MAESTRO Chef Champe at work.
As national press has informed us in recent years, Rhode Island has certainly, and deservedly, earned a reputation as one of the prime culinary hotspots in the country, so it has plenty of fine restaurants vying for of top honors. But judging from visits over the years, my hands-down favorite is tucked away on State Street in Bristol — Persimmon. Chef Champe Speidel is working there on a level both earth-bound and rarefied.
Check out his website home page and you'll get a visual sense of what he's going for: A forest of colorful vegetables arrayed like bonsai with a crisp of dehydrated fennel sticking up like a flattened saguaro in a vegan oasis. Three braised brown stacks of rolled chicken covered by white-vegetable foam, cups of Brussels sprout leaves among the surrounding additions like little green chalices.
But that's just presentation. Where Chef Champe really shines is with his fetish for flavors. Isolating them, complementing them, contrasting them, intensifying them, all but spinning them on plates on upraised fingers. Combine that with a good chef's playfulness with textures and a diner's satisfaction is complete.
Five years ago, I was impressed with his "Persimmon cheese experience with treats and surprises." The cheeses spanned taste and texture gamuts, from hard to soft varieties and perhaps an intense blue. But then would come the little dabs of flavor on the platter palette: a bit of honeycomb here, paper-then hazelnut brittle there, a smear of balsamic reduction, tiny aromatic oregano blossoms — more than two dozen flavors to compare and contrast.
On that visit, in a chat at our table Speidel expressed concern for respecting each ingredient's proper cooking time, so as to not "muddle" the flavors. And it's paid off: He's a 2012 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast.
We recently returned to the softly lit space, which has a charming informality from the persimmons on banquette throw pillows echoing the namesake in paintings here and there. Intimate, only 36 seats.
The amuse bouche was an immediate eye-opener: sunchoke panna cotta topped with caviar. Johnnie couldn't stop mmmm-ing for a while. Later interesting touches included mozzarella rolled in herbs, the cheese's subtlety further perked up with the peppery bite of paper-thin radish slices on top. My potpourri of vegetables with sausage and pork shoulder included brussels sprouts, baby ones. Apples and sweet potatoes complemented each other while little onions stood by and watched. Nice.
We then went back for one of the chef's tastings, hungry to sample some more of the thoughtful combinations. The opening certainly set the stage: a melon-ball-size golden beet sorbet had a "dusting" of chevre atop and a gel "pudding" of apple cider below. My taste buds were put on full alert.
Next came an Onset oyster topped with black caviar (from Hackleback sturgeon), accompanied by an Atlantic sea urchin with an emulsion of various spices; wave upon wave of brine and a light curry overlay. Closing my eyes, I was floating in the Indian Ocean.
There was a warm winter salad with parsnip, kohlrabi, chickweed, and fennel "chips." Some of the vegetables were pickled, some roasted. Johnnie had that because I was enjoying a head cheese terrine, heavy on the pork, light on the gelatin. Pickled vegetables accompanied this, for a bright vinegary snap, and dabs of aioli functionally decorated the plate. Further contrast? A fingertip length of toasted cheese.