When Boston’s dining scene begins to feel like well-explored territory, it is worth taking a trip to Providence for something new. Home to RISD, Brown, and Johnson & Wales, the city is filled with artists, academics, and chefs. It is still possible to open a restaurant on a shoestring. The result is a landscape of passion projects, quirky spinoffs, and closet-size spaces serving great food and unique perspectives.
What’s interesting right now? High on the list is Birch, a restaurant with the intimacy of a sushi bar, just big enough for 20 people to squeeze in at the U-shaped counter. Chef Benjamin Sukle previously worked at the Dorrance, a grand, gorgeous room filled with marble, stained glass, and balconies. A little more than a year old, Birch feels more in keeping with his accolade-winning food — small-scale, thoughtful, enacted with Rhode Island ingredients. Sukle trained at Johnson & Wales and also worked locally at La Laiterie, and he apprenticed at the famed Noma in Copenhagen. But his plates feel created by a chef from an alternate planet not too far away, where perhaps the same food grows, but it is looked at with different eyes.
Compositions are lovely and strange. Raw beef and kohlrabi are sliced thin as can be, strips rolled together into discs both rich and crunchy; they are scattered with rye crisps, chives, and sea vegetables. Summer’s last corn is paired with shaved squid, horseradish, and preserved cherry blossoms, a contrast of flavors and textures so novel it almost makes you laugh when you take the first bite: sweet, saline, explosive, silky, vegetal. Heirloom beans are matched with marinated sea whelk and green tomatoes, similarly delirious. Point Judith bycatch — we get scup — comes crisp-skinned beside a little pile of greens and blossoms with cucumber and caramelized crab.
Not everything is perfect — a small sliver of chicken with barbecued cabbage, nasturtium, and potato is dry one evening, for instance. But the prices are reasonable enough that a misstep here or there feels forgivable: All of this invention sets you back $49 for four (diminutive) courses. It could feel twee if the staff — led by Sukle’s wife, co-owner and general manager Heidi Sukle — weren’t so relaxed and genial (and fine cocktails like the Goosefoot, made with vodka, sorrel, lemon, and lemon balm, don’t hurt). By the end of the meal, when complementary whoopie pies are set before you, something homey and familiar is a welcome sight. Chocolate cake with creamy filling brings you back to this planet before you leave the rarefied atmosphere of Birch.
An entirely different experience is available just a few doors away at a different counter. Ken’s Ramen serves bowls of Japanese noodles pungent with garlic, swimming in broth so thick and rich it seems to have its own life essence. There is a painting of Fred Flinstone on the wall, Rubik’s Cubes on the counter, pop music in the background, and staffers wearing black “Ramen Cartel” T-shirts manning steaming vats.
A dish called tsukemen keeps the noodles and the broth separate; you dip and slurp. The broth is made from chickens simmered more than 30 hours, and the noodles are thick, yellow, kinky, chewy strands. Each bowl comes with a choice of char siu pork belly or pulled chicken; the meat, dry and sometimes tough, is the weakest part of the ramen here. Stir in the citrus-and-pepper paste called yuzu kosho and squeeze on some lime, drizzle sesame seed-spiked chili oil for an extra kick, and enjoy — the heat, the zing of the yuzu kosho, the garlic, and a background note of smokiness combine to make something addictive. I find myself scrabbling up every drop.
The extremely wonderful restaurant North, which remixes Asian and other flavors in mind-blowing and very tasty ways, opened spinoff North Bakery this summer. It’s located in a nondescript brick building with a neon blue script sign, on an industrial corner across from Ralph & Sons Auto Body. But inside are pretty little cakes the size of coffee cans, in flavors like lemon and coffee curd and red velvet. Lemon bars are tweaked with rosemary crust, the flavors perfectly complementary. And then there is the dan dan hand pie, like a fat, puffy Pop Tart filled with spicy, herb-spiked meat, a cross between spanakopita and Chinese takeout.
French restaurant Chez Pascal was started by alums of Hamersley’s Bistro more than a decade ago. An obsession with making sausages eventually led to a hot dog cart and food truck, now retired in favor of the Wurst Kitchen, a restaurant-within-the-restaurant opened in 2012. Sit at a communal table or get your sausage from a takeout window beneath a sign decorated with a large link. When the weather is nice, the outdoor dining area is a sweet spot, with chairs and tables nestled among pots of coleus and brown-eyed Susan. You’ll find the likes of weisswurst with curried onion sauce and bacon-wrapped pork meatloaf sandwiches. An enormous knackwurst with snappy yet delicate skin arrives on a giant bun with mellow sauerkraut and good mustard. You can also buy hot dogs, brats, and more to cook at home.
There’s plenty of meaty stuff to sink your teeth into. But Providence also has something that Boston has difficulty maintaining — a really good, creative vegetarian restaurant with style, a strong beverage program, and professional service. With porch swings to curl up on and books to read, plenty of wood, and cozy lighting, the Grange seems decorated by hobbits with excellent design sense.
The people behind it have been working to advance a plant-based diet in the area since the ’70s, when they opened the Golden Sheaf Natural Foods Market. But the Grange doesn’t feel like a crunchy throwback. Chef Jonathan Dille’s modern dinner menu ranges from fried green tomatoes to roasted broccoli with chili sauce, Korean barbecue tacos to fried mushroom po’boys to red chimichurri tofu. No one misses the meat. And the cocktails are great, made with all manner of interesting shrubs, bitters, and syrups. The Pemmican, a bourbon drink stained crimson with cranberries, is reason enough to embrace fall.
One longtime Providence favorite you can no longer eat at is Farmstead. Chef Matt Jennings closed his popular restaurant over the summer. Newcomer the Salted Slate, featuring American bistro fare made with local ingredients, opened in the Wayland Square space. Like its predecessor, it serves a fine mac and cheese. Jennings, a Massachusetts native, felt the call of home. He plans to open Townsman later this year, in the new Radian building on the Greenway. The restaurants you explore in Providence today could be the training grounds for the chefs whose food you’ll eat in Boston tomorrow.
Salted Slate 186 Wayland Ave., Providence, 401-270-3737. www.saltedslate.com