I know the subject line of this post is a little negative, but in the search for good food (and in the struggle to improve the availability of good food), it's as important to discuss what's bad, and should be avoided, as it is to discuss what's good, and should be souught out. As long as people continue to eat at bad restaurants and buy fresh tomatoes at the supermarket in the dead of winter, the bad restauranteurs and winter-tomato importers will carry on their nefarious deeds.
In making this list, I considered each restaurant's position in a rectangle: one dimension is pretentiousness, the other is quality. At the four corners of this rectangle are the following pairs: delicious-pretentious, delicious-down-to-earth, disgusting-down-to-earth, and disgusting-pretentious. The most desirable restaurants are the delicious, unpretentious ones, but I like delicious and pretentious sometimes, too. The restaurants on this list are those that land in the worst corner: the food is disgusting and the prices are expensive, or the vibe is snobby (vague as that may be), or the menu items are too big for their britches. That is why, for instance, Louis' on Brook St. will not be on this list.
The number 1 worst place in Providence:
Pot au Feu downstairs
I've only been here twice, but I'll never go again. The first time I went, I ordered the "quiche du jour". After all, this was a pricey place, and I thought an extremely well-executed quiche, would be delightful. And it would be accompanied by a mix of regular and sweet potatoes, fried, with a little dill sour cream? A bit strange, I thought, but I love sweet potatoes, so I was looking forward to that, too. Then the food arrived, and I took a bite of quiche. The crust? Hard, and tasted like dried-out bread in places. The filling? Way, way too tall (I swear, I remember cutting through inches and inches of eggy filling. So American!), rubbery on the outside, and flavorless on the inside. One suggestion I might make to the chef would be to season the filling of the quiche with, say, salt? And maybe even a pinch of pepper! Any 1-euro quiche that you buy at any humble boulangerie in the whole country of France would put this quiche to shame. Some French boulangeries will microwave your quiche for you, and still, it will be much more delicious than this. And those sweet and regular potatoes, the so-called "Dills"! I have never been served such dried out, tough, stale potatoes, sweet or regular, in a restaurant or elsewhere. It seemed safe to say I would never eat a worse potato. And the dill sour cream clashed with what little flavor the quiche had.
Bad as the struggle against that quiche was, I partly blamed myself. A place like Pot au Feu, I reasoned, must really shine when it comes to more adventurous fare. And so the last time I went, I ordered chicken livers and onions, or foies de volaille Lyonnaise. They had a crunchy breaded coating, and were topped by a ton of onions, which had been cooked with wine. The livers, I think, must have been frozen, and probably for a long, long time. I ate all the onions, which were a bit nasty (I can't really blame Pot au Feu for this; good onions are apparently hard to find in Providence. Why can't we have good onions? I have to make another list of my biggest produce disappointments; onions would be the Pot au Feu of that list. The disgusting tomatoes you get here I can forgive; a tomato is a fickle and highly seasonal fruit. But onions? Why shouldn't we be able to have good onions all year round, or at least most of the year?), and a bit undercooked, which is a big mistake if the onions are a little nasty. But the livers were mostly inedible, and so I ate just a few of them. My companion ordered the signature dish, which I tasted. It was pretty good. I bet you could make a better version at home, though, without a recipe. And I ordered the "Dills" again; improbably, they were even worse than before.
The poor quality of the ingredients is the most baffling thing about Pot au Feu: a restaurant that's trying this hard to be French ought to get itslef a real French seasonal menu. They shouldn't offer 30 different dishes year-round. At minimum, I expect a restaurant like this to make the effort to discover what delicious, fresh ingredients are available, and tailor the menu to those ingredients. And make an effort to perfect the preparation of these ingredients.
Do I dare hope the upstairs will be better? Everything I've read holds up- and down-stairs in equally high regard. The downstairs is pretty expensive; how pricey will the upstairs be? Maybe Pot au Feu is just gross and pretentious. But if the word gets out among people who can tell the difference between good and bad food, maybe Pot au Feu's reputation will be hurt enough that they'll be forced to make a change. Perhaps they'll follow the lead of the excellent Chez Pascal. But maybe I'm being too optimistic.
Next week: Cafe Nuovo