A secret that those who excel in the restaurant industry know is that the more sensual a dining experience is, the more enjoyable it will be, that engaging the senses evokes emotions and memories and creates lasting impressions. Our brains are never as tuned in as when we’re fully immersed in an exquisite dish or creative beverage.
It’s this concept that Marcelino Abou Ali, one founder behind Marcelino’s Boutique Bar in the Omni Providence Hotel, embraces with enthusiasm. “People respond to a holistic experience,” he explains. “The details really matter.”
Ali was surrounded by this core belief growing up in Batroun, Lebanon, an ancient fishing village turned hot spot north of Beirut. His father was a firefighter and his mother, a homemaker. “I’ve spent my whole life in hospitality,” he explains. “I started as a dishwasher at 16, and worked my way through school in the industry.” Ali has the fondest memories of his own senses being awakened by the cooking and entertaining rituals of his family and friends.
In 2015, at the age of 25, Ali moved with his family to the United States. “I started to think about creating a place that would incorporate all of my experiences from traveling and working in the food and beverage industry,” he explains, “a place that triggers all of your senses in the best possible ways.” He partnered with co-founder Basil Badawi with the goal of creating a place where people could truly relax and escape, and feel free to be “whomever they wish to be,” he explains.
Alongside his partners and wife Holly, who is a pediatric nurse at Rhode Island Hospital (last year the couple welcomed a daughter), Ali has done just that. Step off the sidewalk and you’ll find yourself in an alternate universe-like setting – all amber-hued and sumptuous. Elaborate fixtures deposit golden light onto the bar and the lounge areas, which feature mirror details, exposed brick, velvet and brass bar stools, long curtains, and candles. Every detail is meticulously chosen: the music you hear, aromas you smell, patterns you see, even the textures you feel – it’s all inspired by the aesthetics of Asia and the Middle East and various parts of the world that Ali has visited. He borders on obsessive about the customer experience. “Every 20 minutes, we adjust the details in the rooms according to who and how many people are in them,” he says.
Ali consulted childhood friend Refaat Ghostine, an award-winning mixologist, to create an immersive craft cocktail experience. “I grew up watching my grandparents make wine, arak, and syrups from scratch, so I was inspired to incorporate earthy and aromatic flavors into my vision. We wanted to create drinks that are as complex as food,” Ali says, explaining that the cocktails incorporate distinctive textures and complex flavor profiles.
Describing the processes of making syrups, tinctures, and garnishes, he says, “There is so much preparation here to bring a drink to fruition.” A study of the recipe for a tomato grapefruit cocktail is illustrative of that alchemy. The ingredients include tequila and mezcal, clarified tomato water, a grapefruit and sumac cordial, lime juice, chili tincture, pink Himalayan salt, and a sustainable tomato chip and dehydrated grapefruit slice to garnish. “Our menu is designed to explore all five of the fundamental flavor profiles: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. This drink has smokiness from the mezcal, saltiness from the sumac and pink Himalayan salt, and umami from the tomato water.”
While there isn’t a full kitchen, chef Maroun Nohra complements the bar program with lush Mediterranean-inspired offerings: mezze and charcuterie platters, salads, roasted vegetables, baked flatbreads, and more.
Marcelino’s has been thriving, so much so that there are plans to open a second location in the Boston Seaport District. Ali’s goals are lofty – one is to be named one of the best cocktail bars in the world. But you get the sense that if anyone can do it, he can. He understands the importance of consistent branding – he was originally against naming the bar after himself, but partner Badawi encouraged it, saying that the experience here exemplifies the essence of who Marcelino is.
Ali exudes hospitality from his pores, and yet the success has not gone to his head. “Sometimes when I’m passing by a table or the bar, I’ll hear people say things about what they’re experiencing here, and I can’t believe the wonderful things they say,” he says. “Until now, it was always just a dream.”
1 West Exchange Street, Providence
666-0088 • MarcelinosBoutiqueBar.com
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