When you lift a fork to your mouth in a restaurant, so much more surrounds the experience than the aroma. When it comes to Chinese Laundry, the town’s latest upscale restaurant, atmosphere means more than the scent of mangoes.
Chinese Laundry | 401.272.TORO | 121 North Main St, Providence | Chineselaundryri.com | Tues-Thurs, 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 5-11 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level accessible
This is a snug little place, Sam Sing’s actual Chinese laundry until a few years ago. You sidle past the bar, unless you want to eat there or at the high counter across from it. We were taken into a small room jammed with five two-tops, neighbors elbow-to-elbow. Looking through the glass floor, we saw diners at the long communal table of the private dining room downstairs. The total effect is very Hong Kong street stall, kind of Blade Runner without the rain. The lounge upstairs is much roomier.
A bamboo motif is expressed softly on the walls in black on rust-red and in bamboo circles embedded in tables edged with black lacquer. The menus are elegant little hardcover books, and the pan-Asian offerings invite assembling a small-dish tasting menu, which we did. We eased in with a couple of their specialty drinks ($12), listed as “Chinese Remedies.” The giraffe-stemmed martini glasses present the drinks in your face at lip level, which took getting used to.
We started off for real with duck consommé ($5.99). Seasoned with tamari, it hung on the edge of over-salty, but then remained there in perfect balance with the duck flavor. The scallions, bok choy, and strips of shiitake were colorful flotsam in the tea-brown pool that held two juicy bundles of duck-filled wontons.
Our waiter explained that items would be brought out one-by-one when ready, rather than saved and assembled. That sounded fine if we could get them in sensible order, which we were assured we could.
We requested our oysters first, but the Sichuan pepper calamari ($10.50) came instead. That was OK, because the dipping sauce was mostly rice vinegar, and the red pepper flakes merely accented the delicacy of the remarkably tender and greaseless squid rings. Our taste buds were piqued, rather than dulled for the oysters we expected next, but instead came a heavy dish, our char sieu spareribs ($11.99). They were meaty and fell off the bone, but the meat could have used more of the promised plum sauce.
Then the crisp wasabi Kumamoto oysters ($10.99) arrived, three plump fried shellfish topped with a drop of lemongrass aioli, in small shells on a tall mound of salt. They were tasty, but minimal.
We didn’t come for food as simple as sushi, but from that list we chose something very un-Japanese, under “Forbidden Nigiri” choices: seared foie gras ($7.99). My companion Jerry’s last memorable foie gras experience was in a French farmhouse where he sampled a half-dozen different kinds. He pronounced this one first-rate, the teaspoon of goose liver and fat fine-grained and creamy, accented with a smear of fig and balsamic reduction, softened by the altar of sticky rice upon which it came proffered.
To fill up, we ordered a bowl of Alaskan King crab pad Thai ($19.99). Nah. There’s a reason that this dish is traditionally served with finely chopped peanuts and sweetened rice vinegar on the side: to allow you to separate flavors. Here they all homogenize — the peanuts too coarse to stick to the noodles, the amount of cilantro the kitchen’s choice rather than ours. We agreed: plenty of crab but, nah.
To complement the exotic theme and decor, the arrival of Chinese Laundry was spiced up with calculated controversy. A full-page magazine ad promoting the early March opening showed a nude female torso sporting the words “see what you are missing” in lieu of pasties.
The desired effect was accomplished: free publicity for restaurateur and chef John Elkay, extra buzz that his XO, Citron, and 10 Steak & Sushi never got right out of the box. Side effects included howls, of course, over the objectification of women.
The offending black-and-white nude photograph, uncensored, is in the unisex restroom. The edgy effort reminds us that sexuality and culinary sensuality are kissing cousins. Fortunately, my dining companion was a pal from college days, a Dorchester boy not prone to blush.
We closed our meal with lychee tea ($5), which like our earlier carafe of hot sake ($9) was excellent.
A high-concept place like Chinese Laundry, which is offering the idea of cuisine as much as the actual food, needs to entertain us with such touches. For me, knowing whether the latter can sustain the former will require more than one visit.