Food Reviews

Oberlin Soars By Keeping it Simple

Small plates and a hyper-local focus have earned this downcity restaurant national accolades

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Oberlin was born a little over a year ago and has already garnered national attention, including a spot on Bon Appétit’s “10 Best New Restaurants in America” in 2016. Oberlin is Birch’s younger sister establishment, but it swaps the necessary exclusivity of an 18-seat micro-restaurant with a casual, no reservations vibe in a larger space. In short, Ben and Heidi Sukle’s motivation to open a second restaurant was to serve more fantastic local ingredients to more people, which really nails the Providence ethos.

Just like the other times I went to Oberlin, I brought some friends, came early and started with an Aperol and Soda to pique our appetite without impacting our sobriety (or wallet). We ordered Crudo from the top section of the menu even though someone in our party “didn’t eat raw fish.” That’s what my Midwestern grandma-in-law said, and Oberlin changed her mind.

A standout on the crudo list is the Scup, flavored with chili and olives. Again, in the spirit of the city, Oberlin takes something once considered scrappy (scup, often used as bait) and turns it into a masterpiece. Raw Yellowtail Flounder with smoked roe and capers reads like an aquatic version of a classic steak tartare, though subtler. Many crudo dishes have a simple lemon and oil preparation that lets the fish shine through. The Marinated Mussels on the other hand are coated in a creamy, spicy sauce and topped with adorably tiny sweet potato chips.

You might do well to pair one of the many sake offerings with your crudo, but to be honest, I always go for one of the beers or ciders on the list. This time, my table enjoyed the draft cider, Sidrería Gurutzeta Sidra; the Jolly Pumpkin Gratzer, a smoked sour (no pumpkin, that’s just the brewer); a Wipers Times 14 by the Belgian Brouwerij Kazematten; Le Val de la Chèvre Cidre; and, a Hitachino Nest Saison. What a well-chosen international selection.

In my opinion, you must order at least one pasta dish. The handmade shapes and careful sauces stand up to the city’s best, and in an Italian food hub, that’s a tall order. This time, we had the Ricotta Cavatelli with Vermont wagyu beef ragu and spicy breadcrumbs.

We also tried some vegetables. Oberlin’s Kohlrabi Caesar is a new classic, and even though I saved the recipe, why would I ever bother making it when it’s so good here? I appreciated how the giant, off-white shavings of kohlrabi and Parmesan are barely indistinguishable, and how they hide tiny bits of cured mackerel. Every bite is a scavenger hunt, in the most delicious way possible.

Another must-try is the Roasted Hubbard Squash. It may sound simple, but it demonstrates the restaurant’s talents. A salty crunch of pumpkin seeds, a cover of cool tarragon leaves and a sour buttermilk broth expertly creates contrasts in flavor and texture. Even though Oberlin’s dishes are best shared, you might, like me, keep scooting this dish a little closer to your side of the table.

Though the food is attractively plated under chef Ed Davis, it doesn’t try to interrupt your conversation with ostentatious exhibitionism. Each plate slips onto your table like an old friend, and then blows your mind when you take a bite.

This is what happened with the cheese plate. I worked my way around it for so long because the rest of the menu is irresistible, but these cheeses by Connecticut’s Cato Corner are stunning. We had a Black Ledge Blue, a nutty Dairyere and a wonderfully stinky Hooligan. These were served with thin semolina crackers and apple butter.

This is definitely a place to venture for something outside of your comfort zone. Maybe it’s the Skate Cheeks, a new addition to the menu. They’re prepared al pil-pil, a traditional Basque recipe in which the fish is cooked in olive oil with garlic and chili pepper. The fluffy grilled bread will help you get every bit of the flavorful sauce. Or maybe your adventurous dish is a whole roasted fish – currently, John Dory or Black Bass.

I always order both desserts, even if I’m dining alone. The Apple Tart has a crust I’d dream of stumbling across in a cottage in the French countryside, where it would be made from a flour-dusted, handwritten family galette recipe. The beeswax ice cream is subtle and smooth. We felt like indulgent dessert vampires biting into the Cranberry Zeppole, five cranberry doughnuts injected with bright red Maraschino.

If you can’t keep track of all of these recommendations, close your eyes and land a finger somewhere on the menu. I’m confident you will like what you find.

Oberlin
186 Union Street
588-8755