Recently pondering where to take out-of-town guests for a special dinner on a WaterFire night, we came up with Neath’s. We were so glad we did, since the restaurant hit high notes in every respect. The meal thrilled all four of us, beginning with the warm slices of crusty baguette, and going all the way through to the chocolate fried wontons with ginger ice cream at the end.
We’d heard that a few Providence favorites might be coasting on their reputations and not living up to their previous standards. We certainly didn’t find this to be true at Neath’s, which opened in the mid-’90s. In fact, we were more entranced than ever with the layers of flavor in our entrées, as well as with the care taken in cooking seafood and with the very attentive service.
Décor at Neath’s is elegant in its minimalism: natural wood beams in the high-ceilinged dining room; wall panels of yellow and burgundy; black and white Asian woodblock prints; large windows with river view; fresh roses on white tablecloths; and an open kitchen. The chic downstairs lounge (open till 1 am), with couches as well as barstools, has live jazz or blues on Friday evenings and on the Saturday WaterFire evenings.
Neath’s menu has changed only slightly through the years, with nightly specials taking advantage of in-season ingredients. Owner Neath Pal, Cambodian by birth, and French-trained as a chef, has an instinctive grasp of how to combine New England seafood with Southeast Asian herbs and spices. Dishes we have enjoyed in the past include the sea bass with black bean marinade; wood-grilled chicken with a lemongrass rub; shrimp in a lemongrass and kaffir lime broth with pineapple chunks and cherry tomatoes; grilled ahi tuna with a soy-ginger glaze; and lobster in a red curry sauce.
The French-Cambodian fusion is also evident in the appetizers, from the littlenecks in a ginger-and-miso broth to the shrimp dumplings with a dipping sauce of shoyu (a kind of soy sauce). There are three salad options, one featuring sesame-lime vinaigrette, another green mangos and the third roasted macadamia nuts.
Nestled among the seafood entrées are pork loin chop with Asian broccoli, wood-grilled sirloin with caramelized shallots, and duck breast with ginger glaze, the latter highly touted by friends who’ve had it here. We let our New Jersey guests choose first, with Gary going for the chicken, and Joe for the shrimp. That left us to tussle over the lobster. Finding that the market price was $39, however, we asked to split that dish, which the kitchen did quite graciously.
After all, we had already indulged in that wonderful baguette, plus Cambodian spring rolls, which had grilled shrimp wrapped inside with bean sprouts and Thai basil leaves ($8), and an order of roasted oysters ($12). The spring rolls had the Cambodian-style dipping sauce, thin rice vinegar with chopped peanuts, and they were quite tasty. The oysters were deliciously briny and zinged up by a lime-and-black pepper dressing.
As our helpful waiter, Stephan, was changing our flatware, we joked about the hefty, broad-bladed knife given to Gary for his grilled chicken breast ($21). But when the substantial breast with attached wing arrived, he was glad to have it. Not that the chicken was tough — the knife just made slicing a tender breast piece much easier. He also liked the accompanying grated green papaya salad with Thai basil.