Doing a stage at a well known restaurant is no guarantee that a stagiere will come away from that stage with anything other than to say that he or she worked there for a period of time. The brief period of time that most stagieres spend in any particular kitchen is generally not enough to pick up more than a semblance of what is happening in that kitchen. To really get a deep understanding of what a particular kitchen is about, most culinarians that I know would tend to say that one needs to work in a kitchen for an extended period of time to really get something out of it. While that is likely generally true, most serious aspiring chefs still go through the rite of passage and experience of securing stages at top restaurants in the hopes of capturing some of the feel, wisdom and experience of those kitchens. The best serious, aspiring chefs often do come away with experiences of real value and it is apparent in their food and cooking. Rene Redzepi, the chef of the much heralded noma in Copenhagen credits his stage at elBulli for giving him the freedom to cook the kind of food that he does. Benjamin Sukle, the young chef at the newly opened The Dorrance in Providence staged at Redzepi’s noma for the month in the fall of 2010, shortly after I had dined there. Based upon my recent dinner at The Dorrance, Chef Sukle’s stage was one of those valuable experiences.
The Dorrance used to be a bank, but not one of those modern banks that we see cropping up all over the place because the banks had to do something with the property they had repossessed. No, this bank went in the opposite direction. It was old style, built in a grand manner with high ceilings and ornate detail located right in the heart of Downtown Providence. In fact it was once a Federal Reserve Bank. Though the decor is quite different, the room has an airiness reminiscent of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, another former bank that had been built in grand style. The space of The Dorrance has a warm feeling to it, full of reds and golds with the warmth of the colors overpowering the coolness of the impressive marble floors and walls. Once the marble had been quarried, the quarry was wrecked so that the precise patterns couldn’t be used anywhere else. The space was a reminder of pre-Great Depression grandeur.
The first details I noticed as I entered the building were the elaborate stained glass window insets looking out onto the street. Each one represents the name of a prominent banking family from history. They are a little kitschy for a restaurant, which adds a fun touch. The restaurant is elegant, but playfully so.
What I probably should have noted first and what most patrons will probably notice, especially those who have been there before, is the large wooden bar directly in front of the entrance. The Dorrance may be playful, but when it comes to the actual food and the cocktail program, they are seriously playful. The cocktail program is superb and rightfully occupies such a central position in the restaurant. More on that later.
The Dorrance contains a lot of space. Situated above the bar is another level with a dining room suitable for private parties. As one walks in to the restaurant, the area to the right is another large space, also suitable for private parties. The main dining room is located to the left and the kitchen entrance is in the rear of that room. With all the space in the restaurant it would make sense that the spacing between tables is generous and it is, though not as generous as one would find in most Michelin three star restaurants. The seating is comfortable and the overall ambience is elegant, especially considering that the prices at The Dorrance are quite reasonable for a restaurant of its quality and aspirations.
When I dined there in December with two of my sons, the restaurant had only been open for about a month. At that time, they were not regularly serving a tasting menu, though Chef Sukle served one for our table from dishes available on the menu as well as a few special items. The price I paid for our meals was in line with a very good value for what was received. The menu items appeared to be as well. We were seated at a corner table with views of the dining room and the bar and were greeted with a glass of champagne for my legal age son and myself.
The champagne was nice, but I had heard a lot about the cocktail program and was eager to sample it for myself, especially since we had a hotel room one easy block away. This program is a pet project of The Dorrance’s Co-owner, Michael Lester with Jesse Hedberg as the head bartender. The menu listed a variety of choices with prime spirits, fresh juices and all the other delights one expects to find in a world class cocktail program. The direction was more classic cocktail than a Modernist approach, but touches from that style were not totally eschewed. The challenge for us was to choose between so many alluring choices.
My youngest son, not yet of legal drinking age, was happily not left out of the pleasures of the restaurant’s bar program, though the alcohol obviously was left out of his drinks. He had a mocktail based around citrus, using fresh orange and lemon juices, orange blossom water and simple syrup with the entire beverage infused with carbon dioxide via the Perlini System. It was very tasty and in terms of its excellent quality and deliciousness reminded me of the non-alcoholic juice pairings at noma.A variation of a Corpse Reviver No. 2, the Westminster Revival with Citadelle Gin, Cocchi Americano, Combier, lime, yuzu and lavender No. 12 caught my eye amongst a myriad of exciting possibilities. It was light, citrusy, a touch bitter with a grapefruity finish and as refreshing as advertised and as hoped for. I was happy. As refreshing as my Westminster Rivival was, my son’s Mezteca, a combination of Scorpion Mezcal, Lunazul Blanco Tequila, fresh lime juice, pineapple, house-made vanilla syrup and jalapeño was smoky, spicy and enchanting. Between these two cocktails and the mocktail, it was abundantly clear that The Dorrance was operating a very serious and skilled cocktail program. Each of these drinks was right on the money.
