With a new chef behind the line, Tucker’s French-inspired menu finally measures up to the bistro’s often-raved-about ambience.
150 Broadway, Newport, 846-3449, tuckersbistro.com. Open for dinner seven nights. Reservations strongly suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Street parking. Cuisine French bistro roots with a formal flourish. Gluten-free variations of almost every dish are available. Capacity The two-sided dining room and bar hold upwards of eighty Vibe Anais Nin and Henry Miller leave the flat for a night out. Prices $8.95–$15.95, entrees: $19.95–$29.95, desserts: $7–$8. Seven-course prix fixe: $85. Karen’s picks Herbed gnocchi, scallops.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
Like a romance itself, the essence of Tucker’s Bistro is hard to define. It is at heart a French bistro, cloaked in dark red walls, an array of glass chandeliers and a charming hodgepodge of accoutrements that include Hawaiian umbrellas, mismatched porcelain and artwork that defies any stylistic movement other than eclectic. Even the kitchen portal is marked by quirky wooden doors rather than expected industrial steel. So dreamy is Tucker’s ambience that patrons have often spent more time staring at the walls than they have at their own plates. But, with the arrival of Chef Richard Allaire, Tucker’s finally has food that speaks louder than its decor.
Allaire, who has spent time in Boston’s Radius and, more recently, at the Mediterranean inspired Alba in Quincy, approaches his menu with a notably more ambitious attitude — technically and conceptually — than Tucker’s has shown in the past. It’s Allaire’s first time back in Rhode Island since heading L’Epicureo’s kitchen and a welcome return for a chef often overlooked because of L’Epicureo’s decorative and character crisis. The visual glitz of the space — larger than life oil paintings and crystal chandeliers spilling from the ceilings — demanded formal cuisine, but fans of the former Federal Hill outpost expected Parmigiana and veal chops. Amid the dissent, Allaire’s formidable modern French-influenced cooking went largely unnoticed — a shame for chef and diners alike. Now settled in a restaurant more akin to his style of cooking, Allaire’s penchant for delicacy proves to be an asset rather than an incongruity.
There’s been no discernible personality shift at Tucker’s. Its namesake owner still takes orders in his unexpected Southern drawl and couples still flock to its thirty-something tables to bask in the glow of a dim romantic haze. The only difficulty with Tucker’s purposeful mood lighting is that the exact hue of everything is practically indiscernible. It’s a positive as diners grow weary but a waste given Allaire’s strong sense of color. A bright orange heirloom tomato soup ($8.95) was salty but fresh, tempered in tint by a garnish of basil oil and in flavor by a dollop of creamy house-made ricotta and a rich, barely solid poached egg. Though its consistency is a bit homogenous, it’s the first of many dishes that start with a traditional approach and end with contemporary panache. The one exception may be a mildly under-seasoned steak tartare ($12.95) that’s classically French, down to the diminutive quivering quail egg yolk perched on top. (It seems someone’s harboring an ovum fetish.)
The Thai shrimp nachos ($12.95) that longtime visitors order obsessively are still available (the alternative? facing mutiny) though they’re incongruous with the rest of the menu. The highly elevated snack food — fried wontons and gargantuan shrimp — are only distantly related (if at all) to Allaire’s airy chive gnocchi that seem to defy gravity with their weightless dough. Glazed with truffle jus and topped with braised baby mushrooms and micro greens, it’s an unexpectedly refined dish that surpasses expectations of the principal ingredients.
Allaire pads the menu with a few perennial favorites such as veal Bolognese; they’re more, I suspect, for diffident diners than for himself. A straightforward Wolfe’s Neck ribeye ($29.95) is quintessentially French: served close to rare with a smooth potato puree, haricots verts and a Balinese long peppercorn sauce that adds not only spice but sweetness. It’s a perfect pairing with an Edith Piaf backdrop and the ineffable quixotism that pervades every corner of Tucker’s. Proof that classics can not only be current but downright desirable.
Allaire is at his best, however, when he pushes food combinations past the obvious and to the unpredictable. Massive Georges Bank scallops ($27.95) are well crusted and topped with a sliver of crisped smoked bacon. Certainly expected. But the underlying bed of coarse quinoa salad contrasts with the smooth shellfish. In fact, the plate is all about the juxtaposition of texture: a paint stroke of sunchoke puree conjures autumnal bisques while a quenelle of jicama and apple slaw is full of brightness and crunch. To lend cohesion, Allaire dots the whole plate with a warm sea urchin vinaigrette that has both depth and notable acidity. It’s a sophisticated dish that adds maturity to the restaurant.
The highlight of the menu is a special that’s unfortunately not always available. While even domestic sturgeon is known more for its caviar than its steak-like meat, Allaire plays to its strengths. Crisped skin and a slightly oily flesh make for an appealing dish, but it’s the accompaniments that steal the limelight from a formidable fish. The sturgeon ($27.95) may be from California, but the plate is Russian and Germanic in mood. Tender spaetzle is interspersed with sharp braised mustard seeds, and firm savoy cabbage is topped with a most intriguing dressing. Here the egg obsession comes into play again: Allaire envelops a sweet beet juice and vodka vinaigrette in a thin skin of gelatin, evoking an uncooked yolk that spills out in fuchsia pools when pierced with a fork. It’s a thoughtful presentation that entertains without dominating and a dish that proves Tucker’s is much more than a place to disappear into another era.
Desserts are more comforting, less cultivated than the dinner menu, although a light yuzu creme brulee manages to capture both attributes. Chocolate pecan pie tastes like a nut-topped brownie (never a bad thing) though a dry peach shortcake tasted heavily of rum and not much else. I’m not sure — were I a dessert — that I would waste my effort trying to live up to the sturgeon either.
It’s a welcome change to see culinary ambition at Tucker’s. In a space that thrives on hidden alcoves and eccentric treasures, Chef Allaire proves willing and able to showcase classic cooking with a modern hand. For many years, Tucker’s has relied heavily on its charm but, in time, it will be better known for its food.