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PAUSING IN PROVIDENCE - June 2001

About ten years ago, or so the story goes, Providence, Rhode Island, was a gastronomic wasteland. With the notable exception of Al Forno -- which opened its doors in 1980 and has provided a fertile training ground for a plethoric variety of talented young chefs -- and one or two other worthy contenders, the restaurant pickings were mighty slim. During the 1990s, however, the scene changed dramatically. Today, if you are in search of fine dining, be advised: The capital of the Ocean State is causing major ripples on the culinary Richter scale.

Should you be planning a trip to Providence in the near future or, perhaps, find yourself passing through en route to Boston, there are two eateries that I would heartily recommend:

XO CAFÉ (125 North Main Street, 401-273-9090) -- Atmospheric is the adjective that best describes this cozy, diminutive eatery. Thoroughly avant-garde, slightly eccentric and just bursting with funky charm, there are enough artistic oddities to handle even the most infinitesimal lag in conversation. One wall of the bar area/smokers' dining room is embellished with graffiti supplied by a host of the restaurant's enthusiastic patrons; another boasts a slightly garish mural of celebrities ranging from Salvador Dali to the Honorable Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, Jr., current mayor of Providence (whose amiable countenance also graces jars of the "Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce"). Nonsmokers need not fear, however, as aesthetic exotica abounds in their neck of the woods as well. Eric Boyer's black screenwire sculptures of male and female bodies, for instance. Or, on the very same wall, you also discover the names of chefs paired with those of artists: Schnabel with Child; Picasso with Pepin; Manet with Elkhay (John Elkhay is the executive chef and co-proprietor of XO). Imagine the mental gymnastics involved in attempting to figure out the reasons for these illustrious match-ups...

But on to the food... Suffice it to say that you will find the cuisine every bit as intriguing as the décor. Mr. Elkhay is nothing if not adventurous, and Chef de Cuisine Jules Ramos, a native of the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, is the perfect man to pull off the highly spirited global gastronomic tour with style and panache.

The baby spinach salad may have taken up permanent residence on just about every menu you've ever laid eyes on, but XO's presentation is anything but traditional. It is adorned with tomato marmalade, crumbled Gorgonzola, Parma prosciutto crackers, and crowned with a sunny side up egg. The crabmeat salad, sweet and succulent beneath its spicy dressing, is served in a martini glass and garnished with Boston lettuce, kaffir lime, and plantain crisps. When it comes to provocative preludes, however, nothing beats the "Bento Box Appetizer Sampler," which is most suitable for sharing by two or more. Crunchy calamari rings are spiked with jalapeño mayonnaise, lobster wonton ravioli with Thai mango sauce. Skewers of beef are also present and accounted for, along with rock shrimp seviche and, perhaps, sesame noodles, batter-fried mushroom tempura, or whatever other alluring accoutrements may strike the chef's fancy on a given evening.

Entrées are equally charismatic. They are fanciful but not fussy, captivatingly creative without being convoluted; there's just enough whimsy in the presentations to let you know that the chef isn't taking himself too seriously. The tuna steak, dusted with garam masala, is perfectly grilled just a hair shy of medium rare and accompanied by curried couscous, cucumber relish, and pea tendrils. Seared shrimp arrive on a seabed of angel hair pasta awash with an intensely flavorful skillet marinara, torn basil, and cold-pressed olive oil. Confirmed carnivores might consider either the pecan wood grilled beef tenderloin or the New York sirloin. The former is spruced up with a chive goat cheese/potato croquette, Vidalia onion jam, and red wine glacé; the latter with smashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, XO steak sauce, and garlic chips.

"Life is uncertain," your menu reads, "order dessert first." And since several sweet denouements do require some advance preparation, this is a splendid idea. The hot molten chocolate lava cake, which has become something of a culinary cliché of late, is utterly exquisite, its mellifluous decadence properly balanced by cinnamon chocolate truffle ice cream and fresh fruit in supporting roles. The lemon Napoleon alternates luscious layers of lemon curd with pistachio tuile and consummates this sumptuous affair with raspberry coulis. The crème brûlée tray, an ever-changing selection of petite caramelized custards, is yet another worthy contender.

For those seeking an upbeat -- and slightly offbeat -- dining experience, XO Café is not to be missed.

EMPIRE Restaurant Closed - Now Bravo Brasserie - (123 Empire Street, 401-621-7911) -- Eric Moshier and Loren Falsone are members of the illustrious "Al Forno Alumni Association." Indeed, both cooked at the restaurant for seven years and subsequently held their wedding reception on its patio. Now ensconced in their very own restaurant, Empire, they serve up a most arresting array of creative Italian fare with a decidedly global flair. This is modern, innovative cookery at its sleek and sophisticated best, a completely appropriate match for the airy and stylish décor.

If you want to get off to a rousing start, begin with the "french fries." But no ordinary spuds these; they are crisp and crunchy on the outside, yielding to a moist and perfectly textured interior. The "Summertime" fries come replete with grated Parmesan cheese and a light dusting of lemon zest & parsley; their equally delectable siblings, the "Empire" fries, arrive with a knockout lemon mayonnaise. Pizza bianco is something of a must for devoted pizza fans. The thin crust is smothered in a variety of gooey melted cheeses, dressed with arugula salad, and crowned with shavings of Parmesan. Unless you have the appetite of a ravening hyena, there is more than enough here to share and share alike.

And speaking of sharing... there's always the wonderful cheese fondue for two accompanied by garlic crostini. And the more adventurous of palate may sample such delicacies as sautéed frog's legs in brown butter with asparagus, roasted Black Mission figs with Prosciutto de Parma, beef tenderloin carpaccio with a creamy horseradish dressing, or fresh tuna tartare with avocado salad and lime-jalapeño scented rouille.

Entrées are incredibly inventive, but, like many of their illustrious predecessors, they have a tendency to stray significantly from their culinary roots. When, for example, was the last time you had a glimpse of "Fish and Chips" on an Italian menu? No matter. The fresh ocean catfish is done to a turn, the breading light and crisp, and the homemade tartar sauce and ketchup perfect for enthusiastic dips and dabs. Continuing with matters piscatorial, you will find the roasted red snapper swimming in an Asian broth on a seabed of angel hair pasta spiffed up with braised greens, morel mushrooms, and sweet English peas.

More traditional in tone but no less creative in style is the "Roasted Eggplant Sandwich." Three layers of lightly breaded eggplant slices are interspersed with red peppers, corn, caramelized onions, then embellished with a rich tomato sauce and topped with grilled asparagus. Pastas receive the same innovative treatment. In one instance, the homemade tagliatelle is partnered with a zippy Italian parsley pesto and duck prosciutto; in another, tossed with escargot, garlic butter, pignoli nuts, anchovy, and fresh parsley. Spaghetti is escorted by jumbo shrimp and chaperoned by garlic, onion, and fresh herbs.

The baked-to-order desserts vary according to Mr. Moshier's whims, and all are positively stunning. His caramel - chocolate brownie chunk "blondie" ice cream sandwich with ginger and chocolate sauce is a spectacular feast for the eyes as well as the palate. The fresh black cherry upside down cake is spruced up with crème fraîche ice cream and sugared almonds; and the roasted grape tart luxuriates in a bitter chocolate sauce and is crowned with tiara of whipped cream. If you'd prefer a sweet ending that's a bit more "down home," be sure to sample Empire's delectable spin on the great American apple pie.

You will also find several excellent dessert wines available by the glass or half bottle, as well as a selection of coffees, teas, and potent espressos.

Casual yet classy, Empire is truly an exceptional dining experience.

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