Hotel restaurants tend to balance their multiple missions at some medium point on the spectrum, and those that strive to stand out as fine dining destinations know they have to offer something beyond the modest expectations of function-goers, travelers and conventioneers.
When the renovated historic President Hotel reopened under the Hilton flag in 2006, its Drum Room lounge and restaurant looked pretty good, but the restaurant operation never really caught fire. Now, the dining room has been made over once more. It’s got a pleasant, all-American vibe, and the results seem much more like a hit.
The restaurant — Providence, New American Kitchen — evokes a setting of warmth, with walls covered by wooden planks reclaimed from Missouri and Kansas barns. Stacked limestone accents, thick wooden beams, red leatherish benches and arts-and-crafts style lighting fixtures add to a feeling of Midwestern calm.
A graphic designer friend thought the place had a retro look: “It’s so 25 or 30 years ago,” she said, “but in a good way.”
The place does feel good. General manager Rick Brook, a veteran of Morton’s and the Hereford House, and executive chef Eric Carter, who has worked at the American Restaurant and elsewhere, have developed an attractive culinary formula based on both comfort and surprise. A significant key to their success: Their portfolio does not include catering and room service, so their focus is strictly on making Providence click.
“We’re very lucky,” Brook told me by phone the other day. “We have a distinct kitchen that’s just ours. We owe that to the ancientness of the hotel.”
That may also explain why the menu prices at Providence seem reasonable and lower than your typically marked-up hotel rates. Numerous entrees are available for under $20, and the dinner menu includes only two dishes that go beyond $30 — beef tenderloin with lobster ($32) and a dry aged Kansas City strip ($38.50).
Lunch and dinner menus are built around a variety of homespun tastes and standard fare given contemporary treatments — a pan-seared rainbow trout comes with small discs of lobster sausage and a bacon broth; a dish of short ribs is braised in Boulevard Brewing Co.’s Bully Porter. The restaurant aims for as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, Brook said.
At lunch one day, my vegetarian friend, The Mensch, went straight for the most classic of comfort foods: a velvety tomato bisque, with little pools of oil drizzled like paint on the surface, and a grilled cheese sandwich. The latter blended three white cheeses — Gruyere, white cheddar and a regionally made St. André — oozing between two hearty slices of white bread.
“This is the best damned grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had,” my friend told our server, “and I’m a connoisseur of grilled cheese sandwiches.”
My lunch that day (a Restaurant Week special) was pretty fine, too: a cup of that simple tomato bisque and a bowl of braised pork cheeks — four tender and savory pieces — served over a white bean ragout.
At dinner, my usual companion, She Who Is Not Easily Pleased, went straight for the Truman-hattan, a bitters-heavy take on the classic cocktail, whose dusky, adult qualities we both liked a lot.
We’d hoped to start our meal with bison carpaccio, a nod to regionalism if there ever was one, but we were disappointed to learn the kitchen had just run out. We aimed instead for some Latinized tastes, ordering ahi tuna tacos and a roasted vegetable tamale.
Carter gives the tacos a typically inventive treatment by making his crispy shell from an Asian-style scallion pancake. A light and creamy dollop of guacamole and a tangy slaw sat alongside the three tacos, adding up to an excellent dish with multiple layers of flavor and texture. The steamed corn tamale — it’s normally a veggie entree, but we shared it as an appetizer — was also light and flavorful, enhanced by roasted mushrooms and a tomatillo sauce.
Among other entrees, a Scottish salmon came in a shallow bowl with mussels and shrimp, all served over a medley of orzo, fennel and grape tomatoes. The salmon — really Scottish, not farmed Atlantic, Carter told me — was cooked a shade too firm for our tastes. It’s not quite perfect, said our friend, Graphic Girl, but overall the dish was quite satisfying and impressive.
I ordered the “Providence cut” filet, a 6-ounce cut of steak that proved to be tender, but surprisingly a little bland. I craved some salt, which helped perk up the remaining bites. On the side were nicely al dente green beans and a rough-cut of mashed potatoes, by which I mean the pureed spuds were mixed with skins and some larger pieces of unmashed fingerlings.
She Who stared down the Nebraska bison “steak egg,” which came out topped not only with a poached egg but also with a three-inch crown of lightly breaded and fried onion ring. The hanger cut was lean and tender, and a hash of root vegetables rounded out this substantial and eye-opening dish.
Desserts are equally stylish and seductive. We were taken with the carrot cake and its perfectly coiffed mascarpone frosting and by the ricotta doughnuts — three on the plate — served with small, spreadable mounds of key lime and white chocolate.
The adjacent Drum Room bar got less of a redo than the restaurant, but its new woody and sophisticated finish makes it a far more attractive and cozy spot than before. With very few locally bred operations in the Power Light District just a block a way, Providence and the Hilton President have now made a legitimate claim to your time and culinary attention in the neighborhood. From its rosemary-scented dinner rolls to the sweet kiss of dessert, we found it to be a genuine expression of Midwestern values. Maybe not heavenly, as its name suggests, but authentically down to earth.
Ahi tuna tacos,
Smoked tomato bisque,
Pan seared rainbow trout,
Grilled Scottish salmon,
Providence cut filet,
Nebraska Bison “Steak Egg,”