When I saw the huge write-up of Saunderstown's Plum Pt Bistro in the Pro Jo a while ago, I was really excited to see that Ralph Conte was back in the restaurant business. Ralph was the owner and driving force of Raphael Bar Risto in Providence back in my single days (that's over 10 years ago now), and despite its reputation as the singles gathering place (yes, you could call it a meat market), Raphael Bar Risto had some of the most creative Italian food I had tasted anywhere. Combine that with a smokin' interior (designed by Ralph's wife) and the restaurant's legendary Tunnel Bar (the ultimate singles hangout) and you had a combination for success unlike any other. In some ways, perhaps, it was too successful. I'm sure that burn-out was a factor for Ralph, and after some crazy years, Raphael Bar Risto closed down. In the time that followed, others tried to resurrect the magic of that place, but it has never been the same since. Bar Louie now occupies that space, in between the Capital Grille and Ri Ra.
So now Ralph was back with a smaller, more manageable Plum Pt Bistro, calling the shots as always--but this time from the kitchen--with his wife and two now-grown children working there as well. And it felt like family the moment I stepped inside.
I sat at the bar and was greeted by Raphael, Ralph's son, who set me up with my obligatory pre-meal martini. Next thing I heard was a "Hey, Al!" that came from Skip, a bartender that served me back in the Raphael Bar Risto days. Skip gave me that smile that said "Man, I served you a lot of drinks over the years, buddy!" And I gave him a look that said: "And that's not stopping tonight!" We talked for a while and caught up a bit as the bar slowly started to fill up on this early Friday evening.
I saw Ralph around the corner, talking to a customer and as they finished their conversation, he made his way toward me as he headed for the kitchen. I leaned back in my chair to shake his hand and right away he said: "Hey, Al. Good to see you again." I was a bit surprised he recognized me. I jokingly said: "You knew who I was despite the fact that I lost all my hair?" Ralph said: "You might look a little different, but the spirit is still the same." That wasn't a line. That was Ralph. We talked for a bit about the old days at Raphael Bar Risto...how my buddy Charlie and I would get there right as it opened at 6PM on a Friday and we would leave when it closed at 1AM...back in the day when smoking was allowed in Providence restaurants and we'd come home reeking of cigarettes. And back when one night, Charlie and I were having our usual good time chatting up single women and then suddenly I met my wife for the first time...and my single days literally ended with that night.
So it was interesting that on this particular night, I was sort of reliving my Raphael's past: my daughter was spending the night with friends and my wife was out of town on business. I was a "single guy" in Ralph's restaurant once again. Of course, instead of chatting up single women, I just stuck to the Plum Pt Bistro menu...which brought a smile to my face the moment I read it: rosemary shrimp bruschetta...fried white smelts...handmade pastas. I could get used to this!
Dining by myself didn't stop me from eating a lot...few things do. I had 3 appetizers (they called them small plates) and 1 main dish that evening, and all of them were outstanding. I started with Short-Rib Dumplings with daikon, meyer lemon cream and chili oil. The short ribs are braised with espresso and cocoa, and it just kicks ass! The next plate: Big Eye Tuna Tartare with avocado, horseradish creme fraiche and black tobiko...possibly the best tuna tartare on planet Earth, and a huge seller at the restaurant. The creaminess of the avocado, the bite of the horseradish, the crunch of some fried sliced garlic cloves and potato gaufrettes, and the saltiness of the black tobiko (flying fish roe often used in sushi and colored black by adding squid ink.) My third small plate featured grilled octopus, celery leaves, crushed potato, citrus, and olive tapenade. Originally, this dish featured one large hunk of octopus but they later switched to 3 small critters instead...a good move. They were crispy but not tough. And the crushed potato with the olive tapenade mixed in is an idea I am definitely going to steal for my own recipes at home.
Big Eye tuna tartare
It was no surprise that by the time I got to my main dish, a very rich and delicious braised duck leg with white bean, sausage and crisp pork belly...I was cooked, as it were. I ate half of it and had the rest wrapped to go home with me. The next morning, I tossed all the meat and some of the beans into a pan, warmed it up and then cracked an egg on top. Breakfast of champions.
While the weather stays nice, the Plum Pt Bistro can make full use of its outside deck space that features a second bar and some tables. And that area is used a lot, as the main dining room gets packed on weekends. Perhaps they will put a cover on the outdoor area so that they can use it year-round. For me, I love to sit at the indoor bar. It seats about 20 people, and there's no place I'd rather be eating my meal. Plus, as long as I don't get there too late, I can find a seat without a reservation....and a reservation for a table is a must on weekends.
Raphael Bar Risto and its creative Italian dishes might be gone. But the spirit is still the same at the Plum Pt Bistro, and I, for one, am very happy about that.