The New North
The eatery swapped its tiny West Side space for a more mainstream location, but it's still a hipster at heart.
When north opened five years ago, it was defined by its audacity, a confidence that championed shock value in certain dishes, irreverence in all. It was fusion without the dorky moniker, pulling influence from food carts in the Far East and backyard barbecues in the Deep South. It was a lot of things, all emanating from a youthful bravado that fuels the culinary world.
But we can’t stay young forever and, at some point, the burden of maturity takes over. This fall, the restaurant left its cramped Luongo location for the Dean Hotel, a polished but progressive colony
in downtown Providence. Equipped with a karaoke bar and a cave-like cocktail lounge with velvet booths, the Dean is well-suited for north’s rebellious attitude. The restaurant takes over Faust’s space without much redecoration other than a kitchen bar that juts out of the belly of the floorplan. The beer hall vibe still echoes in the communal tables, accented with nouveau detailing and European influence. But north is Asian at its core, and the gilded tables, set with chopsticks and soup bowls, bend to the kitchen’s will with ease.
There are remnants of the old north: Red wine and cola is still listed under “Drinks, o.g.” as is sasparilla and fernet, a mixture that goes down like Dimetapp. Mechanically, north also feels much the same. What appears to be the sole hostess is taking orders, opening wine bottles and approximating wait times. “Hard to say,” she says, looking around. “Give me your phone number, go somewhere for a drink, and I’ll call you when something opens.” What has evolved, however, is the restaurant’s civility. Space is still tight, service can be unpredictable, but the new north operates with a graciousness that reflects its age.
The waitstaff squeezes into corners and climbs over patrons to deliver dishes with a gentility that would have shamed the old incarnation. No longer does it feel as if you’re invading someone else’s space but, rather, that you’ve been invited into a laboratory of gastronomic gift-giving. The surprising effect of north’s maturation is that the food doesn’t get lost; it’s become more striking in its precision.
Nobody treats vegetables the way north does, each dish an agricultural oddity of texture. Wedges of roasted carrot ($12) are juxtaposed with a thick puree infused with sesame and oats, dolloped with salted soybeans in coffee glaze. Crispy Brussels sprouts ($12) are drizzled with a spicy sauce of preserved strawberries and pistachio ranch. Charred broccoli ($12) is served with cubes of sharp feta and a dressing made of pulverized kimchee, a study in aggressiveness tamed to synchronicity. What molecular gastronomy does with science — transforming ingredients, inverting texture, upending flavor — chef James Mark manages with a newfound humility that no longer thrives on shock value. The approach is less cynical and more celebratory; it feels like a parent sending their child into the world rather than raising a middle finger at the establishment.
That’s not to say north has gone soft. Dan dan noodles with mutton and squid ($14) is a relic from the restaurant’s infancy, all swagger and insolence. To dig through a bowl is like climbing into bed with Bear Grylls — rugged and earthy with patches only suited to diners willing to break the bones and suck the juices. But the best dishes are the most organic, both in inspiration and execution. Tuna chirashi ($12), scattered sushi over rice, sings with simplicity. A combination of furikake (a seaweed based seasoning) and boson (a beet paste that mimics miso) is an exercise in subtlety, the very manifestation of Japan’s minimalist approach to food. If vegetables are ornately decorated, fish is barely touched and the better for it. Even the whole fish ($25), most recently flounder, is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It arrives with blistered and burnt skin which, turned back, reveals a dish so delicate it barely needs teeth. Paired with Chinese broccoli and ponzu glaze, it shows how well restraint translates. No wonder the crowd at north covers a forty-year age range. The kitchen has begun to embrace an era that is far less cynical, far more celebratory, without giving up the restlessness that pushes food into a more creative realm.
If, however, there is a signature dish at north, it would be, it should be, the Hot Flavor Sesame Noodles ($12). They look so innocuous on the menu: some garlic, a spattering of pickled greens. If the goal was to undersell virtuosity, mission accomplished. The handmade noodles are sublime and the heat is achieved with marksman’s accuracy. But there are always hidden treasures here and, in this case, it is small shards of sesame brittle embedded in the soft, spicy dish. It simply doesn’t belong, it’s utterly incongruous, and it’s a bite that couldn’t be better. The element of surprise, when it comes to eating, is vastly underrated and it’s the element north most actively works to create.
Even the new footprint is a bit baffling. What used to be a simple rectangle now requires some shimmying between seats and a lot of small talk with people who used to be strangers who are now asking what you ordered. That’s de rigueur at north in any location. You have to be thrown off your game, and let go of convention to see even an ingredient in a different light.
Maybe that’s the reason they don’t serve coffee with dessert — too passé? The closest they come, on nights when it’s available, is a stellar coffee ice cream studded with nibs, the highlight of the dessert course. Sweets ($8) are an amalgam of contrary ingredients — squash, grapes, chocolate, beets, lemongrass — but they don’t quite capture the exactitude of the kitchen’s entrees. More rustic than refined, cakes feel more like a distant cousin than a sibling to the razor-sharp savories. But this is not necessarily surprising. The restaurant has always had two dispositions: the gregarious extrovert that plays out in gritty cocktails and the reserved romantic who describes sake as more Mayflower than Genessee. Mark and company may never occupy a space that feels entirely obedient but, these days, the paradox of a conscientious nonconformist sure tastes good going down.
122 Fountain St., Providence, foodbynorth.com.
Open for dinner seven nights. Wheelchair accessibility is doubtful; space is tight and there are a couple of steps. Street parking.
Cuisine Asian foundation with a splash of Southern flair.
Vibe A rebellious child who’s found his groove.
Prices Small plates: $6–$25; dessert: $8.
Karen’s picks Anything from the vegetable garden. Get a whole fish. Sesame noodles or bust.
✱ Fair ✱✱Good ✱✱✱Very Good ✱✱✱✱Excellent ＋Half-star