James Mark is listening to Joy Division on the radio while he pounds lemongrass and galangal (aka Siamese ginger). Pig skins are boiling on the stove. He tweets: “It’s going to be a rad day.”
Since August I’ve been following Mark on Twitter, where he posts a slightly different menu almost every day. He bristles when called a chef, so let us just say he is one of the cooks at north, where Ama's used to be, at Luongo Memorial Square in the West End of Providence. (Yes, north is lowercase.) Fans were sad to hear that Ama’s suddenly closed, and the business was sold to Mark and two friends, John Chester and Tim Shulga. Previously, Mark spent a few years at Nicks on Broadway, some time at The Red Fez, and before all that a grueling stint at Momofuku Ko with the legendary David Chang in New York. At north, Mark’s food is a mix of Cambodian and Guatemalan fare with regional Ameri- can food thrown in for fun. It sounds like Mark and friends are cooking what they like to eat, and they’re inviting all of us to give their sometimes strange food a try.
In its first month, the unusual menu featured lots of seafood – whole fried scup with tortillas, a green curry lobster roll, pork and clams in coconut milk, and oysters galore – and no more than a dozen items total on any given day. “We keep our menu small and rotating so that as cooks we stay passionate about it,” Mark wrote in one of his many online commentaries. “And passionatecooks make better tasting food.“
Current appetizers include oysters on the half shell and paper-thin slices of Country Ham ($12). On our first visit we had the Finchville country ham. The succulent moist shreds were served with airy baguette slices and a charred miso mayo. On our next visit, we had Newsom’s country ham, thin slices of smoky, salty American pork. That night we also tried General Tsao’s Chicken Wings ($9) with crispy broccoli, soy and garlic. For the main course, there are two or three “large plates” which are enough for two to three people to share. These chicken, pork and seafood entrees are just under $40, but again large enough to share, which brings the per-person price back down to a reasonable level.
One night we tried the Twice-Cooked Pork Redang’d, a stuffed pork shoulder in a red curry sauce, served on a bed of charred long beans with biscuit rounds on top of the sauce. We loved it and ate quite a bit, still managing to take a full portion home to enjoy the next day. The second night, we shared the Twice Cooked Pork Malaysian Style with the same accompaniments. This was my absolute favorite dish, and I could not stop dunking the flaky biscuits into the mild red curry sauce.
We also sampled the Whole Fried Chicken served in pieces with biscuits, braised greens and squash. When they say “whole,” they mean it. Even the deep-fried chicken neckwas served and nibbled on. Most of the chicken was well cooked and not the least bit greasy, but the legs could have done with another minute or two in the deep fryer.
The bowls to share include all kinds of unusual dishes, my favorite being the Squash Salad ($9) with its sourdough croutons and Thai basil, dressed with vinegar and nuoc nam (Vietnamese fish sauce).
I was excited to see the Oyster Po’boy ($8 for a half sandwich, $14 for a full) on the menu. I’ve been in love with oyster po’boys ever since I savored one at Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant in New Orleans many years ago. That set a very high standard. At north, the fried-until-golden oysters were fine but lost in the layers of flavors. The late-summer tomato slice was abundantly ripe and flavorful. The lettuce was fresh and crisp. But the sliced pickle was unnecessary. I would have preferred a much softer bread slathered with industrial strength mayo.
But dessert turned my frown upside down. The densely flavored Palm Sugar Ice Cream and Roasted Pina Sorbet ($6) was sprinkled with roasted coconut and topped with coconut vinegar – just savory enough to balance off the intensely sweet base. The Strange Shape Buttermilk Donut ($8) begged to be eaten with a good cup of coffee. On the side were fresh and pickled fruits, for a little added crunch.
North has a bar but offers only the suggested drinks of the night, so don’t go if you’re craving a Cosmo. (The staff at The Dorrance and Tini offered input on the north cocktail menu back in August.) Recent options were a subdued Rico Hola, a mix of tequila, lemon and mint, and the Red Wine and Coca-Cola.
So the word is out that a team of experimental young cooks have taken over the space formerly called Ama’s. The foodies of Providence have been stopping in to check things out, As one of these food experts said, north is strange but special. They are doing something very different here, and it is quite wonderful.