Cook & Brown Public House

Now that Cook & Brown has strayed successfully from its British beginnings, a neighborhood hot spot is born.

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Cook & Brown Public House  959 Hope Street, 273-7275, Open for dinner every night, with one family style seating on Sunday at 8 p.m. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Street parking. Cuisine Urbane tavern food. Capacity Thirty-five with a dozen more at the bar. Vibe An evolving neighborhood favorite. Upscale East Siders and tattooed ladies play nice with each other. Prices Appetizers $7–$12, entrees $19–$25, desserts $6. Karen’s picks Ricotta gnocchi, Giannone chicken, seafood, bar snacks and a drink. Or two.
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The restaurant critic: often maligned as the most sadistic patron in the world, desperately hoping for underseasoning, over-pricing and anything worthy of a cheap linguistic laugh. But underneath that 
supposedly sardonic exterior and elevated nose, there lies a hopeful — dare I say Pollyanna-esque — diner who awaits each meal with the eager enthusiasm of a nomadic explorer. Most reviewers do, in fact, harbor a food obsession that’s born out of pure adulation and commitment to the job, which lies more in discovering an untapped secret than an awkward misstep. And so I delayed my review of Providence’s Cook & Brown Public House because my first meal there was indeed a letdown and one that I didn’t relish writing.

In truth, such a disappointment was unexpected given Chef Nemo Bolin’s resume: stints with two of Boston’s most formidable chefs, Barbara Lynch and Tony Maws, as well as time at San Francisco’s venerable Rubicon. His blueprint, a European gastropub, was tight and the aesthetics impressive. A woven wooden ceiling, retro menu design and tightly fisted floral arrangements in blue mason jars all asserted a maturity of taste. But the early days were fraught with second-guessing. Brunch was abruptly cancelled in order to “get our feet on the ground,” and the dinner menu was scaled back to just five appetizers and four entrees. The concept took over with a frenzy, turning everything into British hybrids. Pate de campagne went too earthy, with no discernible meat and a gelatinous texture; potted lobster wasn’t braised so much as sitting in oil; scarlet runner beans were paired with an undercooked egg and awkwardly acidic greens. Even I was devastated and booked a hasty retreat before dessert. But it was early in the game.

Cook and BrownIt’s clear that Bolin and his front-of-the-house wife, Jenny, have a contemporary vision. (It doesn’t hurt that they fit the press-friendly mold of attractive culinary couple to a T.) The restaurant has a legitimate presence online where tweets and Facebook postings tell customers the morning after that they “rock,” and advertise the bartenders — Willa, in particular who’s apparently “mixing drinks and breaking hearts” on a regular basis.

No doubt cocktails are important to the restaurant’s identity. The bar has its own collection of snacks and its hipster-influenced character does pretty well in a segregated corner. The drink menu changes regularly, tipping its hat to Rat Pack drinks while still embracing modernity. Whiskey and sparkling wines mix with rosewater and honey syrups, an amalgam of masculine and feminine that seems to be taking hold — or rerooting itself — in Bolin’s cooking.

The initial disconnect may well be tied to the space itself, which is boxy, big-windowed and — with the exception of the eye-catching ceiling — tough to sell as a pub. The original menu might have been an over-the-top compensation for a distinctly upbeat space, but it’s hard to imagine that the first month’s offerings were entirely true to Bolin’s culinary heart. More than a few dishes were awkward, a pattern that stands in stark contrast to the rhythm that’s developed in the late summer and fall. The gastropub spiel works at the bar, where addictively pungent pickled eggs call for more thirst quenchers, as does a pastrami-draped burger. But the dinner menu — still limited at six entrees — has become far lighter and technically adept. Seasons dictate more, concept less. You wouldn’t call Chantarais melon barstool food, but served with almonds and Champagne vinaigrette, it’s both sweet and simple enough to draw in the desired demographic: returning diners.

Ironically, as Bolin moves into colder months, the food is notably cleaner in flavor and presentation. There’s a delicateness that was absent last spring and one that applies to ingredients inherently light but also those, such as pasta, that could easily be heavy. Hand cut egg noodles ($21) are tissue-paper thin and, though salty, they manage to convey comfort without being leaden. Ricotta gnocchi are a menu staple, as well they should be.

You don’t even need teeth to enjoy them and yet they hold up to everything from arugula pesto and cherry tomatoes to chicken ragu and parmesan.

Technique is more obvious, even to the untrained eye, when it comes to meat and seafood. While I didn’t care for a braised bluefish in spring (gray on the plate and lifeless in flavor), seared bass, fluke ($24) and mahi mahi were all spot on. Served with the freshest produce of the season, from corn to root vegetables, it’s hard not to be pleased. Same goes for the Giannone chicken ($23), a pampered hormone-free pedigree from Canada, that also shows up regularly with good reason. It’s the epitome of sophisticated comfort, pan-seared but still a homage to mom.

A fist-sized fried ball of chicken confit looked a bit Paleolithic, but with a dose of green chile sauce, it proved a nice accompaniment to a dish on the straight and narrow.

Some of Bolin’s bolder flavors are still around, but they’re often relegated to the bar menu, which makes infinitely more sense. There’s always room for kitsch when you’re drinking, and a housemade McMuffin with apple slaw is appropriately entertaining when you wash it down with spiked lemonade. An egg dish ($20) remains a staple on the main menu as well; it’s the only entree that struggles between rustic and refined. Bolin sends his out in soft sunnyside form, more poached than fried. It may be a testament to skill, but a hefty dose of oil would render the egg more of a match for the strong ratatouille. A side of grilled Italian bread slathered in ricotta shows confidence, but the grouping still seems stuck between bar food and main course.

Desserts — usually three — are also less composed. A variety of sorbets fall a bit clumsily upon each other in a single bowl, but the taste of green concord grapes or shiro plums is bright. Brownies come underbaked, but that’s a plus to many, particularly those who like a double dose of chocolate sauce spilled on top. But Cook & Brown continues to pave the way for those who find the most reward in a glass: dinner could end very well with a Brachetto d’Acqui: good with chocolate, better on its own and inexplicably hard to find on local wine lists.

Six months after opening the doors of their first place, it’s possible that the Bolins are still defining their ideal medium. It seems pretty clear, however, that the couple — who talk as passionately about their baby boy as they do about local agriculture — is honing a hearth away from home. Niches have been built for the sole purpose of making a square space more intimate, and with family-style meals on Sunday nights and a spot for even the kitchen staff at the bar, purposeful loitering is encouraged. That’s what people want in a hangout anyway: to lose track of time over good food and a steady buzz. But they don’t need British fare to do it. Bolin’s best offerings are determinedly local and if they’re not strong enough to fill a European pub, they’re sure as hell good enough to start a New England tradition. True, you won’t have a lot of menu options on any given night. But if you’re willing to park yourself in the dining room on a regular basis, it might start to feel like home.

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