The restaurant that was here before, on the scenic Westerly bank of the Pawcatuck River, had started out guns a’-blazin’, but eventually ran out of ammunition. It’s always a shame when a restaurant with a great location fails to equally impress with the actual food. Not to worry, however, about the Up River Café.
When Up River opened in 2001, owner Daniel King had experience as the general manager of several restaurants in San Francisco, so he knew the importance of having the kitchen helmed by an executive chef as capable as Bryan Waugh, of Newport’s Clarke Cooke House. Since Waugh’s departure nearly two years ago, his toque has been ably filled by none other than Terrence Maul, the original — in both senses — chef of Red Stripe, the Providence bistro that got good buzz right out of the box a couple of years ago.
We arrived early on a sunny evening, so we swept through the brick, brass, and dark wood dining area. On the spacious patio, we were seated at brushed stainless steel café ta-bles. Swallows picturesquely darted above as we took in the view of the ivy-covered wall a stone’s throw away across the river.
The wine list is lengthy, as you can assume from the several stashes of bottles on display inside, and leans way toward California. They call this place a “Cafe and Cocktail Bar,” so there are also two pages of cocktails and specialty drinks, heavy on the classics, from Sazarac to “Cary Grant’s Gimlet” (add fresh lemon juice and a float of dry sherry). My Negroni was nicely balanced.
Everybody has a soup of the day, but Up River has a “Soup of the Moment,” presumably changed at least hourly. The moment we asked, it was a tomato and roasted pepper bisque, but we chose to share a beet and goat cheese terrine ($9). Out came an edible little sculpture, slabs of cooked beet forming a triangle around the chevre, topped with micro greens. Both our aesthetic needs and appetites were nicely appeased.
We next looked over the list of 15 “small Plates,” which are also available at the bar, starting at 4 pm, an hour before the dining room opens. There is a daily grilled pizza ($10), a BBQ pulled pork sandwich ($10), and mini-burger “sliders” on brioche ($9 for three). Instead of mozzarella sticks, there are fried eggplant sticks ($6), and the signature mac & cheese ($7) contains unspecified artisanal cheese and Tasso ham. The grilled lamb T-bone ($15) sounds like it could satisfy more than a small appetite.
From those choices, we continued our sharing phase with Asian fried calamari ($12), ever on the lookout for variations on the traditionally prepared Rhode Island State Appe-tizer.
Well, fellow citizens, a gustatory insurrection is in order. I defy a table full of Italian chefs to not squabble over the last morsel of this exquisite variation. The tender squid rings and large, golden banana pepper rings are matched in size and texture, their crunch amplified by fried cellophane noodles, none of which wilted after being tossed with a Thai sweet chili sauce. The accompanying wasabi aioli is gentle. Yes, it was exquisite.