The Barstow opened in November on Allens Avenue, converting the former Cactus Grille space into an airy haven for finer dining. The restaurant’s catchy name comes from an 1800s stove manufacturer, once less than two miles away in Providence’s Jewelry District.
The Barstow’s cocktail list is creative and seasonal. I started with the eponymous The Barstow ($8), a light and approachable mixture of applejack, fennel and bubbly. My husband had the Winter’s Edge ($8), made with mezcal, muddled bing cherries and hellfire bitters. It evoked winter without the usual heaviness of a cold-weather cocktail, the mezcal contributing smokiness without the heft of a darker spirit.
To accompany our cocktails, we ordered a few selections from the Snacks menu. The snacks are reasonably priced, almost all in the $2 to $3 range, and most are easy to share. We chose the Crispy Onions & Crème Fraîche ($3), the Stuffed Pepper, String Cheese, Fennel ($3) and Fried Smelts & Remoulade ($4). Both the smelts and the onions were perfectly fried, light and crispy. These were both appropriate for sharing. We knew splitting the stuffed pepper would be more difficult, but the flavor combination was too good to pass up. On a previous visit, the Seared Feta & Cornmeal Crackers ($3) was a huge hit at our table.
Our server, Malcolm, gave us a warm welcome and a thorough tour of the menu. The varied plate sizes, from snacks to larger entées, allow diners the opportunity to have a traditional dinner or an informal tapas-style experience. For this reason, it’s especially important to have knowledgeable staff who can make recommendations on the size and “sharability” of the dishes, which aren’t always obvious from menu descriptions.
About half of the dinner menu’s dishes are under $10, and currently all are below $20, affordable for food of this quality and attention to detail. We decided to order four smaller dishes. Of these, our favorite was the Stuffed RI Squid ($8). The squid’s mantle (the large, oblong part of the body) was stuffed with chorizo and grilled, then served with a mustard cream and garnished with shards of fried leek. The Parmesan Beet Tart ($8.50) was one of several creative vegetarian options. A rectangular polenta cake was topped with slices of red and golden beets and topped with the same fried crispy onions we enjoyed with our cocktails. The RI Lamb Stew ($8) had a dark, rich broth, white beans, lamb and tiny cubes of root vegetables. One of the night’s specials piqued our interest – a salad with smoked roasted parsnips and apples ($8). We found that it was less like a salad and more of a satisfying vegetable entrée. The meatiness of the smoked parsnips contrasted with the soft cooked apples, and a plating with spiced golden raisin and lentil purée, chili oil and large-grained mustard added to the diverse textures of this vegetable tapestry. We chose from the well-curated rotating beer list, savor- ing a Duchesse de Bourgogne ($9) and Scaldis Noël, both from Belgium, as well as a Pretty Things’ Jack D’Or ($6).
Reasonable portion sizes left just enough room for dessert. The Chocolate Cake ($7) was a small cake filled with cardamom cream and topped with meringue. This adorable “mushroom” was surrounded by a pool of green tea and pieces of candied citrus. It was a visually appealing dessert but probably the weakest part of a good meal; we found it difficult to deconstruct and though the tastes were intriguing – the “chocolate cake” moniker created expectations of a classic instead of eclectic dessert. The Chocolate Cherry Sorbet ($2.50) was fantastic, a hefty scoop of homemade sorbet with an exceptional texture and flavor.
The Barstow’s space has an advantage over many other Providence-area restaurants. Its relatively large size, dedicated lot and abundant street parking make it a good place to meet for cocktails or a meal, even with larger groups. The bar seating is supplemented with several high tables, including a larger communal bar table. The dining area has smaller tables and booths, and a back function room can be reserved for events. An outdoor patio will be a welcome addition in warmer months.
Chef Michael McHugh was most recently at Julian’s on the West Side after lending his talent to several other Providence restaurants. This new venture will give McHugh’s proven creativity a chance to blossom even more. The Barstow and its neighbor What Cheer Tavern, which opened a year earlier, also have the potential to turn this little strip of Allens Avenue into a haven for those of us south of downtown who enjoy good food and drink.