You can almost chart the story of the West Side from the menus on offer at 490 Rhode Island St., two blocks west of Richmond Avenue. ¶ Romanello’s Roseland (c. 1928-2005) was an Italian red-sauce landmark whose core audience was Italian families from surrounding neighborhoods. Prime 490 (2006-2012) offered a luxe steakhouse menu, but it faded as Buffalo’s banker population dwindled. ¶ What can three-month-old Providence Social tell us about the neighborhood that also is home to Left Bank? That it’s worth investing in, for one. The building has been spiffed up with a new facade, a custom neon sign done in retro marquee style and a sidewalk gas lantern. Still no website, though.
Inside there’s a sleek barroom and stained-glass windows of the Buffalo skyline, then a dining room with deep, six-person booths and tables. For all the care that went into selecting cool lighting fixtures, I’d have hoped for brighter bulbs. We armed ourselves with flashlights against the dimness.
The menu emphasizes small plates, 17 choices with usual suspects like lobster mac and cheese ($11), tuna tartare ($12), beef carpaccio ($12), chicken wings ($6) and a few off-speed pitches, like “Westside” pork belly with plantains ($10), roasted bone marrow with tomato-bacon jam ($12), French onion soup repackaged into fried wontons and beef jus for dipping ($9). There also were a few salads and six entrees.
The post-Prohibition feel, played up with details like a sliding peephole in the front door, carries over to the drink menu. A lineup of $10 custom cocktails seems de rigueur these days, even if the price makes it more likely drinkers taste a splash of regret. The West Ferry (Bacardi, lemon juice, chartreuse, honey syrup, bitters) was refreshing with a smoky note from the honey, but the smoke from the single malt whiskey in the Grant (plus Fernet Branca, house-made sour, mint) overshadowed all else.
We took the sharing suggestions seriously and ordered too much food. Before it arrived the server brought a stemmed goblet bristling with strips of homemade cracker as long as my arm. Eye-catching for sure, but the crackers were bland and the ramekin of herbed oil didn’t help. It got me thinking about the tension between showmanship and craftsmanship, the balance between form and substance, always an interesting subject at places that pride themselves in pretty food.
Take that French onion soup dish. It had two fried dumplings full of caramelized onions, arranged around a crispy foccacia toast slice and adorned with melted cheese, a beef broth dipper on the side. The form was clever, but the flavor was average, and most of the cheese ended up stuck to the dish.
Raspberry chipotle chicken wings ($6) were just average. Sweet but lacking spice.
The pulled pork-stuffed Redneck Eggrolls ($9), were presented standing on end like deep-fried spires. While satisfying and ungreasy, they didn’t create much of a stir. Duck Nachos ($9) did, our eaters murmuring their appreciation for duck confit, avocado pico de gallo, cheese and lime cream on crisp fried wontons.
The roasted bone marrow was fine, beef-butter at its most basic, but the tomato bacon jam provided to smear on the crisp crostinis was a striking amalgam of acid and smoke, one of the night’s most memorable flavors.
Tender pork belly was crisped before being doused in a beguiling spicy-sweet sauce of citrus and Frank’s Red Hot. The plantains underneath were firm, not soft and sweet, like my favorite Puerto Rican versions, but the dish was still successful.
A Shroom Stack ($11) failed to excite. The portobello caps were fried crunchy, but the final result layered with lettuce and cheese was bland even with its balsamic drizzle. The Not Your Ordinary Hummus ($8), flavored with Asian sesame oil and studded with whole black beans, seemed like feudin’ cuisine, not fusion.
The Lamb Sliders ($9) were my favorite. The patties were juicy inside and lightly charred outside, the tzatziki puckery and scented with dill, and the sweet buns were well toasted.
Among our entrees, a well-fried catfish filet over smoky, smooth grits ($18) was a blast of Southern comfort but overly chewy greens brought the plate down. The Social Pork ($24) had pork loin atop red cabbage and pulled pork mixed with soft potatoes. I could taste Chinese five-spice mixture in the pork, but overall it was meekly flavored, except for the incongruous wasabi peas. The fish in the Shrimp Stuffed Sole ($23) was mild and flaky, but what I liked most was the pesto potatoes underneath it and the crispy enriched breadcrumbs it wore.
Our favorite dessert was the Double Iced Carrot Cake ($7), robustly spiced cake topped with sauteed sweet carrot strands. A crème brûlée “tasting trio” of one tablespoon apiece left me feeling shortchanged at $5. The “Chocolate Fantasy: flourless chocolate torte, chocolate mousse, dark chocolate chip gelato” ($7) was three scoops on a plate, one dry and crumbly, leaving an impression that was less than fantastic. For the Raspberry Balsamic Cheesecake ($8), chocolate whipped cream was topped with a disc of cake, with vinegar reduction drizzle. The vinegar-chocolate-raspberry-dairy combination ended the meal on a sour note.
In the end, though, I’d rather see a menu that’s trying to challenge diners, even if some attempts fall flat.
Providence Social is a well-appointed room for socializing, a credit – and an asset – to its neighborhood. If the attention to detail that went into its decor is reflected in its still-developing cuisine, it could make its own mark at 490 Rhode Island.