Back in 2008 it was sad news, almost shocking, when word spread throughout Providence that Ralph Conte was closing his well-respected Raphael Bar-Risto. But this past summer, word spread even faster that Conte and his family were opening a new restaurant in Saunderstown. Many years ago the space was occupied by Heffie’s, followed by Sergio’s.
I’ve been a fan of Ralph Conte’s progressive Italian cuisine for more than 20 years, going back to his early days when I fell in love with his pizza. Ralph learned everything about Italian food from his family and from living in Italy for more than two years. With a sophisticated interior designed by his wife Elisa, that location became one of the hottest spots in the city with a very strong bar scene. That seems to be happening all over again at their new restaurant. This time around, the Contes have created a true bistro complete with a vintage tin ceiling, dark woods and servers wearing long aprons as you would see in Paris. Yes, Paris. Even the menu has a slight French accent. Elisa and Ralph have both expanded their horizons with their newest venture.
During our first visit on a Saturday night, this bistro was bustling and we felt lucky to get a corner table where the four of us could actually converse. This is one noisy restaurant, but then most successful bistros are like that. Nightly specials are listed on an old-fashioned blackboard, another classic bistro touch. The half wall dividing the dining area from the large bar area is topped with magnums of Moet & Chandon champagne.
It was almost comforting to see Ralph at work again in the kitchen, his hair now flecked with gray, wearing an immaculate white chef’s jacket as always. Elisa seated the four of us and checked in now and then to make certain we were totally satisfied. Serving us was their daughter Zoe, the bistro manager pitching in to help out on a very busy night. Their son Raffi is the bartender. The Contes make their home in Jamestown, just over the bridge from Plum Point, a much easier commute than all their years running restaurants in Providence.
“Fresh, all natural, organic and locally grown whenever possible” – that’s the message on the menu. And don’t be surprised if the vegetables on your dinner plate come from Elisa’s home garden... or the striped bass was caught just that morning by Ralph, an avid fisherman.
Certain menu items practically screamed out, "Try me, try me!" How could I possibly resist the signature Plum Glazed Wings ($9) sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with an addictive Gorgonzola dip or the Rosemary Shrimp Bruschetta ($10) with tender white beans, tomato and basil? But the “to die for” appetizer has to be the Duck Confit Crepes ($12), topped with blueberry-brown butter – it could double as a savory dessert, at least in my mind.
On another night, our dinner began with expertly prepared local oysters and littleneck clams on the half shell and a colorful heirloom tomato salad, the very essence of late summer. An appetizer salad of tuna nicoise was large enough to serve as dinner. The green beans were bright and obviously fresh, the tomatoes clearly local. A light dressing kissed every element on the plate.
All the pasta is made in house, from the radiatori to the pappardelle ($15 to $17). Our shared fettucine was blended with lemon chicken, shaved artichokes, cherry tomatoes and arugula, then dusted with pignoli breadcrumbs. Spaghetti dishes, all featuring seafood, are listed separately ($18 to $23).
The Braised Duck Leg ($23) was on the menu, and we can only hope it will still be there this winter, served over white beans, pork sausage and crisp pork belly.
Certain dishes are beyond simple and still so good, such as the Pan-Seared Summer Fluke ($23) with artichokes, shiitake mushrooms and a citrusy wine sauce, and the Corn Meal-Crusted Native Cod ($16), a modern take on fish and chips with house slaw, tartar sauce and frites, not just fries, on the side. Topped with garlic-parsley butter, the much-appreciated Charbroiled Bistro Steak ($28) also came with frites, classic bistro fare.
With most entrees costing $20 or more, the menu wisely offers the Plum Point Burger ($12), and the four of us vowed to come back one night this fall just for that. This is no common burger. It’s topped with applewood bacon, Chianti-braised onions, Gruyere cheese, spicy aioli and arugula.
The dessert list was mighty tempting: Dark Chocolate Ricotta Fritters with house jam and vanilla bean cream, Toasted Coconut Lemon Meringue Tartlet and the Signature Plum Tarte Tartin with Brie, to name just three. One dessert, with four spoons, was all we could manage after a superb dinner. The excellent Tiramisu ($8) provided that sweet ending we needed. Southern Rhode Island is so lucky to have Ralph Conte and his family on the local restaurant scene.
1814 Boston Neck Road, North Kingstown. 667-4999