Plum Point Bistro
One-time Providence chef Ralph Conte makes a successful South County comeback with a crowd-pleasing menu and a block party vibe.
By Karen Deutsch
Photography by Angel Tucker
Plum Point Bistro
Plum Point Bistro 1814 Boston Neck Rd., Saunderstown, 667-4999, plumptbistro.com. Hours Open Tues.—Sun. for dinner. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Lot parking. Cuisine Americanized European. Vibe An open house with an open bar. Prices Appetizers $6–$16; entrees $15–$28, desserts $8. Karen’s picks Duck leg rillette, shrimp bruschetta, pasta, whatever’s on the blackboard.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
Imagine that, driven by the sound of a chef's knife on wood and the scent of sweating onions, you decide to throw open the doors of your house and invite the neighborhood over for dinner. Your wife says she'll greet people at the door, your kids miraculously want to spend a Saturday night at home and agree to handle the inevitable chaos that arises when ten craft-beer drinking guys are watching baseball on the widescreen, grandma just arrived with her book club, and two business pals need to show a prospective funder that you know what you're doing.
Everyone knows everyone and embraces abound. The air of conviviality is so thick that it's tough to get through the door. It's almost a shame that the seventy-odd guests are so darn happy and engrossed in conversation that they miss all the details that went into the soiree: the bright red door, checkerboard entryway, eclectic paintings and rows of leather-bound books — all serving as a backdrop rather than a focal point. No loss, though. Ralph Conte, composer of this South County social gathering, knows just how rare it is to create a space that customers consider their own.
There's an astonishing informality to Plum Point Bistro— not that people are necessarily wearing flip-flops but that they are wearing whatever they want. On any night, the restaurant is filled with several older women sweeping in the door covered in fur, an impromptu birthday party in dressed-up jeans and a college student, home for the weekend, sporting a slept-in dorm bun drooping off the side of her head.
Even the staff follows suit, with servers in jeans and a hostess in sequined micro shorts. (“Gor-geous!” says the head of the fur-clad ladies on her way out.) The tinned ceiling barely muffles the eager conversation, which at times reaches what appears to be a crescendo, until it's punctuated by the strident laughter of a woman in front of two desserts.
Geographically, Plum Point sits off of 1A next to, well, nothing. It's part of the reason so many places have sputtered out before Conte took the space and exactly the reason why he will thrive. Casual food won't get too many people out of the house when it's hovering around zero outside, nor will it lure them off the beach in the summer haze. Conte's approach is certainly more casual than Raphael Bar Risto (his former Providence restaurant) but it's also more expansive and appealing to a statewide crowd. The focus is no longer refined Italian but a broader European cuisine expressed through a decidedly American perspective.
Gone is the potato encrusted bass; in its place are steaks, stews and a lot of pasta. There are traditional dishes such as cassoulet and bouillabaisse but the approach is to quell fear of anything foreign and, as a result, they're deemed braised duck legs ($23) and lobster-seafood stew ($27). And that's fine; they're good renditions by any name and generally true to tradition.
Most dishes, however, do have a stateside spin, expressed in large portions and innumerable ingredients. Shrimp bruschetta ($10) gets the balance of simple flavors down: bright with rosemary, earthy with the help of white beans. There's always the danger that casualness will morph into triteness but Conte cultivates maturity within the confines of familiarity.
Other dishes show more ambition with success. Arancini with cheese and squash is paired with vinaigrette-laced frisee and applesauce which, unexpectedly, evokes potato pancakes but with far more personality. Dumplings stuffed with short ribs ($12) are playfully presented purse-style, though the combination of a rich sauce, toothsome dough and thick meyer lemon cream can strike a single note of overindulgence.
At heart, Plum Point is interested in elevating the status quo. Onion soup eschews its beef broth for a vegetarian base while veal parmesan is updated by using char-grilled pork chops ($19). The six-foot-long blackboard hanging on the back wall shouts out the nightly specials, an international parade that covers everything from sausage and broccoli rabe to grapefruit margaritas. With an open kitchen and Conte ducking his head out to scan the crowd every half hour, there’s a sense that everyone can be convinced to try just one new dish: “You’ve got to,” asserts a server with steely conviction. “You’ll hate yourself if you don’t. And I'm not even kidding.”
The nightly specials are almost always playful and give Conte the chance to be more creative in his work. Pork chops, for instance, are paired with maple bacon red cabbage, black pepper spaetzle and pear mostarda to great effect. The flavors are all traditional: pork and fruit are no great surprise — but the variations and disparate textures are so well-matched and good-humored that it's nearly impossible not to feel at home and happy to be there.
No doubt the backbone of Plum Point is Italian, notably pasta, which never deviates too much from what the crowd knows. As it turns out, they may be a disparate group but their tastes run straight down the middle. Papardelle with prosciutto and marscapone ($17) is a riff on carbonara, and bucatini with eggplant, tomato and goat cheese ($15) still holds hints of old-fashioned gravy and cheese.
Of course, the fact that there doesn't seem to be a slow season for the restaurant lends itself to uneven service, which begins to resemble a meal around the dining room table. “You're done, right?” says a frenzied waiter with the plate already in his hand. (Well, it looks likely given that the small mob in the doorway is five minutes from storming the floor for a seat.) Relationships do come in handy — the Contes offer hugs to those they recognize, which includes nearly everyone who enters — and may keep the staff from whisking you out with a forkful of dessert halfway into your mouth.
It is, however, a festive forkful which, like everything, is tethered to convention but still presented with panache. Ricotta fritters, a bananas foster tart and heaping mounds of torched meringue and lemon curd ($8) all have the same sense of casual whimsy that defines Plum Point. It's a tux worn with a button-down or Levi's dressed up with heels, a moderate stance that musters affection from nearly everyone in proximity. Perhaps the Contes have finally found their family compound and, for what it's worth, it holds six dozen of their closest relatives.