Sometimes what seems like a good idea isn't really such a good idea. It's true in restaurants all the time: If at first you don't succeed, you try something else. A new menu, a different color of tablecloth, remaking a French bistro as an Italian trattoria — anything can sound like an inspired plan when the alternative is failure.
And sometimes, if someone lets you, you start from scratch.
When the 86-year-old President Hotel reopened in 2006, after an expensive and surprising renovation (the building had sat vacant for more than two decades), owner Ron Jury decided that this was the right place for an upscale dining spot. And why not — the Drum Room, as it was now called, had been home to a swanky bar and restaurant in the hotel's glory days.
It was a fitting homage, a glossy and upscale urban restaurant with serpentine, black-cloaked banquettes. On the walls were black-and-white vintage photographs of performers from the 1940s and '50s, some of whom played the Drum Room back in the day. Executive chef Eric Carter created a dinner menu that was accessible but sophisticated enough to impress out-of-town diners who had sensibly decided not to venture far from their lodgings to eat.
Two years later, the economy tanked, drumming Jury's vision out of existence.
The street-level lounge is still called the Drum Room, but the snazzy interior of the dining room, seven steps down from the bar, has been ripped out. And in its place is something frankly warmer and more inviting. Using reclaimed barn wood for the walls and the ceiling, complemented by natural colors — shades of sage, rust and earthy browns — the pretty dining room is now enjoying a second second life, as Providence New American Kitchen.
Not that anyone is going to walk out humming about the décor. There's nothing about this space that you haven't seen at the more upscale casino steakhouses. (It looks rather like a set from a touring-company production of Oklahoma. I was tempted to burst into a chorus or two of "The Cowboy and the Farmer Should Be Friends.") Ambition has given way to a kind of Midwestern nice that might lure not just captive hotel guests but also locals, who are notoriously resistant to dining in downtown's hotels.
Carter is still along for the ride (a corporate consultant is riding shotgun), tinkering now with a menu that mixes the standards crucial for this kind of venue (a hamburger, a steak, a Cobb salad, a BLT) with some unexpected choices. All of it is first-rate, and those left-of-center items closest to his heart are beautifully prepared and visually impressive.
The menu is heavy on meat, with pork taking center stage. Despite locally sourced vegetables, Providence isn't especially providential to vegetarians, with just a single meatless entrée (roasted-vegetable tamales) and one starter that's sort of meat-free (pierogi stuffed with potatoes and Green Dirt Farm cheese) if you remember to have the bacon garnish left off. The latter — golden, puffy pillows fried until crispy instead of lightly sautéed — contain an addictively creamy filling but would benefit from a savory dipping sauce. That bacon garnish is unnecessary, even as a visual note.
There's a dazzling starter, though, in Carter's quartet of pork-belly cubes. They arrive at the table gleaming under a maple-chili glaze, each balanced like a tightrope walker on a sliver of tart Granny Smith apple. It's faint praise to say these are the city's most glamorous-looking burnt ends, but their taste lives up to that billing and then some.
Bacon pops up again in Carter's presentation of rainbow trout, which centers on two crispy, pan-seared hunks of the fish. They're perched on a jumble of baby potatoes and a couple of biscuitlike fried ovals containing lobster sausage, and all of it drips with a buttery bacon broth that's light, not smoky, but deceptively rich. I wish I'd had a real biscuit to sop up the golden liquid.
I'm one of those diners who doesn't mind being surprised by a playful interpretation of a familiar dish, but some people are going to be thrown by Carter's smoked-chicken ravioli (people envisioning ravioli filled with, you know, smoked chicken). The actual dish isn't that, but it's original and simple and deeply satisfying. The ravioli, filled with house-made ricotta cheese and blanketed in a pistachio brown butter, acts here as a delectable bed for two moist, delicately smoky pieces of Campo Lindo chicken.
That lonely vegetarian creation on the menu shares the same innovative spirit. Steamed corn tamales, dappled with caramelized onion and mushrooms and sided with chopped summer vegetables (including, the night I sampled the dish, squash and parsnips), come arrayed around a puddle of tasty jade-green tomatillo sauce.
One of the hotel musts remains a burger, and the Kobe version here is delicious — and almost big enough for two. A hunk of applewood-smoked meatloaf is also a fine comfort, surprisingly moist under a crusty exterior and served with ridiculously rich sour-cream mashed potatoes.
The dessert menu includes a souvenir from the Drum Room: a skinny rectangle of not-very-spicy carrot cake, swathed in mascarpone cream and tricked out with a jewel-like ribbon of candied carrots. It's still pretty, but I prefer the delicious trio of fresh ricotta doughnuts, coated in sugar and key lime zest. Pastry chef Alejandro Diaz also serves a deconstructed s'more, the city's latest attempt at a novelty I'd rather see fade away. This version isn't bad, though: a scoop of graham-cracker ice cream in a bowl, with a dollop of caramelized, house-made marshmallow fluff and a tiny molten chocolate cake. No Scout has ever eaten this around a campfire, but at least it's not another violation of crème brûlée.
The service at Providence New American Kitchen is smooth and professional, adding to the space's congeniality. Under the room's flattering amber lights, with all that rustic wood around, the experience suggests something borrowed from one of Grant Wood's less austere paintings. You'll leave here full and happy, as is the right of any proud American diner.