The red retro BILTMORE sign glistened through the rain-pelted floor-to-ceiling windows of the top floor of Providence’s recently renovated 1922 grande dame hotel. Its simple brashness was striking against the blue-grey sky and russet-brick building on the late-April evening. Inside all was toasty as waiters served cocktails and crostini, the pledge of a delicious dinner ahead.
Chef Kevin Hale kept the promise. Named one of Coastal New England’s 2014 Rising Stars by StarChefs.com, the surprisingly vegan chef prepared the same meal he served in earlier in April when the Biltmore hosted the site’s Tasting Gala and Awards Ceremony. He started off with perfectly done scallops, slightly charred on the outside, moist and tender on the inside; they translated the Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from good to phenomenal. The main dish of Valdouvan Spiced Australian Rack of Lamb, with cilantro mint aioli, was also delicious. But the star of the meal for me was dessert—a strawberry rhubarb turnover with vanilla bean gelato and balsamic drizzle. The turnover was the consistency of a crepe and delivered just the right amount of airy heft to the sweet and bitter strawberry-rhubarb blend.
Virtually all cities meld grit and glam. But in compact Providence, the two co-exist a little more closely. As I drove in via I-95 for a two-day visit this Spring, old factories seemed to dominate the cityscape, owing to the 20th-century jewelry, textile, and other manufacturing that earned the Rhode Island capital its nickname the “Beehive of Industry”.
But Providence’s history goes much further back than the industrial era. It was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, exiled from Massachusetts and seeking religious liberty. Today, a statue of Williams keeps an eye on the state capitol building from his perch high above the city at Prospect Terrace Park on College Hill.
The spirit of freedom was still alive during the colonial era, making the city the setting of anti-British tax protests. The remnants of that period can still be felt in the city’s large number of colonial-style houses and steepled churches. Among them, flowering trees bloom on virtually every street.
Sitting elegantly among these contrasting styles are the gracious century-old buildings like the Biltmore and the 1900 Venetian-Renaissance Public Library, both on the National Register of Historic Places. Classic buildings like these span the decades and remain at home in today’s Providence, which has re-branded itself the “Creative Capital” and emits a surprising sensual pull for such a small city.
Brown University and many others call Providence home. The Rhode Island School of Design boasts its own art museum, which blends styles ranging from Greek coins to Impressionist paintings. Johnson and Wales features a premier School of Culinary Arts and its Culinary Arts Museum, which draws foodies with goodies like an extensive collection of cookbooks going back though the centuries to the 1500s. Owing partly to its industrial past, the capital city has welcomed large populations of immigrants. Federal Hill is its Little Italy, where the restaurants, sub shops, delis, and bakeries hold their own against Boston’s North End. Where tax protests once took place, restaurants have been lured by tax incentives and offer the quality and variety of cuisine of a much larger city.
After a cold rainy morning spent exploring, it was time to sample Providence’s gastronomic offerings. Jacky’s Waterplace & Sushi Bar sits at the crux of Providence’s renaissance. In 1892, the Providence and Worcester Railroad had filled in a large tidal basin to build rail lines and yards. But by the 1980s, what had helped the Beehive of Industry flourish threatened to choke the gleam-in-the-eye Creative Capital. The Ocean State’s capital uncovered and restored two rivers and built a pond roughly on the site of the old tidal basin, creating Waterplace Park and Riverwalk. On many summer Saturday nights, the city shows off its flowing handiwork with Waterfire Providence, where more than 100 bonfires dance in cauldrons set atop pylons in the rivers. But at lunch time, as the fickle New England (but I repeat myself) sky cleared, there was only the charming view of the water, and its auto and foot bridges, through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Jacky’s. Inside light and spacious Asian restaurant, I opted for the stir-fried beef steak, which was delicious with its subtly sweet but substantial teriyaki sauce.
Back in my suite at the Biltmore, I caught up on some reading in the spacious sitting area before taking a brief rest on the comfortably firm king-sized bed. The view of the garage rooftop wasn’t nearly as appealing as that of the Waterplace from Jacky’s, but it did allow me to keep an eye on my car, where the hotel’s courteous and helpful valet staff had parked it.
Before dinner, I squeezed in a mini-facial at the Biltmore’s spa, the only hotel-based full-service spa in the city. The space is small, with none of the amenities—hot tubs, steam rooms, saunas—of resort spas, but the cozy waiting room is comfortable, with plush seating and aromatic candles. As throughout the hotel, the staff are top-notch. The aesthetician noted my skin’s sensitivity and chose a non-abrasive exfoliator for me, and the brief treatment was a welcome pampered respite.
Dinner was a seafood extravaganza at Hemenway’s Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar, another Providence institution that blends grit and glam. Housed in an office building, it too offers river views through floor-to-ceiling windows. I started off with a single jumbo shrimp, one of my favorite foods, served with a wedge of lemon and a trail of cocktail sauce. Then came an appetizer featuring crispy calamari and bacon-wrapped scallops. I tend to think the bacon trend has passed its prime, but it did add a meaty saltiness to the soft seafood. The highlight of the meal for me was the lobster bisque—rich and creamy and just so slightly tangy, it was quite simply the best bisque I’ve ever had. But the tender and flaky grilled swordfish I had as an entrée held its own, even though I couldn’t finish it all after such a feast.
After dinner, I walked back to the Biltmore, guided in the cool clear night by its iconic red neon sign.