With an inviting space and a modern menu featuring local ingredients, East Providence finally has an all-American bistro.
By Karen Deutsch
Photography by Angel Tucker
20 Newman Ave., Rumford, 270-2836, avenuenamericankitchen.com. Open for dinner seven days a week, brunch on Sunday. Wheelchair accessible, though the space is tight. Parking lot. Cuisine: The American family, as told through food. Vibe: Date night without the kids. And at the next table, date night with them. Prices: Appetizers $6-$9, entrees $10-$24, desserts $6-$8. Karen’s picks: All things familiar: corn dogs, roasted chicken, sirloin steak.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
For the better part of a decade, Rumford has been waiting for a restaurant to call its own. A largely residential neighborhood, there's been little evidence of a culinary scene more sophisticated than fast-food joints. And though Nick Rabar's Avenue N was a long and often frustrating journey to fruition, it's a rare night that doesn't find every table packed.
In some sense, Rabar is an unexpected choice for Rumford Center's first restaurateur. Since heading up John Elkhay's Providence-based Chow Fun group, he's been known primarily for his showmanship. Rabar has made a career out of morphing familiar food into conversation pieces, so it comes as some surprise that his recent focus is in making food more accessible to diners who spend their Saturday nights with kids in tow.
While Rabar's stint with Ten Prime and XO resulted in platters of beef carpaccio sushi with truffle chili oil and “death by butter” potatoes, his new venture is decidedly less threatening.
The most unexpected dishes — corn dogs, for instance, with a potato-chip-topped mac and cheese ($7) — are still tame in their presentation, only proving that Avenue N is an accessible, safe endeavor. That's great news for Rabar the businessman, but may be disorienting for those who expect the drama and decadence.
Crab cakes with an innocuous avocado aioli are surprisingly good and come with a miniscule price tag ($9). Calamari ($8) is on the menu as are Caesar ($8) and iceberg salads ($7), but are so familiar that those with culinary ambition will opt for appetizers that use bolder ingredients. Some work beautifully, as with the house-made rabbit sausage paired with a sweet, smooth carrot puree and crunchy pistachios ($8); others are overwhelmed, such as a tuna tartare ($8) dominated by pico de gallo.
The effect is an inconsistency that is all the more surprising given Rabar's experience in the kitchen. Platter-sized pizzas are, again, downright cheap ($10-$13), but the combination of doughy crust and surfeit of toppings makes them heavy. Some ingredients, such as chipotle, show up in as many as four menu items.
Entrees hit a more mature note, mixing seasonal produce with well-cooked proteins. A homey roast chicken with peach-smoked bacon ($19) is a welcome riff on a classic dish, as is sirloin with peppercorn-cognac jus ($23). Short ribs are braised to fork-tenderness and served with cheesy Southern grits ($22), a well-chosen variation on the ubiquitous meat and potatoes. There are, however, some pairings that don’t work as well. The salmon ($21) is seared and well-seasoned, but the accompaniments are perplexing. Shrimp sitting alongside the fish don't offer enough contrast to warrant their presence, and a fava bean succotash is filled with not-quite-crisp-enough bacon. It’s a tough sell to the burger crowd that often pops in on weekdays for a family takeout meal.
Dessert comes down to a few simple options. A rich chocolate torte, a snow white cheesecake with spiced blueberries or crepes with creme anglaise all suffice at the end of the meal. But they still point to an unfulfilled potential, given that the initial plans to serve a variation on PB and J (peanut butter bread pudding with Concord grape sauce) and a sampler of fruit cobblers were scrapped. While the nightly lineup still embraces Americana, it doesn't do so quite as aggressively.
Avenue N's strengths lie with the owners. Every diner is potentially a repeat customer, and Tracy Rabar, the chef's wife and head of the house, does a formidable job keeping a frantically packed house happy. One night I was told my reservation was given away because I was running late (wrong party) while on another, our party of three was offered a table for two. Rabar responds to these situations with a courtesy that temporary hosts often can't muster.
But every restaurant owner needs a staff willing to relay the chef's work to diners with civility and skill. Side dishes shift with the local markets, which is admirable, but more than once a server brought out a different dish, explaining that the kitchen “often makes changes.” That’s fine if you’re told that when ordering. Unfortunately, skate with caramelized leeks and risotto appeared with creamed greens and onion rings, and the server still suggested that the greens were arugula-infused rice.
Given the dedication of its owners and appeal of its space, there’s almost no doubt that Avenue N will succeed. Better yet, it will likely develop its own identity as Rabar figures out the dishes that work and retires those that fall short. The space itself, a century-old baking powder factory, is more than inviting. Exposed wooden ceilings and whitewashed walls are only enhanced by the modernity of the kitchen, making life in suburbia downright cool. It’s a boon to Rumford residents who are patient enough to wait out the restaurant’s infancy and fervent enough to keep it full.
To read more of this story please visit your nearest newsstand or click the link below.