Known more for its cocktails than its cuisine, Temple is betting big that a new Mediterranean menu will draw destination diners.
120 Francis Street, Providence, 919-5050, temple-downtown.com. Open for dinner every night (and breakfast, but that’s a whole other ballgame). Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessibility through the hotel lobby. Valet parking. Cuisine European sun and sea, doused in garlic, oregano and lemon. Capacity A hundred in the dining room, as well as in the lounge/bar. Vibe Goth castle meets belly-dancing commune. PricesAppetizers $7–$14; entrees $12–$29. Karen’s picks Shrimp, flatbreads and meats.
Dessert at your own risk.
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Temple has always relished a tipsy diner. Half of its menu is devoted to wine and cocktails and so is half its real estate — the centerpiece bar and under-lit lounge holds as many as the dining room. It’s always been a peculiar approach for a hotel restaurant; some families might hesitate to send their diaper-toting toddlers into a candle-lit basement that bears a striking resemblance to a Middle Eastern hookah lounge.
The new menu’s in fact Mediterranean, evidenced by the addition of a single turquoise wall and a lot of feta cheese. On paper, the concept is even less accessible than the old Temple, which focused on New England fare and an overly suggestive style. (A server somewhere is celebrating the dissolution of the “Naughty Booth” and the departure of its inhabitants.) But food is often the ultimate translator and, in this case, what appears esoteric for an American audience — and redundant for the European — carries itself with both nuance and skill. Case in point: the Greek Salad martini, which sounds like a vile fraternity prank but, built on the back of an exceedingly cool cucumber vodka, comes out ahead of the classic dirty variety. Same goes for the blood orange cosmo, a surprisingly good drink devoid of the typical juvenile sweetness.
But the bar is just a prelude to dinner and even a strong drink won’t make up for a heavy-handed menu. At least this was my initial response. Several weeks with the menu in hand had developed into a brooding hostility. The first courses look monotonous, I thought, the entrees dreary. How many chickpeas can people eat, and who really likes tzatziki on their burgers?
Sage Restaurant Group, Temple’s off-site owners, brought in Joyce Goldstein, a culinary personality with two dozen books under her belt, to negotiate a viable Mediterranean menu for people traveling to Rhode Island. Even the concept sounds odd. But, ultimately, the shift works; what might appear trendy is no more than well-planned variety.
The most familiar item is, not surprisingly, Point Judith calamari. (Unwritten state law: Restaurant owners can try anything they want as long as they have a squid safety net.) Temple’s — executed by chef David Cardell — is peppered with stained glass sheets of lemon and zucchini and served with a citrus aioli ($9). It’s a large portion but not the trough that ruins diners before entrees show up. Flatbread pizzas ($12-–$14), which were on Temple’s original menu, have grown thinner and more refined. Mozzarella and sweet gorgonzola pair with spicy arugula, while littleneck clams work well with salty pesto and grana padano. But the strongest dish centers on shrimp, both hearty and delicate.
A baked dish of shrimp, feta and tomatoes ($13) manages restraint where it could give in to indulgence. Small dollops of feta steer clear of dominating the seafood while a rustic tomato sauce allows the shrimp to assert their bolder, meatier qualities. More subtle are the grilled shrimp with lightly dressed farro salad ($12), a playful combination of textures that evokes the coastal influences of Greece more than the countryside.
Don’t let the waters fool you though; Temple’s focus is on meat when it comes to larger dishes. Marinades and rubs are in high demand, a welcome shift from the bare steaks that continue to monopolize menus around the country. (Cheers to beef, but my mouth’s been parched for three years.) Chicken is soaked in herbed olive oil and grilled ($17), while lamb chops are glazed with a thick sherry vinegar honey ($28). Pork is given a Spanish dry rub and grilled on skewers ($16). No matter that the accompanying saffron rice is forgettable as the meat is particularly bold and particularly good. This geographically nebulous cuisine, bearing influence from myriad cultures, may keep a low profile, but it ought to be attracting fans of heavily seasoned food who’ve been sitting in the corner hoarding Indian and South American dishes. The lone exception? Surprisingly, a traditional marinated filet of regional cod ($23) served with couscous and chickpeas, which will only be remembered for its strong (relatively unpleasant) scent.
It’s nice to see, though, that in a restaurant bordered by orange velvet booths and eerie (uh, seductive?) candles, nuance can prevail. One of the strongest dishes is a simple osso buco ($26), a classic veal shank braised almost to oblivion but still clinging to the bone. Its origins may be too far inland to be considered true Mediterranean fare, but the dish is so well done that proper topography seems irrelevant.
The land of olives and lemons, however, is not always known for producing American-friendly (i.e. enamel annihilating) sweets. I for one, like most people in this country, love dessert, and I, like many, don’t mind being pushed out of my comfort zone. In fact, the more anomalous the better. I’m beginning to grow weary of chocolate cakes with tired molten centers and even more so of miniature puddings and cutesy cupcakes. So what’s Temple offering? A feta napoleon.
Actually, I appreciate the audacity of sandwiching sweetened feta — still strong and salty — between layers of phyllo, not in delicate slices but aggressive wedges ($8).
That’s nerve. It’s not entirely delicious — forks dropped pretty quickly — but it’s intriguing and warrants several contemplative bites and plenty of conversation. It’s also technically better than a buttermilk panna cotta ($7), which was described as flan-like (though, in theory, flan uses eggs for stability and panna cotta uses gelatin) and, unfortunately, had a heavy skin that detracted from any flavor it might have asserted. Orange rosemary olive oil cake with creme fraiche ($7) may seem dry to some, but its denseness is appealing in a savory sort of manner.
Most will agree that it was a good time for Temple to make its culinary move. The lounge, where food plays third wheel at best, remains consistently full. The dining room, on the other hand, has lost its initial following, a group that went elsewhere for novelty and, perhaps, a G-rated restaurant. The new format may still puzzle the German four-top who came to town in search of stuffies, but it’s well suited for residents. Particularly the ones looking for waters beyond the local shores.