OFFBEAT OFFERING The “spicy salty” calamari.
As much as restaurants want to provide a calming atmosphere, with bird twitters or whatever in the background, the mood behind the scenes can be lethal. Last December, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay rode into the downtown DownCity restaurant as their surly white knight, wielding a meat cleaver instead of a lance, hacking away at their menu for his TV show, Kitchen Nightmares. As a result, they now serve lobster mac and cheese as well as spaghetti and meatballs, and an appealing miso-glazed sea bass instead of the omnipresent shrimp scampi. Sounded like time to check it out.
There were no bluebirds chirping over my shoulders, but they would have clashed with the orange walls anyway. That orange isn't as gaudy as it might sound. It's warm and energizing, goes well with the raw brick on other walls. Banquette back cushions and rows of drop lamps are white, echoing light flooding in from high, tall windows on our midday visit. Since the general ambience was assured by the careful decor, a couple of downscale touches at lunch helped keep prices down without offending: paper napkins on the bare wood tabletop, but quality paper napkins.
Downcity | 401.331.9217 | 50 Weybosset St, Providence | Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am-3 pm, 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11:30 am-3 pm, 5-11 pm; Sun, 10 am-3 pm, 5-10 pm | Major Credit Cards | Full Bar | Sidewalk-Level Accessible
Before we considered the menu too carefully, my guest decided to spring for a bottle of champagne. Charles de Fère was listed, but an opened bottle of Cook's Brut was brought without our being asked. Apparently, California "champagne" is considered generic, even the ginger-ale-sweet Cook's. We got a nice bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc instead.
The menu, which is the same at lunch and dinner, is slight but selective. There are two soups, and the eight other appetizers, all but one $6 to $8, are varied and unusual (except for the honey spiced chicken wings): pork belly in Boston Bibb lettuce cups; goat cheese truffle dip with house-made potato chips. For the marinara-addicted, meatball sliders; for the lox lovers, beet-cured salmon with chive cream cheese.
The New England clam chowder they serve is broth- rather than cream-based, always a wise decision in my book. But soon across from me was a bowl of roasted butternut squash soup. It was a generous portion for $4, and a marvel of complementary tastes. The flavor was enhanced with sage and brown butter and a plentiful swirl of maple crème fraîche. Ingenious and delicious.
I'm always on the lookout for calamari variations, so I couldn't pass up their offering of "spicy salty" calamari ($8). The portion was modest but adequate for two, if you forget you're in Rhode Island, the land of the automatically super-sized heap o' fried squid. There were just rings, the light crust slightly spicy but too salty for both of us (despite the warning) and not pounded to tenderness as some kitchens take the time to do. The green goddess dipping sauce, however, was tasty and diluted the saltiness perfectly. Ah-hah — the rings demand the sauce, which is kept separate rather than tossed with them so as to not spoil the crunch. Got it.