Exotic fusion, African masks
What would we do without the place? With no apologies to H.P. Lovecraft, CAV is Providence. It too has come a long way and today is quirky, artsy, and youthful while retaining a touch of class in places that count — truly a Renaissance success story for an out-of-the-way basement boîte in the Jewelry District.
Back in 1989, it was just a simple, if exotic, antiques shop and wine bar/coffeehouse set up by Sylvia Moubayed. Born in Egypt, and raised there and in Europe, she is a cosmopolitan with a motherly soul. So it was only natural that the place would morph into a restaurant with all the elegance of a continental experience. By now the restaurant has received national appreciation from such publications as the New York Times and Bon Appetit, which declared it to be a unique experience between Boston and New York.
The ambience is what most obviously sets it apart. The L-shaped space curling around the bar (non-smoking before that was legally mandated) is packed to the factory-high with huge African masks and sculptures. Handwoven kilim rugs serve as colorful tablecloths, under glass, and 10 assorted chandeliers and dangling twists of crystal beads sparkle like a starry night.
Just about every item you see is for sale, including the pair of Asian bronze lion cubs that bracket the small corner stage like dedicated jazz buffs. (CAV used to have music a couple of nights a week, but Moubayed found that more and more couples were coming for quiet conversation, so in the future there will only be occasional special performances after 10 pm.)
But it is the food that has made this restaurant’s reputation. This is fusion cuisine with smarts and charm, not just with ingredients thrown together because the combination is trendy. Lichee beurre blanc on salmon? I like the ravioli with caramelized Vidalia onions in an arugula and pistachio pesto ($18.95). My favorite: a velvety lobster bisque brightened with the surprisingly compatible infusion of a Tahitian vanilla bean. Indicating the place’s customer-orientation, this is available with big chunks of lobster for $8.50, or for a less needy late-night snack, $5.50 for the bisque alone.
Sharing kitchen responsibilities these days are Neil Roy and Chow Malakorn, who worked together at Adesso and have various other French and Japanese restaurants in their résumés. They’ve come up with some marvelous dishes to pass Moubayed‘s approval. The crab cake appetizer ($13.50), a meal in itself for one person, is baked and then apparently grilled top and bottom to toast its pistachio-chunk crust. Topped with a frisée pompadour and a couple of lotus root crisps for ethnic tip-off, below is a Thai sriracha aioli, not too spicy hot. (It’s also available for Sunday brunch with a poached egg.)
The starter we had on our last visit is for two, mussels with red curry sauce ($10.95). This was a winner in two ways: the fresh shellfish were from Prince Edward Island, many as thick as my thumb; the broth was creamy with coconut milk accented with kaffir lime leaves and plentiful enough to sop up with the accompanying crisp French bread.
I’ve also enjoyed their peppercorn-encrusted thick strip steak ($29.95) in a pool of sake sauce, presented with a tangle of broiled leaks, and a stuffed baked potato with carrot and mushroom bits. The diver scallops and shrimp ($28.95) contain four fresh and fat shellfish that can be dipped into a pool of lobster butter, or for deeper contrast, the balsamic reduction that zigzags through it.
The accompanying risotto contains lemon zest for snap in every bite. Poulet aux poires ($23.95) has remained on the menu by popular demand, though Moubayed would like to replace it with something more exciting. Johnnie pronounced the chicken breast moist and flavorful; it was nicely complemented by poached red pear in pear and Mirabella plum sauce. It comes with Asian chive dumplings.
Desserts are now made by a recently returned Chou Cheng Te, who worked as chef of the Irish Embassy in Brussels before coming here when this place opened. Desserts are mostly $6.95 and include a perfectly balanced tiramisu, a cheesecake that goes for lightness, and a chocolate mousse with accompanying chocolate meringue, less sweet and more deeply flavorful than the previous version.
Want to sample and see inexpensively? From Monday through Thursday, a $16.95 prix fixe selection from four entrées throws in a salad. Admiring the African art is free.
CAV | 14 Imperial Pl, Providence | Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am-9:30 pm; Fri, 11:30 am-11 pm; Sat, 10 am-3 pm, 4-11 pm; Sun, 10:30 am-3 pm, 4-9:30 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access | 401.751.9164
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