The wine list was not quite as exciting as the cocktail list, but it was interesting for a restaurant less than two months old with some nice food-friendly bottles. The list as a whole represented very good value with prices ranging from the $30’s to the 80’s. A second list, the “Vaunted and Vaulted,” is available. It carries more exclusive bottles and ranges upward in price, but is relatively limited in choice at this time. I suspect that given the owner’s background in the wine trade, the list will expand rapidly with a wide variety of food-friendly selections. At the moment, though, the real strength of the wine program is its value, which I expect will continue even as the list gets more fleshed out.Rhode Island is a coastal state and has access to some great seafood. The fluke that was served to us, came from a sustainable fishing company called Wild Rhody and was but 6 hours out of the water. The fluke was so fresh, it was still “crunchy,” which reminded me of a fish that was killed via the ika jime method at Starchefs in 2009. The tomatillos added just enough smoke and spice, while the buttermilk added a nice, cooling softness. The fish was well matched with a 2009 Albariño from Pazo Señorans. The combination of everything was simply delicious with well-balanced and nuanced flavors. Sukle’s dish clearly took inspiration from his time at noma as he utilized supremely fresh, local ingredients, combined them simply and added touches of smoke. One difference from noma was his willingness to utilize ingredients and flavors not native to the region. Sukle’s use of tomatillos, albeit fermented and charred, made this dish clearly his own. I don’t think a non-native ingredient like a tomatillo would typically found on a plate at noma, even if it was locally grown. It was an exciting start. Chef Sukle brought out three dishes at once for us to share. The first was the dry-aged duck leg rillette with a crisped surface and fruit and acid to cut the richness of the duckfat. This is a perfect dish for a chilly New England night. The second plate with a variety of late autumn vegetables including a pumpkin seed gremolata and roasted brussels sprouts, with pears and crispy shallots was delightful, with the sprouts taking on the sweet and bitter richness that many cruciferous vegetables have when roasted. While all three dishes owed a debt to Redzepi, they were not just noma dishes transplanted to Rhode Island. The last of the three, this dish with the twice cooked sweet potato, sour cream and smoked salmon roe was the most noma-like of the three, but the utilization of the Cajun staple, tasso (in this case like a really excellent bacon), like the tomatillo earlier with the fluke, placed the dish squarely in North America and highlighted just how much Chef Sukle had learned in his time at noma, while also showing a willingness to deviate from the noma canon and a creative bent squarely his own.
The wine paired with these dishes was a nice light red along the style of non-Nouveau Beaujolais. It was made in Savoie from the Mondeuse grape by Jean-Charles Girard-Modoux. This is the kind of wine, an unusual varietal from an unusual area, that was fun to drink and once again was an example of value and accessibility.The scallops, pulled up by Wild Rhody as useful bycatch, were served baked with uni butter, their own roe, herbs and bread crumbs. The scallops had a bit of a citrus flavor to them as well as a cheesiness, though neither citrus nor cheese were mentioned with the ingredients. The dish had great flavor, but the texture, having been baked, was a bit chewier than I generally prefer with scallops, which I typically prefer raw or seared. The dish was satisfying, but not my favorite of the evening. It was effectively paired with a 2009 Chablis. Pumpkin prepared 5 ways: ribbons simply blanched, whole roasted, pureed with buttermilk, chips and broth, accompanied “aged” hen of the woods mushroom and labneh, strained yogurt made into cheese, to comprise the most noam-esque dish of the evening so far. The herbs added different notes to different bites providing even more interest to an already interesting and delicious dish. The mushrooms had been allowed to “age” or concentrate their flavors for about a week or so before they were roasted and basted with chicken fat and butter. The only flaw to this course was a lack of a spoon or bread to lap up the remaining broth. A simple tempranillo from Avaniel in the Ribera del Duero adequately accompanied this course. This was certainly the most challenging dish for my twelve year old son and the only one that he didn’t finish. This was strongly flavored with a strong bitter note from endive and little sweetness from baby radish and sour notes from a lemon puree, a combination that just didn’t work for such a young palate. It was still challenging even for my older palate, but the interplay of textures and the balance of flavors, especially when washed down with a nice bubbly from the Loire made this dish successful. The bonito was challenging for my son and when this next course came out, I thought that it might have been as well, but this was a dish that each of us felt was sublime. My twelve year old even called it “amazing.” Simply grilled and married to clams, broccoli and a walnut puree with XO dashi poured over the top, the bitter components of the dish from the char were perfectly balanced by the sweetness of the clams and the fish itself, which was moist and cooked perfectly. The non-intuitive (to me) inclusion of the walnut puree was just brilliant, unifying everything on the plate. The collar was used to great effect. A fun part of this dish was finding even more meat on the collar just when it appeared that there could not be any more. The nooks and crannies of the bony structure just kept giving up more and more pleasant surprises with a near constant flow of meaningful morsels until finally the bones were totally clean. This dish was so savory, it was like eating red meat without there being red meat. It just missed being included in my list of Top Ten Dishes of 2011. The 100% Sangiovese from La Spineta