For a very long time, I've been wanting to eat at Al Forno in Providence, but never really had the chance,
despite being marooned in southeastern Connecticut
for the last few months. Finally, I was able to get there for dinner.
I was impressed to note that a search on "al forno providence" on Google.com gives Jim Leff's review as its
first link, before even the Al Forno homepage itself! But I hoped that his review was wrong--that it was, in
fact, fantastic, and Jim was just taking it out on them
that the kitchen wasn't supervised by a grandmother who
was the only surviving speaker of an obscure language
spoken only in the mountains around some place in
Italy you've never heard of. In fact, I found the
restaurant hugely disappointing.
The first question that needs to be addressed is what "casual" means in the restaurant's self-promotion
(e.g. citing the International Herald Tribune's assertion that it is the #1 casual restaurant in the world). The prices are not casual--it's not staggeringly
expensive but it's far from cheap, with most entries
over $20. The decor isn't casual--again, while not
exactly formal it's highly and attractively designed. The service was not casual. Perhaps it's their policy
of not taking reservations, the only rational explanation for which is the arrogance that they don't
have to bother, since they have a wait all the time. (The service was rather slow, though, which squashes
the idea that they're just trying to turn tables as
quickly as they can.) Perhaps it's the poor wine service--whites by the glass came freezing cold in
tiny glasses filled to the rim. Perhaps it's an excuse
so that they don't feel obligated to serve everyone at
once, instead bringing dishes for the same course out
over a span of ten minutes.
The annoying initial thing was the reservation policy, which we knew about of course, but the host was not especially pleasant about it. There's no food available while you wait, and when my wife, who is six months
pregnant, went up to ask how much longer things would be, the host said "I said an hour and a half to two hours when you got here, so you might have an hour to go," without looking to see what the real situation was.
In fact there is some food available while you wait--you
can get bread. I had assumed that, as a restaurant pushing the high-quality ingredient, individually prepared shtick, they would have exceptional bread, but
it was actually tasteless and poor in texture. The olive oil was, however,
The menu had a lot of interesting things on it, and we were only a foursome, so we couldn't get as wide a range as I would have preferred. My appetizer, a special, was the one perfect dish of the evening, a free-form tart of onions, olives, and anchovies. The pastry was amazing,
perfectly light and flaky, and the filling was a lusty
mixture that didn't get overwhelmed by any individual
element. My wife had the corn fritters, which had perfect texture but no corn flavor whatsoever. Our dining companions both had salads that were fine (I
don't consider salads to be an especially high form of
chowhoundish life, so it was going to be hard to blow me
away on that part).
For my main course I had a roast haddock with an interesting chutney, and a side of sweet-potato fries. The latter were stacked so artfully (not casually) that
the whole dish was lukewarm. The fish was fine, but it
wasn't especially stunning. My wife had sausages with
mashed potatoes and roast apples. This was perhaps too
obvious and pedestrian a dish to consider, but then again the whole point of a restaurant like this is to get foods that shine through the quality of their ingredients, not through overelaborate presentations. In any case, it was no more and no less than sausages with mashed potatoes and roast apples. An order of veal tenderloin with horseradish mashed potatoes also underwhelemed--it was good, but it wasn't anything you
haven't had somewhere else, unlike, say, the veal at
French Laundry, which tasted like a completely different type of meat than you've ever had before. The last dish,
a scallop dish, looked great but I didn't try it.
The desserts had to be ordered with the main course since they are prepared individually, or some such statement, which seemed to be another pretension. All
desserts at restaurants are finished at the last minute, and I don't know what aspects at Al Forno are allegedly
prepared individually--surely they didn't start cutting
butter into flour when we ordered. Of the desserts, the best by far was chocolate crepes (also the only one that
conceivably needed more prep time if the crepes were really made to order)--nice, light crepes with a rich and bitter and not overly sweet chocolate sauce. My dessert was a "chcolate cappucino sandwich," or something, which ended up being a brownie sandwiching a
scoop of coffee ice-cream. The brownie was unexceptional, as was the ice-cream, despite its being
"hand-churned" (as Jim pointed out in his review, this is not the case). The creme anglaise was awesome, though. Worst was the "deconstructed" cannoli, yet another pretension. You deconstruct a dish if the normally-blended elements can be made to shine individually if served separately. This was not the case. The pastry part bore no resemblance to a traditional cannoli, and was achingly sweet, as was the
creme filling. Like the rest of the courses, the desserts were brought out whenever the kitchen sent them out.
If this had been a hypeless restaurant in the middle of nowhere with lower prices it might have been a fine meal. But it was by no means a great restaurant. Perhaps we were there on an off night, but even if so, it was at
best a good restaurant. Upstairs at Chez Panisse--now
_that_ is a great casual restaurant, with outstanding, inventive, perfectly fresh food pleasantly served day in and day out. Al Forno does not, in my opinion, deserve any level of hype whatsoever; if it once did, that day is long gone.