Providence: Hunting for Buzz and Settling for Refined Seafood

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Restaurant Sign Los Angeles

Providence's logo depicts coiled red fishing line.

My cousin Jimmy visits Los Angeles once a year on business. After he’s done working for the day, we get together for dinner, and he always wants the same things: great food, high energy and the chance to spot movie stars. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Jimmy’s story about sitting next to Madonna and Gene Kelly at the original Spago. Before each of his visits, I strategically choose the restaurants that offer him the best chance of mimicking his Spago experience. Jimmy’s looking for buzz, and I thought two-month-old Providence would be the place to find it.

Restaurant Los Angeles

Providence certainly has the pedigree. The seafood restaurant occupies the old Patina space and features seafood-crazed chef/owner Michael Cimarusti, formerly of L.A.’s revered Water Grill, and front of house partner Donato Poto.

I arrived early and told the maitre d’ my cousin was in from out of town and wanted the hot table to take in all the action. He led me to a banquette in the main dining room with multiple sight lines. If there were going to be stars, Jimmy would have an unobstructed view.

While I waited for Jimmy to join me, I studied the décor. Compared to other standout seafood restaurants – I’m thinking specifically of Farallon in San Francisco, where Pat Kuleto’s dramatic jellyfish lamps, columns covered with “kelp,” and sea-urchin chandeliers made me feel like I was underwater – Providence is ordinary. There are marine design elements, they’re just not exciting. Aqua-colored glass “scales”, designed to look like fish scales, line the high ceiling. White “barnacles” are clustered on the strangely-olive walls. The candle on each table is shrouded with red beaded wires designed to resemble coral. Cimarusti’s oddest decision was retaining Patina’s dark, slatted-wood exterior and foyer, which are totally incongruous with the ocean theme: At least the logo’s a nice touch, a simple coil of red fishing line suspended in a block of clear glass, located to the left of the restaurant’s frosted glass front door.

The left side of the menu features a 9-course, $90 tasting menu, comprised of ingredients found at the market on a given day. 5 of the 9 items are asterisked for a 5-course, $70 tasting menu. Every dish sounded fantastic, but the table needs to go all-in to receive the tasting menu, and Jimmy didn’t like all the selections, so we ordered from the regular menu…which wasn’t exactly a hardship. The regular menu was still original; I wanted almost every dish. The menu has three sections: Raw and Cold, Hot, and Main Courses. 15 of the 19 dishes featured seafood. There were three more market specials, all seafood.

Bread was the evening’s only disappointment: standard Pain Quotidian ciabatta. Excellent butter medallions and a small dish of sea salt with accompanying mini wood shovel helped redeem the bread, but Providence could have taken the loaves further, and served it warm.

A square of raw salmon with endive, shaved asparagus and white truffle oil made for a very fine amuse bouche.

Seafood Los Angeles

I went cold for my appetizer: pristine, shelled Maine lobster ($21) with two types of grapefruit, vanilla/rooibos tea vinaigrette, asparagus tips, and piment d’espelette, a Spanish red pepper. There were two mystery ingredients on the plate: a drizzled green oil that couldn’t possibly have been vanilla or rooibos, and matchsticks of a crunchy white vegetable (daikon?) that added texture.

Clam Chowder Los Angeles

Jimmy’s New England-style Manila clam chowda’ ($15) came with the ingredients in a bowl, including “smoky bacon,” Manila clams, and diced veggies, plus quarter-sized slices of potato. The waiter poured the “creamy clam broth” from a silver pitcher, completing the delicious chowder. Cimarusti spent time in Rhode Island and clearly knows his chowder. The soup wasn’t too thick, with a pop of flavor.

Fish Los Angeles

For my entree, I ordered monkfish ($32) with candied kumquats, sea beans, cashews and preserved black bean, giving the dish an Asian twist. There were also fat mussels. Monkfish is known as the “poor man’s lobster,” but it was dazzling. There were three chunks of incredibly tender, almost fluffy white fish. The citrus of the kumquat played off the earthiness of the cashews, which played against the kick of the black bean sauce. It was a fabulous dish.

Lobster Los Angeles

Jimmy ordered the lobster (market price) with filet beans, cubes of Asian pear, hazelnuts, chanterelles, and lobster nage, a pink foam that coated the central lobster tail. There was also claw meat, and no shell in sight. The other ingredients worked well with the top notch crustacean.

For dessert, there were eight offerings from Executive Pastry Chef Tim Butler. Amazingly, Butler almost kept pace with Cimarusti’s seafood.

Dessert Los Angeles

I ordered caramelized figs with almond cake and Banyuls ($11). It was a crisp outside/soft inside round of almond cake topped with thin-sliced Black Mission figs, topped with a teardrop of green herbal ice cream, with the identifying leaves on top. The entire dessert was laid over a shallow pool of sweet read liquor. The almond cake soaked up the liquid, helping to blend flavors. It was an amazing dessert.

Dessert Los Angeles

Jimmy ordered the “chocolate napoleon” ($12), thin dark chocolate discs layered with hazelnut mousse. On the side was a little pile of tangerine segments with more hazelnuts. The dessert came with a dish of orange ice cream, blended with chunks of candied orange. Jimmy was a fan of his dessert.

To accompany my figgy delicacy, I had a latte made with Ethiopian coffee that our waiter said had blueberry notes. I don’t know about that, but it was very good.

With the check, we were given a row of three white cups, each filled with a different sweet: 3 coconut marshmallows, 2 chocolate truffles, and 3 tiny almond madeleines. The madeleines were impossibly soft, the truffles rich, and the coconut marshmallows: decidedly lacking coconut tang.

Jimmy and I were both happy with our meals. He even gave Providence his ultimate compliment: “It would do well in New York.” As good as the food was, Jimmy didn’t get what he wanted out of the restaurant. Not one diner would ever be mistaken for a starlet. And we left with only 30 minutes until closing, on a Friday night! Clearly a full restaurant with fantastic food doesn’t always translate into buzz. After replaying the Providence experience in my mind, I have two revelations. First, I’m convinced nobody is preparing better, more ambitious food in Los Angeles than Michael Cimarusti. Unfortunately, there’s a Second. It could be more fun to eat there. The crowd skews older, the décor’s odd, and while the servers are accommodating, they didn’t make me excited to be there. I’ll definitely return to Providence to sample a 9-course tasting menu; the food has too much pull to do otherwise. I just won’t be in a rush to do it.

Providence: Hunting for Buzz and Settling for Refined Seafood


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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