Yikes! That was our reaction when we pulled into the parking lot at this suburban restaurant on a recent weeknight. We were lucky to find a spot and hurried in, figuring we would have to wait at least an hour for a table with this kind of crowd. Fortunately, our friends were already there and seated. It was noisy, but in a good way, mostly because of the happy afterwork crowds having lots of laughs as they grazed on creative food.
Blackie’s Bulldog Tavern in Smithfield could easily be just a sports bar, or a college hangout with Bryant University just down the street. Everywhere you look, there are flat-screen TVs tuned into major sporting events, yet they do not overwhelm the dining area. This is one of those restaurants where everything works, from the friendly service to the outstanding food to the happening bar scene. And they get a big thumbs up for ordering really good folk-rock music starting on the early side at 6:30pm.
When the four of us dine out, we have one rule – everyone has to order something different. We also like to try new things, which is so easy to do at Blackie’s. Not surprising since the award-winning chef is Angie Armenise, who made her mark at Waterplace in Providence before moving to the ‘burbs a couple of years ago. Her menu is big, and the flavors are bold.
With so many tempting dishes, it took us a while to get it all figured out. Our waiter, Kyle, provided us with drinks as we mapped out our dinner plan, starting with two terrific appetizers. Pretzels & Cheesy ($8.99) consisted of three oversized, warm, buttery soft pretzels served with a crock of gooey jalapeno beer dip. The four of us quickly divided up and consumed the plump pretzels lathered with plenty of that creamy dip. Then it was on to the Bu!alo Chicken Dip ($9.99). This is one of those wonderful appetizers that you just have to get the recipe for: pulled buffalo chicken breast meat is mixed with cream cheese and blue cheese, then baked until gooey and bubbly.
But we were just getting warmed up. Next we ordered two dishes that we all would get to taste. From the Cheeseology section of the menu, we tried The Tuscan ($8.99), a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich starring fig jam, prosciutto, provolone and Gorgonzola on toasted bread. There are eight variations on this theme including classic combinations from The Sicilian to The Gobbler – you can just imagine those ingredients. Our waiter recommended The Orchard, with its layers of sharp cheddar, crisp apple, smoked bacon, red onion marmalade and a brown sugar-maple drizzle.
Similar imaginative possibilities can be found with the burgers ($10.99 to $15.99). You can create your own with dozens of toppings, cheeses and sauces for your consideration. Or you can try the Apple Pie Burger with brown sugar-maple mayo on a soft pretzel roll, or the Late Night Chef Burger, topped with peanut butter, grape jelly, barbecue sauce, sharp cheddar, bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion and kosher pickle chips, all in a toasted bulkie roll.
Our second dish “for the table” was the Carbonara Mac & Cheese ($14.99), an absolute must for pasta lovers. How could we not order a dish with this description: Grilled and chopped chicken breast tossed in a roasted garlic cream sauce with sharp cheddar cheese, crumbled bacon and fresh peas baked casserole style with cavatappi pasta and finished with a buttery potato chip crust. An audacious spin on the classic carbonara, but nonetheless a dish I would order again and again.
After all this truly exciting food, could our entrees ($11.99 to $18.99) possibly be as thrilling? Yes and no. With our taste buds on sensory overload, it was hard to be dazzled by Baby Cheddar and Mushroom Meatloaf, Fish and Chips, Simply Grilled Ribeye and Apple Cider Salmon.
The meatloaf was a surprise in its presentation (more like a big fat burger, not the usual slab of meat), and we could not detect the promised sharp cheddar, mushrooms and caramelized onions, but Brian did like the garlic mashed potatoes.
The ribeye was most appreciated, especially for its tenderness and shallot-cabernet-butter topping. As for the salmon, I loved it, generously brushed with apple cider glaze and served over more roasted root vegetables than I could ever eat. It was topped with crispy onion strings, and I ate every single one.
Just when we thought it was time to leave, we heard about an extraordinary dessert we could share – five deep-fried pastry balls of carrot cake ($7.99), accompanied by cinnamon ice cream, flavored whipped cream and whipped cream cheese.
Providence lost a remarkable chef when Angie Arminese moved to the suburbs. But Smithfield isn’t very far from Providence, about 20 minutes north of the city and easy to find. So do yourself a favor and take a ride out to Blackie’s Bulldog Tavern.