Restorative Powers - After a gut rehab, Local 121 may be the most stunning restaurant in Providence. But is the menu in need of a little remodeling?
Photography by Nat Rea
Local 121 121 Washington Street, Providence, 274-2121, local121.com. Open for lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner Mon.–Thurs. until 10 p.m. and until 11 p.m. on Fri. and Sat. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine Northeastern and international pub fare. Capacity Sixty in the dining room, thirty in the tap room. Vibe A space worthy of building one’s reputation on, with a dark but elegant bar and a black, white and brown Art Deco dining room that gives Miami a run for its money. Prices Appetizers $4.50–$12, entrees $10–$22.95, desserts $5.95. Karen’s picks Salads, pastas, dessert. Key Excellent Very Good Good Fair Half-star
Restaurant owners and chefs seem to have made a collaborative decision in the past several years to not only use local and sustainable agriculture but also to advertise their commitment in bold ways. Josh Miller (owner of Trinity Brewhouse and The Hot Club) did so by naming his latest restaurant Local 121 (referencing its address on Washington Street), though these days it doesn’t seem as novel a notion. The concept is becoming de rigueur in the northeast, thanks to a multitude of working farms and a notable cattle ranch by the name of Wolfe’s Neck up in Maine.
No matter. Ingredient sourcing is not what will build the reputation of this turn-of-the-century restoration project. It’s location, baby, location. And I don’t mean where the restaurant is situated geographically (down the street from Lupo’s and two blocks from Trinity Rep). I’m referring to the space that lies within the walls of the renovated, and now residential, Dreyfus Hotel.
For months I’ve tried to conjure a vision of Miller’s first glimpse of the dining area, and I can only imagine a scene akin to Howard Carter at the unearthing of Tut’s tomb: walls crumble, mouths ajar, behold! The bar! It’s not a vast space, but it’s an admirable — dare I say exquisite? — one: an area where a dog-eared copy of Ulysses and a pair of Christian Louboutins can happily coexist with a pint of beer.
It’s also a break in the aesthetic history of Rhode Island that so often asserts itself in the clapboard (“restraint is my middle name”) and brick (“fortitude is a virtue”) houses of Benefit Street. Only in the opulent mansions of Newport have we seen this kind of ornate workmanship, drawing from European sensibilities and wedged temporally between the natural materials of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the dramatic upholsteries of Art Deco design.
The tap room still showcases the original 1935 oak paneling, its dark hue contrasting with the bright orange and green stained glass windows that hover overhead. Leather chairs and pub stools line the heavy bar, and amber-hued scotch bottles serve as a gateway to the black and white dining area filled with large chairs in white leather (pristine to the eyes and pleasing to the posterior) and velvet booths. There’s an Alice in Wonderland aura about the room with its oversized mirrors in tufted white leather, gargantuan leaf molding and burnished gold ceiling. The young staff, eclectically attired and showing off an array of their own art (in body ink), seem to know that the vibe of Local 121 is chic but still slightly left of center.
The menu evidently began its construction around the bar, and with good reason: it’s arguably the most dramatic and visually fetching room in a triad of appealing spaces (including a downstairs area available for private functions). The wine list is basic but shockingly affordable, with nothing south of $29.
Appetizers read like a potpourri of international pub fare: cheese and bread in a variety of forms, quirky crudites, corned beef on rye crostini and pickled sardines. Such a task shouldn’t be too arduous for Chef Julia Moore, who spent a year crafting small plates at Providence’s cheese mecca, La Laiterie. Unexpectedly, though, the dairy dishes are some of Local 121’s most troublesome. Vermont cheddar cheese becomes bland when blended with a dose of Sam Adams Boston Lager ($5), and Great Hill blue cheese loses all assertiveness as it’s watered down to a spreadable consistency and paired with unsalted, roasted garlic ($6.50). A simple addition of softer cheese would have created a smoother texture without dissipating the central flavor.
A melange of pickled vegetables served in mason jars ($5) is acidic and pleasing, though homogenous in taste and slightly reminiscent of a jarred giandiniera mix. Perhaps the strongest appetizer is the bacon-wrapped scallops ($9), primarily because of a well-sourced, thick-cut bacon that’s smoky and with just enough fat to complement the smooth shellfish.
Entrees (called “large plates” though they are not noticeably so) are similarly eclectic in their construction. Local produce pairs with a host of Italian preparations including regional couscous, escarole and a bread-based Peara sauce, as well as additional European ingredients like mint pistou and chorizo.
I can’t help but feel that a multitiered menu in such an eye-catching spot is a bit like pairing plaid pants with a tie-dyed top: it’s hard to focus your attention. Moore might have done better to streamline the menu and let the aesthetics take center-stage — though, I admit, it’s asking a lot of a chef to play second fiddle to her surroundings. The issue at hand, from a culinary perspective, is that strong flavors emerge where they’re not wanted (such is the case with the mint pistou, which overwhelms a nicely seared striped bass), while others fade into the background when they should dominate. Pan-roasted chicken ($17) was noteworthy — the crispy skin dripping with butter over tender meat —but the clumpy Italian couscous (which tasted strangely of beef broth) overwhelmed the dish. Starches should comfort and not — like my side of bland quinoa — frustrate.
A special of pappardelle from Middletown-based Prima Pasta ($13.95) was the best of the entrees. Swirled with caramelized onions, golden raisins, swiss chard and Grana Padano, the pasta played off sweetness rather than salt (lacking in nearly everything) and avoided the awkwardness of some of the other choices.
Fortunately, the majority of desserts managed to placate my growing consternation (sugar soothes the savage beast). A variety of sorbets were freshly frozen (still slightly soft) and bright in flavor. Raspberry-lime was crisp and subtle, tasting not of each distinct fruit but, rather, an altogether more novel one. Orange-basil was a scientific anomaly given that it was strikingly herby but without a hint of green coloring.
Ice creams (including raspberry-vanilla swirl and coffee with cocoa nibs) pair nicely with bread pudding, though they’d be just as good on their own. The pudding itself could serve as a cornerstone for a remodeled menu: classic and dated in its origins but still contemporary served with creme anglaise and a crunchy, broiled top. The honey-chamomile pots de creme was far too subtle in flavor and weak in body (more egg yolks, please), although I would have enjoyed a full plate of the accompanying citrus shortbread.
The lessons learned at Local 121 are relatively simple: it’s difficult and often fruitless to fight for the glow of a single spotlight. The visual appeal of the restaurant is so compelling that only a flawless kitchen could go toe-to-toe with it. In the absence of such, a supporting role will certainly gain greater accolades, even if it bruises the ego of the chef.
I hesitate to proclaim the experience a major disappointment because, in truth, it was far from it. Interior design dominates all else, and, given that fact, the food ought to acquiesce with grace (by way of simplicity) or match the furnishings with tasteful sophistication. Right now, it skirts kitsch without fully embracing it and dances around modernism without going full throttle. Miller’s space deserves something a little better.