With well-executed, crowd-pleasing favorites, the Grande is an outpost of French cuisine in the heart of (very Italian) Federal Hill. Will it hold its own?
By Karen Deutsch
photography by Angel Tucker
224 Atwells Ave., Providence, 432-7676, thegranderi.com. Hours Open for dinner; Tuesday through Sunday, late brunch (2–7 p.m.) on Sunday. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine French bistro with discotheque desserts. Capacity Thirty-five, including a handful of seats at the bar and on the loveseats. Vibe Anais Nin hits Federal Hill. Prices Appetizers $9–$13, entrees $20–$28, dessert $9. Karen’s picks Goat cheese croquettes, roast chicken, dessert.
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The midpoint between Alice's wonderland and a sultry bordello is grand. Or the Grande. The unexpected French haunt has claimed the former Forbidden Tea Room, a small lounge-like space on Atwells Avenue that holds slightly more than two dozen diners. The brocade inspired wallpaper and flame-lit chandeliers are romantic, certainly, but juxtaposed with tufted white leather and dark woods, the space becomes decidedly darker and more intriguing.
The fact that the Grande has not quite found its audience yet may be a sign that Federal Hill visitors aren't interested in ambiguity. The choice between bar and dining room is better, to some, when it's clearly delineated; but the real fun here is that it's not. Champagne cocktails are easily mixed with well-executed food that occasionally hits superb and always appears as enchanting as its surroundings. If only people wanted French in the epicenter of Italian cuisine.
The Grande seems to have foreseen the disconnect, however, and responded with a level of kitsch that should appeal to exploratory diners. They serve brunch, for instance, from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. on Sunday — with the assumption that those recovering from a hangover might seek solace in a double dose of bubbly and eggs. Everything is indulgent, from a croque monsieur laden with gruyere and bechamel (please sir, may I have another?) to the absurdist red velvet French toast, dip-dyed crimson and served with cream cheese cinnamon ice cream.
But Tuesday through Saturday, chef Antonio Franco serves a quieter, more impressive indigenous cuisine to a more reserved crowd. As a result, the kitchen may still be adjusting dishes depending on demand and some items are in short supply as a result: one night both duck and goat cheese; another the Bordeaux was down to its last bottle.
The quietude is unexpected, even slightly absurd, given that the most successful restaurants in the state tend to gravitate toward familiar Italian fare (I'm looking at you, veal parm), and although the Grande's food centers on the Seine rather than the Tiber, it's still markedly recognizable.
Ask chefs what they order on their first trip through France and they'll often respond with the humble roast chicken. It's the de rigueur dish for classic French cooking and to overlook it is a sin. Traditionalists take note: If you ignored everything else, the Grande still makes a mean chicken grand mere ($20). There's nothing fancy about it — no sous vide, no gallatin, no deep reduction. But its perfectly pureed potatoes, roasted root vegetables and flawlessly executed thighs, all napped with jus, are a wonder to behold in the age of innovation. For a person who would be happy to eat a different dish each night, this is one to eat in, order out or dream about at night. It is what most people remember when they think longingly of home and why more than a handful of chefs went into cooking at all.
There are a lot of European pairings here — salmon with creme fraiche, mussels with baguettes — and many succeed. Poached egg oozes richly over deeply grilled asparagus ($10), both intensified by briny kalamata olives. Even better are the goat cheese croquettes ($10), an elaborate description for deep-fried cheese topped with a fuchsia beet remoulade. (Note to drinkers: This is the dish to pair with a liquid dinner.)
It's clear that aesthetics are important in this small space and, for the most part, the artistry doesn't supersede pragmatism. The window-seat benches do make eating a challenge but allow patrons to nestle a drink just fine. Likewise, Franco usually heightens his food through presentation without sacrificing its more substantive components. It's tough to surprise with steak frites, but it can be done. Here, hanger steak is cut in bite-sized pieces, ring-molded with braised red onion, aioli and covered in minute fries ($28). A couple of things are lost: the pleasure of slicing through a charred steak, the pool of juices soaking through the frites. But it's still a simple dish done well, an approach that runs through the menu.
The roast chicken, of course, follows suit, though gulf shrimp ($25) takes the straightforward method a step too far. Served like a clock dial, the pernod beurre blanc is too subtle and the delicate pea shoots not consequential enough to make the dish fully complete. The heartier pork chop with a noteworthy apricot compote ($24) also falls just shy of its potential. The presentation — an acrobatic tower of bones and bread pudding — lacks the liquid necessary to appreciate a chop. And strangely, the pudding, filled with chevre and bacon, comes off as beautiful but bland.
It seems misguided to shift the blame to the current and future customers but one can't help but ponder the evolution of Franco's menu if he were tearing through the inventory. Like many chefs establishing a new venture, he'll continue at a moderate pace to refine the menu and work out the kinks. The approach is clearly working for pastry chef Courtney Staiano, who may be part-time but produces technically impressive sweets that mature weekly.
Blood orange mousse? Slightly novel when it comes to French fare, but far more in Staiano’s hands. Molded around a core of chocolate cake and placed on a disk of Rice Krispie cake embedded with homemade pop rocks with a side of espresso anglaise, we're in innovative territory, even in a field that feeds on the avant-garde. A napoleon filled with caramelized banana and sour cream molasses ice cream might be more staid were it not for the cherry spheres bordering the dish. A process of mixing juice with sodium alginate and dropping it into a bath of calcium chloride is popular in forming fruit "caviar" but Staiano’s version manages a nearly one-inch bubble that bursts precipitously in the mouth. A liquid cherry, perhaps even a Platonic cherry in which pits have no part in perfection.
Let's hope the current crowd, which seems older than the average Atwells group and seems slightly ill at ease in a lounge, expands. Right now, the focus is on making brisk conversation and missing the mood altogether. Food with this much promise ought to garner some more interest — and if it does, maybe the Bordeaux will be restocked.