Finally. After events conspired on two prior occasions to keep us from sitting down to a meal at 22 Bowen’s, the stars aligned and we finally arrived. There are places you save for special occasions, and this is one of them.
Before you get to the actual food, you are made to feel comfortable. They apparently make a deliberate effort to dispel any perceptible stuffy atmosphere, since the host or hostess has been unpretentiously friendly whenever we’ve visited.
The restaurant is on Bowen’s Wharf, so as well as views of boats, there’s a nautical theme, with a Scull Room, a Sail Room, and other reminders. The open-beam and white-plank ceilings lend an airy spaciousness. While paper on tablecloths never offends at bistros, it would seem out of place here, even though the ambience is informal — a brick-backed bar is prominent and next to it is an open kitchen.
Other things at Bowen’s indicate that you are a guest as well as a customer. A fundamental indicator is how they sufficiently filter Newport tap water, so that drinking it doesn’t induce wincing. It’s surprising how many otherwise classy restaurants game us into buying the bottled stuff.
We came for the seasonal menu, which is available Sunday through Thursday from October to May. Eight items are a la carte, priced from $14.95 (for an open-faced bison burger), to $19.95 (for a grilled rib eye steak). The restaurant bills itself as a wine bar and grill, so the wine list is extensive and the entrées run as high as the 40s, with sides $5-$10 extra. (An even better deal than the seasonal menu is the Friday evening prix fixe offering. For $65 per couple, you get soup or salad and dessert, plus choices from four items from the seasonal menu, and a bottle of Mondavi reserve wine.)
Those eight dishes run a reasonable gamut, from Cajun pork porterhouse and shellfish to haute homey roast turkey roulade filled with cornbread stuffing. We first looked over the appetizers. The lobster fritters with sweet pepper remoulade ($13.95) sounded too much like clam cakes with pretensions, and the crispy calamari tossed with three-pepper-and-mint relish ($12.95) didn’t seem like enough of a variation to be special. More appealing were the baked oysters Rockefeller ($16.95). Good choice: five half shells presented on a bed of rock salt, the sherry-and-shallot cream sauce a velvety complement to the briny Sakonnet shellfish and earthy spinach. A half lemon, wrapped in cheesecloth, is a fastidious touch.
Johnnie considered the roast turkey roulade to up-scale her nostalgia, but decided instead on the baked hake ($17.95). The firm, flaky fish, much like cod, was served on a bed of white beans mixed with roasted tomatoes and a few pieces of asparagus. The drizzle of hollandaise sauce on top was minimal, and provided a decorative touch more than a lemony spark.
She was pleased, but I was more so. My duck breast ($16.95) was probably the best I’ve had, quite a conclusion considering how it’s one of my favorite dishes. The cracked-peppercorn-encrusted skin side was fried as crisp as a wonton and rendered even less greasy, if that’s possible. That provided crackly textural contrast to the tender medium-rare meat, which an au jus, sweetened with red-pepper jam, made even more flavorful. The latter also did nice things to the delicate goat cheese and chive risotto. I couldn’t have smiled more broadly.