This month finds us at one of the best restaurants in Rhode Island, perhaps one of the best in all of New England, Persimmon in Bristol. Owners Lisa and Chef Champe Speidel have crafted a gem of a restaurant. There are certain places you go to expecting an excellent meal, a beautiful room and great service. Persimmon hits all those notes, plus a little something extra in a new and growing cocktail program.Though for me, it’s all about the food, and Champe constantly and consistently - which is key - delivers.
Before we get to that food, let’s get back to that beautiful room and great service, because those are the hallmarks of fine dining nowadays, even more so than the food. We’re at a time in dining where Champe could be serving his cuisine out of a trailer and people would line up to eat it. The fine dining experience of Persimmon, though, begins when you walk through the door of the relatively small storefront on State Street. It’s an understated entrance which opens to a softly lit room full of tables with perfectly pressed white tablecloths and flickering candles. More often than not Lisa greets you, and in a matter of moments you’reseated, if you’re lucky on one of the banquettes where you can watch the whole room like a show - though there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
Because it’s a cozy operation, just 36 seats, it seems like everyone working in the dining room does everything. Water, bread, drinks, serving, clearing -everyone shares in taking care of each diner, which of course makes the service impeccable. Kevin, the head of the dining room, has been with Persimmon for six years and there’s next to nothing in the restaurant that he wouldn’t handle to see that his customers are taken care of. Recently Kevin has taken to elevating the cocktail program atvPersimmon and we began with two. My wife had a Dale DeGroff drink – Adonis, which is dry sherry, sweet vermouth, orange juice and lemon juice. I tried a new cocktail Kevin had come up with that had rum, Benedictine, egg white, agave, lime juice and bitters. We also sampled his Root Beer Float. They were very creative drinks and perfect starters for the evening.
Cocktails weren’t the only area to receive an upgrade at Persimmon. The best places never rest on their laurels and I was glad to see and taste the next area of improvement. If I had to nitpick on one thing at Persimmon prior to this visit, it would have been the bread service. There was nothing bad about it, but it tasted like local bakery bread that didn’t stand up to the meal that followed. It seemed out of place. But out of place no more, as Persimmon bakes their own bread, and it feels much more in line with what comes out of their kitchen. It’s served with some excellent salted butter, but more importantly it’s a good, thick bread for sopping up some of the deliciousness to come, and wow, oh the things to come.
Persimmon has your standard a la carte menu with appetizers and entrées, as well as a Chef’s Five-Course or Seven-Course Tasting Menu. The menus are referred to as Seasonal Highlights and they change often. Champe doesn’t hit you over the head with a lot of overly seasonal references and farm names, but you learn early on that the ingredients he chooses to cook with are some of the best to be found. Some things, especially during the winter months need a lot of technique and additions to coax the best flavors out of them. Other items, like the raw fluke appetizer I had, can be simply prepared and dressed, so as to not interfere with the flavor of a great ingredient. Sometimes being a smart chef means getting out of your own way and delivering to your guests the pure flavor of what you’ve been able to procure.
We had a number of dishes and I highly recommend a tasting menu at Persimmon. There’s been a lot of demonizing of tasting menus lately and I can’t quite understand it. If you don’t want a full evening of food and drink,why argue against it? Just don’t order it. If you’d like to sit and slowly sample some of the best the kitchen has to offer over the course of a couple of hours, then taste away. You can add wine pairings to the tastings at Persimmon, or order what you’d like from their excellent, and affordable, wine list. I chose a very good Oregon Pinot Noir, Oak Knoll, with some help from Kevin.
You’re probably saying at this point, what about the food? Well I told you up front, it’s some of the best around. We had a warm Rhode Island wild oyster with wakame seaweed butter and ginger oil, wisely served with a small spoon so you could finish up the remaining butter and oil broth. A clam fritter for each of us was like a perfect seafood intermezzo between the oyster and the next dish, cod cheek with Peekytoe crab in a citrus broth. The warm cod cheek and the cold crab meat created an excellent contrast and the broth tied it all together.
Next there were beautiful pieces of roasted cauliflower with date and cauliflower puree. The roasted cauliflower was salty, almost meaty in its texture, and nicely offset with the sweetness of the date and the creaminess of the puree. The root vegetable soup that followed was one of my wife’s favorites of the night, and she had foie gras, scallops and pork belly too - so consider just how good those root vegetables had to be prepared. A nice touch was that the soup was served in gorgeous handmade bowls from a Providence potter.
For my wife the pan seared Hudson Valley foie gras with confit butternut squash, poached pear, Medjool dates and hazelnut praline granola came next, followed by lightly seared Nantucket bay scallops with slow roasted pork belly, glazed parsnips, native carrots and light-smoked pork jus. I received the aforementioned fluke sashimi and then crispy skin Long Island duck breast with Tarbais bean cassoulet, bacon lardon, glazed carrot, turnip and radish. What can be said about these dishes that won’t sound overused? They were perfectly thought out combinations of flavors, delivered with exquisite technique that pushed forward where it was needed and hidden otherwise. A good example of this would be the Tarbais beans, a very traditional cassoulet bean but not some of my favorites. At Persimmon these were creamy and well cooked. Conversely, in the case of the Nantucket bay scallops, they seemed just kissed by heat and then very smartly plated with the pork belly and jus.
We’re not done yet. A yuzu sorbet with calamansi lime followed and cleared the palate before dessert. First up was vanilla bean panna cotta with passion fruit gelee. At this point in the review you’re probably thinking I can’t exude any more praise, but here’s a truth. I’ve had Champe’s panna cotta several times and it is by far the best panna cotta I’ve ever had. It seems so simple but honestly, you will want to lick out the cup it’s served in. We finished with a peanut butter and banana dessert for my wife and a dark chocolate cremieux for me. Persimmon could be well served by having a dedicated pastry chef, though both were excellent desserts. There were great little treats all over the plate that are like little bursts of additional sweet flavor, and there was nothing wrong with a little combining of her peanut butter in my chocolate.
Speaking of chocolate, I almost forgot the salted caramel dark chocolate truffle mignardises. They all but said, until next time, and there will always be a next time with a place as outstanding as Persimmon.