A Big King in Providence
A Restaurant Review in Six Delicious Acts
article by Johnathan Lovett
Something ceremonial hangs in the air tonight. It’s in our voices, our selfies, the way the night feels: It permeates our conversation with Miguel, our Uber driver. We tell him we’re new here, transplants from California. We’re venturing off College Hill for the first time to dine at a restaurant apparently so good it’s theatrical. We want to get to know this city—and tonight, Providence cloaks us in the smile of a host putting guests to ease.
We’re delivered at Luongo Square and Carpenter Street, which is tucked in Federal Hill’s breast pocket. The area is quaint and quiet, dotted with hip bars and eateries like the The Avery and Bucktown.
We’re early for our 8:15 p.m. reservation at the restaurant Big King, so we check out The Avery. Immediately we’re plunged into the bar’s jazzy, black-and-gold Art Deco. We imagine ourselves as 1920s flappers, saying everything is jake or we oughta get zozzled off some jag juice—but we don’t. Not yet, anyway.
We fork over seven bucks for a Mango En Fuego. The sweet Jarritos Mango Soda and piquant Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur, dashed with lime and poured over ice makes you feel how Baz Luhrmann would if his Gatsby scored twice as much on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, it tastes as if Monsieur Luhrmann directed each of our sips: The opulent sugar encounters the smoldering Ancho Reyes…they clash, then converge into a box office smash.
There is no clock tower anywhere near Federal Hill, but we convince ourselves we hear one. It strikes 8:15. We snap to attention and hopscotch over to Big King: Big King, the elusive. Big King, the second child of chef James Mark (after his first Providence restaurant, North).
Whatever imagery the restaurant’s name made us imagine, the actual Big King doesn’t match up. No bloated emperor’s palace or mattress store. Rather, Big King is the size of a bourgeois walk-in closet. It’s tiny, nonchalant, so indiscreet you have to double check on Maps that it’s the same place you spent 20 minutes talking about with your academic dean. Who is the Big King anyway?
We sit along the chef’s counter. It’s a polished, tan beachwood with granite slabs of ice, chained apart for either the fish’s sake or the customer’s.
Two set menus, A (four courses) and B (six), beckon to us. Scores of starters and sakes account for much of the menu, but we’re on a budget here. Telling each other we should probably do A, we choose B. Our savings weep. But this is the game of yes and that outsiders must play.
As dishes pass by, we come to learn Big King boasts atomic qualities. Though invisible from the outside, the restaurant’s four walls contain enough nuclear potential energy to obliterate all of Rhode Island (or at least, all future dining experiences within the state). Only a dramatic format can do justice to this food.
A Triumph in Six Acts
Dish one descends upon us: yellowtail sashimi with slivered cucumber and chives, paired with a pear sake sauce. Six opalescent, burgundy-mauve cuts of yellowtail lounge like chairs on the deck of a sailboat, yawning along the Baltic. Biting into one is diving into fresh morning ocean. We awaken. Things become lucid. We realize we’ve gotten into something bigger than ourselves. We’re fucked. And the pear sake sauce? This potion?
We enter catatonia briefly, not realizing we’re drooling like fools. But there’s no way the pear sake sauce could have gotten us tipsy. Or was it the sashimi? It doesn’t matter. That yellowtail was nuts.
ACT ONE AND A HALF
Out of nowhere appear two more pieces of yellowtail, cuts from the belly. Glassy skin spirals in segments, strung together over the rice bed. Several pieces of chive resemble tiny green crowns. Have we found the Big King? We wonder if this was mistakenly brought to us. Then we realize this dish is the work of a generous sushi chef. The restaurant must have pitied us for making all those whale noises during Act One. Indulging in this fish was falling into a deep, deep couch.
A green, yellow, and red tomato salad with fried tofu (marinated in green tomato vinegar), drizzled with sesame and holy basil buds arrives like a stark New Hampshire fall. Suspicious, we Google-image-search J. M. W. Turner to make sure he’s not our sushi chef. With this dish, our predilection for hyperbole soars up, up, up. More whale noises follow.
At this point a tall, Paul Bunyan-looking chef comes out with our next dish. He softly sets down the porcelain and proceeds to describe its contents in a low, dulcet baritone (think the lead singer of The National, delivering a lullaby). The audiobook industry could make a killing with this man.
Lying seductively upon the mountain of sweet corn and chives, sporting seaweed shavings hair, are two translucent cuts of judith, conditioned with more pear sake. Oh, Judith. You sassy fish. You didn’t stand a chance.
Two sets of skewered grilled chicken meatballs (tsukune) arrive. These babies are glazed with tare, a sweet and thick soy sauce with dashi vinegar and raw egg yolk served with a saucer filled with more tare and quail egg. Good lord.
Paired with dusk-colored crab head miso, a bowl of crab rice with fresh rock crab meat mingles with grilled scapes, itty bitty green tomatoes, and dashi. For some reason, we talk about this dish as if it were the child of our chef.
“It certainly has a good head on its shoulders, you must be so proud,” we’d say to him. “Your dish sure seems like it’ll go far”—which it did, deep into our esophagi.
Sadly, our sixth and final dish is upon us: a fried peach pie pocket with lava-flowing caramel, a sugar-dusted surface, and coffee ice cream plopped on top. We shovel the hot fried dough and gooey peaches down our gullets. Through Big King, we watch Providence open itself up, like a portal. Through this food, we are momentarily rid of our unfamiliarity and all of life’s ennui. We pay and leave, laughing into the night like two Big Kings, beginning to feel at home.