Earth and Ocean
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 29, 2009

An upscale restaurant in an upscale hotel is disadvantaged in ways that give the advantage to us. It's pressed to make a first-class impression, what with potentially furrowed brows on hotel management, and guests not reluctant to express disappointment. So Aspire, in the Hotel Providence, is on the spot — three times a day, since it serves breakfast and lunch as well as dinner. Judging from our recent visit, that's not a problem.

ASPIRE | 401.521.333 | 31 Westminster St., Providence | | Sun -Thurs 7 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 7 am-10 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level accessible

It opened last May, replacing L'Epicureo, which didn't do well after its ambitious move from Federal Hill three years before. The decor is more relaxed nowadays. The beautiful, massive, cloth-enclosed crystal chandeliers remain, but everything else is more subdued. Thoughtful design greets the eye wherever it lands. Even the salt and pepper shakers and cream pitchers are graceful objects. The chairs at tables are well-padded, high-backed and all have armrests — at most restaurants, you're lucky to get two out of three.

But enough of background matters. A restaurant with impressive ambience and unimpressive food is an empty box. The menu here isn't large, but it is well chosen. Three soups and three salads, for example, bracket most appetites and taste preferences. New England clam chowder is for the traditionalists, Gruyere-topped three-onion soup for the especially hungry, and roasted pumpkin and butternut squash soup, laced with brandy and crème fraîche, for the imaginative. Seven appetizers are listed as small plates, distinguished from twice that many main dish large plates, including the evening's special.

Nearly two-dozen wines are offered by the glass, and several by the half-bottle. A split of Lunetta prosecco, only $8, provided each of us a glass of bubbly taste bud awakening. We continued with what were listed as traditional Johnny Blue mussels ($10), choosing that among the four shellfish choices, over the New Bedford-style mussels, with chorizo. They were small but plentiful, the white wine and broth doused with a splash of cream in addition to the added garlic and shallots. Sprigs of thyme on top and three slices of grilled bread protruding from beneath completed the display. Needless to say, we enjoyed more than looking at it.

The bread basket came with a small bowl that contained what looked like balsamic vinegar under the oil. But it was a cranberry and port wine reduction — sweetly ingenious.

The array of appetizers, most $10-$12, contained numerous interesting temptations to consider, such as ahi tuna tartare accented with caviar, and spring rolls containing Fuji apple and Napa cabbage with Long Island duck. Our helpfully informative waitress, April, suggested the house-made chicken ravioli, which had such ingredients as Gorgonzola and sage-walnut cream going for it. But our appetites were modest, so we just split a Caesar salad ($8), which had a white anchovy draped on each portion, and which was just the right quantity for two.

The large plate choices are listed under "Earth" and "Ocean." Being an earthy sort myself, my attention gravitated to the Berkshire pork chop ($27), which involved pear and pancetta, as well as candied walnuts and sage cream, a combination worth ordering just to satisfy my curiosity. There was also pork osso bucco ($27) and veal Bolognese ($22), the cutlet served over orecchiette pasta with red sauce.

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