It’s not every day that you can dine in a building that’s older than the United States. More often than not the restaurants that inhabit colonial era structures tend to serve food that almost seems as old — Yankee pot roast or boiled dinner or the like. So I was pleasantly surprised when I perused the menu at The Wilcox Tavern to see listed ingredients such as sriracha-chorizo butter, Narragansett Creamery ricotta and Japanese quinoa. Then I was further impressed when we walked into the gorgeously maintained nearly 300-year-old structure to see a list of “Local Suppliers” available, a list that included most of my favorite Rhode Island farms and producers such as Aquidneck Honey, Schartner Farms, Hopkins Southdowns and The Local Catch.
We all know by now that it’s best to eat local, for a number of reasons. One of these is freshness, which translates to the diner as, “it tastes really good because it just came out of the ground or sea.” The Wilcox Tavern impressed me on several levels, not only in serving very good local ingredients in an exquisite space, but also in serving me one of the best Southern dishes I’ve had in Rhode Island. Yes, that’s right, a Southern dish — made right off of Route 1 in Charlestown, Rhode Island, not Charleston, South Carolina — but more on that later.
First, let’s talk history. I wouldn’t usually focus this much on the past, but roll this date around in your head: 1730. The main house of The Wilcox Tavern was built in 1730. It was the birthplace of General Joseph Stanton, who was a member of the Colonial Congress as well as a Senator from Rhode Island to the First Constitutional Congress. After Stanton’s death, part of his estate passed to the Wilcox family who eventually turned the house into a tavern around 1850. So clearly this building has been steeped in Rhode Island history and the current owners, while adding modern amenities like a restaurant kitchen and a full bar, have maintained the historical look and feel. There are fireplaces in every room and an overall warm, inviting atmosphere.
We started dinner with some local shellfish and a salad. The Roasted Oysters ($12) are farmed in nearby Rhode Island waters and are served with sriracha-chorizo butter, Hawaiian sea salt and a cilantro-lime marinade. They were a great starter. The oysters were just slightly roasted so they curled a little, but still had a little bite to them. The sea salt had a great minerality to it and the spiciness of the butter was cooled by the marinade. There was also a nice arugula salad on the plate. The Caesar Salad ($7) was definitely an attempt to serve the traditional Caesar flavors in a different way. It was made up of baby romaine, ciabatta croute, parmesan flan, Caesar dressing and a balsamic-honey reduction. It was a lot on the plate, but it did work and invoked a Caesar. The parmesan flan, while a bit rich and heavy, was excellent.
For dinner we tried the Ricotta Gnudi ($13), Seafood Wilcox ($25) and Shrimp & Grits ($24). The Gnudi, cheese dumplings, were made from local Narragansett Creamery ricotta with baby arugula, herbed white wine pomodoro, lemon zest and pesto. They were fantastic. Narragansett Creamery ricotta is the best ricotta cheese I’ve ever had and it worked so well in these dumplings. They were perfectly formed and cooked, with just a bit of sear on them, but still holding their form. The sauce was light and complementary. Overall, a very well made dish, with a good price, and vegetarian to boot.
The Seafood Wilcox was also sauced and put together very nicely. Made up of pappardelle pasta topped with local sea scallops, Gulf shrimp, Maine lobster meat and crab in an herb-infused San Marzano tomato fennel-broth and topped with lemon aioli, it was a sea- food lover’s dish. All the various seafoods were properly cooked and the sauce was again, very complementary. Clearly the chef at The Wilcox Tavern gave some great thought to these dishes, but for me the best was yet to come.
I’ve eaten a lot of shrimp and grits. It’s a dish I make often too, and I’ve become leery of trying it outside of the South. But the menu listing at The Wilcox Tavern offered too much to pass up: jumbo Gulf shrimp, spices, tasso gravy, fresh milled grits, creamed chard. Very few places here make grits right, let alone use tasso properly or cream chard. So I tried it, and wow, was I happy I did. The grits were proper grits, not the too often not-cooked-down-enough stuff I’ve had around here. The tasso gravy was on point. There was that slight burn from the spice and just a little bit of smoke. The creamed chard almost reminded me of collards, just a tiny bit sweeter than you’d expect, but that worked very well with the tasso gravy. Needless to say the shrimp were well-prepared as well.
The Wilcox Tavern offers a selection of desserts for $7 each. We tried the Chocolate Cake and New York Cheesecake, both of which were nice desserts to close a meal, but the stars of the dinner were definitely the savory courses. I look forward to returning as the local growing season progresses to see what their summer and fall menus offer, though it’s going to be hard for me not to revisit that Shrimp & Grits again.