It’s not an easy task to find the best desserts in downtown Providence. The city has received national acclaim as a top culinary destination, with scores of critically lauded restaurants. Limiting ourselves to only the downtown area, a small group sets out, forks in hand, ready to take on the challenge bite by bite.
Bacaro, 26 South Water Street, 401-751-3700. In Bacaro, Executive Chef Brian Kingsford has created a restaurant that blends the best ingredients with expert craftsmanship. Desserts are ordered with the meal, because many are made fresh while you are eating your entrée, and chocolates are made in-house by Pastry Chef Nathaniel Tomo. Tomo is a recent graduate of Providence-based Johnson & Wales University (J&W), one of the leading culinary colleges in the United States.
One quick standout with our intrepid researchers is the Canoli Cone. A unique spin on a classic Italian dessert, a pastry cone is filled with a light, sweet cream made with the freshest ricotta cheese imaginable, bits of rich chocolate, candied fruit and a citrusy hint of Grand Marnier. We happily sample all that is offered, including an airy and effortless Orange Blossom Cake with crème fraiche and tangerine marmalade that is as bright and sunny as a summer day.
Gracie’s, 194 Washington Street, 401-272-7811. Our next stop is Gracie’s, a restaurant that is both welcoming and elegant, like its owner Ellen Gracyalny, also a J&W alumna. She introduces us to her Pastry Chef Susan VandenBerg, a physician turned pastry chef. VandenBerg has been at Gracie’s for more than a year and has trained extensively in France, including at the famed Le Cordon Bleu. While perfectly executed with classic French technique, her creations are never stuffy or pretentious. A sampler of small chocolate cakes and pastries includes a lovely chocolate raspberry terrine and a chocolate macaroon that is filled with a salted buttered caramel cream, striking the perfect balance between sweet and salty. Our party is soon swooning over creations like a Coconut Vanilla Panna Cotta with caramelized pineapple and toasted coconut and a lemon tart that begins with a heavenly lemon cookie crust and features lemon curd, raspberries and a creamy lemon mascarpone. It is tart and sweet, zesty and fresh.
Local 121, 121 Washington Street., 401-274-2121. From its cozy, warm interior to its use of fresh, local ingredients, Local 121 is quintessentially New England. Its dessert menu features updated twists on regional dishes. A big favorite is their Bread Pudding, with a flawless incorporation of comfortingly familiar flavors like caramel and walnut. A must for any visitor is Pastry Chef Samantha Radov’s interpretation of milk and cookies, featuring coffee milk – the “Official State Drink of Rhode Island” – and yummy lemon cookies. Radov, currently a J&W student, secures from us a pledge to come back, especially when she tells us of the berries, rhubarb, concord grapes and other fresh local fruits that will populate Local 121’s spring and summer menu.
Café Nuovo, One Citizens Plaza, 401-421-2525. Next, we arrive at the stunning Café Nuovo. With its sumptuous yet airy interior and outside dining that boasts gorgeous river views, Café Nuovo is where Rhode Islanders go to mark special occasions in their lives. There’s no telling how many proposals have been accepted or how many 50th birthdays celebrated at Café Nuovo. The attentive and gracious staff begins to bring us architectural wonders that double as desserts. Pastry Chef Laurie Nadeau Goudie – another J&W grad – incorporates sugar sculptures and other artistic flourishes to create elegantly whimsical plates. One of Café Nuovo’s most popular desserts, the Pot O’Mousse, features a pot made of chocolate, filled with creamy dark and white chocolate mousse, raspberry and mango sauce serve as flames, while delicate ribbons of pulled sugar rise up from the pot, serving as smoke. We marvel at the plates, delighted to find that they taste as good as they look.
Pot Au Feu, 44 Custom House St., 401-273-8953. No culinary trip through Providence would be complete without a visit to Pot Au Feu and an audience with its colorful owner, Bob Burke. Burke is an old-school restaurateur, always ready with a great joke or interesting story. Yet, he is also extremely detailed and thoughtful, traits that are reflected in his menu. Take for example, the story of how Pot Au Feu’s fabled crème brulee, which Burke asserts is “the best crème brulee in the world,” came to be. He recalled, “Everywhere I went, crème brulee was a parsimonious little tease.” Instead, Pot au Feu’s version is made in a soup bowl, with a delicate sugary crust, which Burke says should be “the thickness of ice on a November puddle.” The dish is creamy and light, with vanilla that is rich in flavor but never overpowering. Under the watchful eye of Executive Chef John Richardson, all of the desserts are well thought out and meticulously executed. It is the perfect end to a perfectly sweet afternoon.