bar, behind which is a machine that swirls cocktails into boozy Slurpees, a different version each day. The restaurant is dark and decorated with paintings of nude pearl divers and junks, done in a style somewhere between Art Deco and pizza-parlor mural. The walls and ceilings are slung with thick, knotted ropes. It feels like eating in a Japanese izakaya aboard a small boat bobbing in a Venetian canal. (The decor is a holdover from Japanese restaurant Ama’s, the previous incarnation.) Quarters are tight, and you will wind up talking with the young art-school types next to you, and probably sharing your giant platter of Sichuan-style rock crabs too.
In the bathroom is a framed image of an iPhone text conversation:
“Hey dude, it’s James. Really great seeing you today. Thank you. For everything.
“If it wasn’t for you dudes I have no idea what would be
“I owe so much to ya”
The reply: “You owe the next generation of cooks, James. You don’t owe me anything.”
The exchange is between Mark and chef Peter Serpico, of Serpico in Philadelphia and the Momofuku restaurants in New York. Mark worked with him at Momofuku Ko, then left to help open Momofuku Milk Bar. The North cook is among the spreading cadre of Momofuku graduates moving on to new projects, Strip-T’s in Watertown and the upcoming Ribelle in Brookline among them. I’m often asked what the New England equivalent of Momofuku is, and there are many ways to interpret this question. But the food at North contains more than a pinch of Momofuku, along with a dash of Mission Chinese, another recently influential restaurant. The rest is a mishmash of what the cooks have imagined themselves, learned in their travels, and incorporated from the immigrant communities of Providence, particularly Cambodian. “We’re an American restaurant,” Mark says by phone.
This mostly takes the form of Asian flavors, sliced apart and recombined with boldness, humor, and intelligence. Dishes mess with your expectations in delirious fashion. They have names like “green chow mein ver2.0,” “fluke with Chinese American flavor,” and “relatively spicy cucumber & Chino sausage” (“Chino” being Spanish slang for an Asian guy, a frequent nickname for Mark, whose father is Chinese). The menu is concise, the food loaded with fresh herbs and chilies, tamarind and anchovies. It is vibrant and far from subtle, yet balanced. These plates are like catchy songs — you get stuck on them, and you have to have another bite, and another. The food at North is always very, very tasty. On its best days, it is transcendent.
What green chow mein ver2.0 has in common with the version found in American Chinese restaurants is noodles — fine strands that have been fried, then relaxed back into the sauce, releasing some of their crunch. At North, they are piled high, tossed with a sort of pesto of almonds and cilantro, tangled together with toasted coconut, fried garlic, holy basil, and mountain mint. They retain the comforting qualities of standard-issue chow mein, but with the bracing, herbal qualities of a Southeast Asian salad.
Dan dan noodles are inspired by a dish from Momofuku Ssam Bar, which in turn was inspired by a dish from New York’s Szechuan Gourmet. Korean rice cakes, stocky white tubes that are addictively chewy, are tossed with tender bites of goat meat and rings and tentacles of squid. (Mark went through a phase where he was obsessed with surf and turf, he says.) The dish is peppery and savory, with a creeping heat from fermented chilies. It’s no dan dan you’ve ever known; it’s dan dan with a funky bass line.
The dish was originally made with cuttlefish and lamb, but the ingredients made it too expensive to be practicable. Goat and squid work because North can get them from area purveyors, keeping costs lower. North’s menu is local and seasonal, but the cooks don’t tout that fact. It’s just how restaurants should be, they say. All of the cooks spend four days each week in the kitchen and one day working on a farm. For each dish sold, the restaurant donates 50 cents to the Rhode Island food bank or Amos House, which runs a soup kitchen and provides services and housing to those in need.
The cucumber and Chinese sausage dish is a complicated collage of flavors: garlic, scallion roots, anchovies, bitter melon, Chinese fermented chili bean paste, sherry vinegar and palm sugar, rice steamed in banana leaves and then griddled. The “relatively spicy” version is very good, but the “really spicy” one is astounding. Lobster natang is a New England-ized riff on a Cambodian dip traditionally made with pork. Thick, crunchy rice cakes get dunked in a thick sauce of seafood and red curry that is hot, sweet, rich, and intensely craveable.
Fluke with Chinese American flavor features cool slivers of fish with crunchy daikon and cucumber, topped with powder-fine shavings of country ham, which Mark says reminds him of Chinese ham. Chinese broccoli meets tamarind and puffed rice for a lively take on sweet-and-sour. And ramen noodles are delicate and bright tossed with tiny sweet clams and citrus hollandaise.
Not every dish shakes the earth. Miniature biscuits that sandwich Virginia ham and ginger-scallion mustard are doughy, needing to bake longer. Crab rolls — spirals of egg in a tomato-based sauce, topped with crisp potato chips — look wild but mostly taste like omelet. Dessert comes with mixed results. “Strawberries, smashed” cleverly mimics tuna tartare in appearance, but it tastes like ’80s Asian fusion fare, fruit atop wonton crisps. Then there’s rhubarb granita with creamy curds and Thai basil, not in the least bit sweet and entirely, wonderfully refreshing. Although cocktails like the Lo-Mist — pisco with lime, jalapeno, and cucumber — fit with the food, things can go too far. The Phil Collins (menu description: “It’s a game of give and take”) is a riff on a Tom Collins that includes plum vinegar. It tastes like you’re drinking umeboshi.
But when you are tearing through spicy, bright, crunchy, savory dishes, acquiring brain freeze from a negroni-esque slushie, and watching a table of women who look like anime characters feast on crabs with pure joy and abandon, all you are thinking is: Why isn’t North closer to home? And how long until I can come back?
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.