Baked meatballs, chili cheese fries, and barbecue burgers are just some of the items that will be on the menus at restaurants in a two-story food hall opening in downtown Providence this week.
While these offerings might seem like pretty traditional fare to most, there is a twist: All of the food served in the 10,000-square-foot space will be plant-based.
Plant City is the brainchild of celebrity chef, author, and wellness entrepreneur Matthew Kenney, a leader in plant-based cuisine who has published 12 cookbooks (and one memoir) and operates – or is in the process of opening – 35 restaurants around the world under the Matthew Kenney Cuisine umbrella. Double Zero, Kenney’s Michelin-rated New York-based pizzeria, will be one of the four restaurants in Plant City, and is also opening on Newbury Street in Boston this fall.
“I really like the Providence food scene,” says Kenney, 54, who was born in Hartford and raised in Searsport, Maine. “Doing a project this large in scope – where we’re putting several concepts under one roof – could easily have launched in New York or Los Angeles, but I think it makes sense to do it with a slightly smaller footprint in a region where we can work on the concept and develop it and nurture it without having the kind of crowds – or even costs – we would have in New York.”
Kenney believes he has found the “perfect” spot for Plant City, which he referred to as a “reinterpretation of food halls like Eataly – but founded on our highly refined approach to plant-based cuisine.”
Located on South Water Street in the former Barnsider’s Mile & A Quarter restaurant, Plant City is right off South Main Street, where the new Providence River Pedestrian Bridge is being constructed.
“That is fantastic for us; it almost lands at our doorstep,” he says of the bridge that connects the East Side to the Jewelry District and greatly increases accessibility. The area is frequented not only by professionals in the city, but by students from Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales University, and Brown University.
With seating for up to 225 and a full-service outside patio, the emporium will include cuisine options that range from takeout and counter service to full-service, upscale dining.
New Burger, which Kenney described as a “casual bar and bistro serving healthy renditions of American comfort food,” will be located on the first floor, as will Make Out, an extension of Kenney’s LA-based cafe that is “almost like an upscale cafeteria, where you can make your own acai bowls, where we’ll have pastries and other baked goods, and a coffee bar offering a boutique coffee program and specialty beverages, including super-food elixirs and customized espresso beverages.”
A portion of the lower level also will be home to Plant City’s retail component, which will include a curated selection of perishable and nonperishable products, juices, fermented nut cheeses, plant-based desserts, boutique packaged goods, and cookbooks.
Upstairs will be Bar Verde, Kenney’s NYC-based Mexican restaurant specializing in Latin-influenced cuisine that includes a variety of guacamoles, ceviches, and tacos. Some customer favorites include the wild mushroom carnitas with salsa verde, guacamole, chili, and shaved radish, and cremini mushroom and caramelized onion quesadilla with epazote, spicy cashew cheese, pico de gallo, and salsa verde.
Also on the second level will be Double Zero, featuring an array of specialty pizzas and vegan versions of traditional Italian fare, such as meatballs with macadamia ricotta and marinara, and heirloom tomato and zucchini lasagna with sundried tomato marinara, macadamia ricotta, and pistachio pesto.
He says that while plant-based cheeses used to leave something to be desired, the in-house cheeses offered in his restaurants do not.
“I haven’t found a single person who dined at Double Zero who [says] ‘I have to have real mozzarella.’ At the end of the day, mozzarella is about texture. It doesn’t have much flavor,” he maintains. “I think our cashew-based mozzarella probably has more flavor and it has all that satisfying richness and fattiness and so forth that any other mozzarella has. And the texture is there.”
“We think pizza is more about the crust, anyway,” he adds. “And we have so many vibrant toppings.”
In the basement will be Plant City Cellar, a communal space that will rent out offices (intended for like-minded practices that are in keeping with the Plant City concept, such as nutrition consultation and holistic therapy). Events will be held on a regular basis, including activities such as yoga, meditation, and cooking classes.
Kenney says he has received a “tremendous” amount of community support – indicated by the number of dinner reservations that have been booked weeks in advance. One Rhode Island resident who says she is “beyond excited” about the food emporium coming to Providence is Stefany Reed, 57, a certified dementia practitioner and yoga instructor who posted about Plant City on a Rhode Island vegan group’s Facebook page.
“Some of the other vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the area have great food, but the service is so laissez-faire and Bohemian. I have been looking for an upscale, plant-based restaurant to entertain my family and friends,” says the Johnston resident, who has been vegetarian – but says she eats primarily vegan – for 30 years. “My fantasy is to go to a restaurant with all of the ambiance and service of The Capital Grille, but with plant-based food. Finally, with Plant City, my fantasy is coming true.”
Kenney, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where he worked for 20 years before moving seven years ago to Venice, Calif. (where he lives with his partner, Charlotte MacKinnon, the company’s creative and marketing director), says the audience for plant-based food is “growing exponentially every single month – not every single year, but every month.”
A recent Economist article stated that “2019 will be the year of the vegan” and that “fully a quarter of 24- to 34-year-old Americans [identify as] vegans or vegetarians.”
Kenney says that when he went vegan 17 years ago, any ailments he had – from digestion issues to headaches – “completely went away.”
“I felt like I was on a rocket ship, and so I started to experiment with different foods, because some of [the plant-based food I was eating] was not very good,” he says. “And I thought that if somebody could actually make this food taste good, look good, serve it in a proper environment – maybe with good wine – and make it actual cuisine, then it would be the food of the future. So as crazy as that was, that was what I believed back then and I’ve been working toward that goal ever since.”