My wife and I arrived at the Statesman Tavern just as business was picking up, and minutes later, we were lucky to have a table. With Persimmon moving up to Providence and the Statesman moving in with their take on a modern American tavern, it was the perfect opportunity to see the newly imagined space. It’s not a huge room, but the Statesman’s renovations have really paid off. The room feels bigger and there’s a much larger ten-person bar. A low rail neatly makes room for waiters without closing things off, and there’s a warmer, woody feel. The bar had the cocktails flowing and there was a nice rumble of conversation over some jazz. The aesthetic was Americana – that look where you don’t know whether a musician is wearing a hat because he is Southern or a hipster. Here it means copper mirrors, a 48-star flag and the compulsory incandescent vintage bulbs.
I ordered a Saison from Overshores Brewing Company ($7) but wished I had tested out the bartender after watching him craft cocktails. The drink menu had great focus: a sharp wine list, three beers on draught, plenty of bottles including cider and a full range of interesting, but not out-there cocktails. I appreciated that RI-based distiller Sons of Liberty was featured.
The food menu is a nice mix that can go where your evening takes you. For a full dinner with friends, the tavern snacks are your appetizers, but those or the small plates could also be part of a nice drink and chat. The local produce is obvious in the menu – and at the time of writing, the pumpkin was strong with this one.
My wife and I went for a full meal, splitting the Eggplant Dip ($9) from the tavern snack section to begin. This was served in a skillet next to a stack of flatbread atop a cutting board, true to the tavern feel. The flatbread was fresh, baked in house, well oiled and salted. The mini skillet was a bit ironic since the dip was chilled, which muted the taste somewhat. The sharp, crisp scallion salsa verde served with it was a great way of cutting through the eggplant, and is something I’ll steal next time I’m grilling.
Next, we tried the Clams and Mussels ($14). It was a generous portion of clean clams and mussels, alongside diagonal cuts of toasted crusty baguette in a perfectly balanced garlicky broth. The touch of miso turned out to be a careful coloring you thankfully wouldn’t pick out, rather than some aggressive note. We didn’t let one drop of the broth go back to the kitchen.
Finally, I went with the Butter Poached Monkfish ($26) and my wife tried the Roasted Chicken Breast ($24). Monkfish is one of my favorites: a sustainable and local fish whose gruesome appearance belies its fabulous taste. I’m not ashamed to admit I don’t love cleaning these beasts, but I adore eating them. Mine was on a cold celeriac applesauce with wilted chard. Accompanying was a garnish of sliced cucumber and radish that gave some bite. The celeriac applesauce was light and fresh, clearly articulating both flavors. The chard was remarkable: slightly sweet, even rich.
This pattern was repeated with my wife’s chicken. Advertised as a breast, this was happily a half chicken over farro, with wilted spinach paired with a cranberry sauce. Once again, a solid chicken preparation came alive in a well-executed combination. The accompanying spinach and the cranberry mostarda were integral. Cranberry sauce, especially this time of year conveys something very familiar. However this was an unexpected and delicious take, with the tartness of the cranberries still present, but far more interesting with really deep flavor.
Finally, our Churros ($8) transported me back to Argentina. Dulce de leche is practically the national condiment, peeking out from under every pastry, lurking in every lick of ice cream. Their churros are no exception. Churros are a simple thing, almost a street food, but the Statesman’s extra care here made for the best I’ve ever had, and that was before dipping them in the delicious mole. The fluted ridges on the churros formed a perfect crust, and the interior was perfectly moist. The combination of sauces was a delight, in one pot the sweet dulce, in the other a spicy pumpkin mole.
While we may have begun by comparing two very different sauces and two different restaurants, it’s fitting we ended by contentedly double dipping. The Statesman doesn’t look to fit into anyone else’s shoes. Instead, it is striking out with a real sense of unified purpose, in design, in service and on the plate.
31 State Street, Bristol