was a perfect fluid complement. Sukle’s 18 day Dry Aged Pekin Duck with kohlrabi sticks, beets, quince puree and toasted seeds (sesame, pumpkin, poppy and sunflower) with a sauce made with grilled duck bones (for a little char-flavor) poured on top also earned consideration as one of my top dishes of the year. The quince puree with the seeds was an unusual and delicious accompaniment to the duck. Quince had been vacuum-sealed, preserving its yellow color (conventionally cooked quince turns the brick-red of membrillo) and cooked with lemon verbena twigs. The beets were both sweet and savory, packing concentrated flavor, while the kohlrabi added a clean, peppery element to the plate. Like the mushtoom dish earlier, each bite was different. A touch of cumin in some bites haunted, while other bites, depending on which seeds and spices accompanied the mouthful, showcased different flavors. This was a dish that was both harmonious and varied with each bite having its own element of pleasant surprise with the conventionally cooked duck being the consummately delicious anchor. A pleasing Montepulciano di Abruzzo from Cataldi Madonna was more refined than most rustic Montepulciani di Abruzzo, but still had enough body and depth to hold up to the duck. The wine pairings were interesting and well chosen, while still being economical, not an easy feat in today’s wine world. Desserts started with a cocktail with L.J. and I sharing an Apropos Barbados, a tiki-style, rum-based drink with Plantation Barbados Rum, Marie Brizzard Apry, Velvet Falernum, apricot jam, fresh lime juice, egg white and Creole bitters. This drink was perfectly appropriate for dessert, but its balance was such that it would work well before dinner too and I am not a big fan of sweet cocktails. Once again my 12 year old son did not get left out. He was given a non-alcoholic Coffee Milk Flip made with Autocrat Coffee Syrup (a Providence staple), a whole egg, cream, and chocolate mole bitters. This was pure decadence. The Autocrat was such a hit, we spent the early afternoon of the next day running around Providence trying to buy some to bring home. Desserts came out in a group of three for sharing. The meyer lemon icebox cake came with shortbread, fresh Italian meringue, meyer lemon curd (within the mousse of the cake) and preserved lemon curd. It was a blizzard of lemon flavor covering a variety of textures. As good lemon desserts are, this was extremely tasty and refreshing. The parsnip panna cotta was accented with candied oats, crispy malt wafers, apple cider fluid gel, fresh mint and apple cider vinegar soaked, vacuum-sealed Macoun apple discs. The panna cotta was well crafted and seasonally delicious for late autumn. The peanut butter dessert was a play on Elvis Presley’s favorite combination of chocolate, banana and peanut butter with a peanut butter mousse, bruleed bananas, warm crisp chocolate cookie, powdered peanut butter and fresh peanuts. This was probably my favorite of the three. All were good, well crafted and balanced without going over the top. We had one more cocktail before we left, one that The Dorrance owner, Michael lester really wanted me to try. Wittily named the Negroni Smith, it was a variation of a Negroni, the classic gin, sweet vermouth and Campari cocktail. This one utilizes Laird’s Apple jack in lieu of the gin, but takes it a step further, by vacuum-sealing the Apple Jack with smoked applewood chips for 4-6 hours. It’s served over a beautiful square ice cube with an orange peel for garnish. The result was delicious and special, a “meaty” cocktail that I could sip for days. Each component came through individually and combined seamlessly. This was a superb exclamation point for an outstanding cocktail program.
The restaurant as a whole is a fascinating and unique mix. Michael Lester and his lovely wife, Regina, own and operate The Dorrance, putting a lot of themselves into the restaurant. Their passion for cocktails shines through in spades. This is a truly topnotch cocktail program producing great cocktails. Michael Lester also has a passion for wine and keeping the prices at a reasonable level. While I don’t think the wine program is as exciting as the cocktail program at this point in time, it is a good one and should only get better as they continue to build the list. The ambiance of the restaurant provides a good mix of luxury and cool. The evening we were there, there was a live band playing a mix of jazz standards and Sinatra-type dance music with a number of people dancing on the dance floor infront of the band. This presented a bit of an odd juxtaposition, but it worked.
This was a real eye-opening meal. I expected it to be good, but not as good as it was. I expected to see some noma influence and we did, but it wasn’t simply a copy of what Rene Redzepi and his team are doing in Copenhagen. It is clear that Chef Benjamin Sukle took home a significant influence in terms of the process of putting food together as well as an overall kitchen philosophy, but he is making his own food. Like Redzepi, Sukle is combining Modernist techniques with traditional ones and applying them to top-notch ingredients. At the moment, he is doing it with a thin staff, but I expect as time goes on and the reputation and success of this restaurant grows as it should, that will likely change and the kitchen will be able to do on a regular basis and for more people, more of what we enjoyed this night. Another trait of Redzepi that Sukle picked up or had reinforced from his stint at noma was an ability to convey place and time in a meal. This was a meal that was very contemporary, made a very strong statement of being from this part of New England and did so without resorting to cliches. The meal was creative, but still representative of its present time and its home. I’m looking forward to coming back and watching the evolution of this exciting young chef and this exciting, unique restaurant.
Disclaimer: I paid for our meals, but we did receive special consideration in regards to the service of a tasting menu, which at the time of our meal was not generally available.