From the kitchen of Chef Benjamin Sukle, the two-time James Beard Award Finalist for Best Chef: Northeast and the people of the nationally renowned Birch came Oberlin Restaurant. The idea behind the second restaurant opening in 2016 centered on making even more versatile use of local ingredients provided by local purveyors in a casual setting.
186 Union St.
Providence, RI 02903
Service and Atmosphere
Like Birch, Oberlin is intimate though not quite as small. The open kitchen gives a rustic feel while the different types of seating (bar, high top, tables) create variety in the dining room. Some of the tables are small though, which makes maneuvering multiple dishes a bit difficult at times. In warmer weather the large windows of the restaurant open allowing fresh air inside.
The service is generally impeccable and friendly though not without the occasional hiccup that comes from a busy restaurant. We did experience some odd pacing to our meal where a few dishes came out almost back-to-back while others took a long time to arrive. Nonetheless, a little creative maneuvering of the plates and we barely noticed.
Oberlin serves small plates for the most part with some of the dishes more substantial than others. The concept promotes sharing and trying a variety of dishes. It also means going to the restaurant with people you are comfortable sharing with.
More often than not, I loathe tapas and small plate restaurants due to the often mediocre food served in even more mediocre portions. Oberlin, however, is an exception to my unofficial rule. The quality of the dishes that use fresh, local ingredients and the comfortable atmosphere far outweigh my usual reservations.
Olives and Sourdough Bread – This dish sounds mundane, but it isn’t. It includes quality olives mixed with marinated peppers and basil. The basil really kicked the flavors up a notch and revealed how well that combination with olives works. The olives paired excellently with fresh, crispy sourdough. A perfect savory appetizer that was both filling and delicious.
Raw Fish and Mussels – Unable to decide between the raw fish options, we chose the “Surprise Combo” where the chef chooses three. We received Fluke, Scup, and Mussels as our combo.
The Fluke made our night as the best item we ate. The fresh fish shined in both texture and flavor with just a mild dressing of olive oil, parsley, and soy. Just wonderful.
The Scup also tasted quite delicious with a zesty kick of chili powder. The lemon gave the scup a classic taste of oceanside seafood while the mild olives varied the texture.
The Mussels featured a light marinade, garlic, chive, chili and sweet potato chips. The preparation was very nice and the mussels themselves were tasty, but I didn’t really care for the sweet potato chips as a pairing. Though they tasted good, I felt a little put off by the mussels because so many of them had large pieces of grit or shell in them. We would chew, but suddenly hear and feel a loud crunch that honestly made me worry about chipping my teeth. We were more careful after that, but it still felt a bit like playing the mussel version of Russian Roulette.
Beef Tartare With a Duck Fat Crepe – Generally, I love steak tartare, but for the weakest dish of the night, I’d pick this one. The presentation fell flat for me as the unattractive duck fat crepe completely covered the plate. Our server told us to crack through the brittle crepe and we did, only to find a somewhat mushy mess of beef underneath.
I’ve never had a crepe made in this manner before, so either this is a new method of making crepes I’m unfamiliar with or it’s not a crepe. The “crepe” had the consistency of very thin, very toasted pita bread or Indian papadum. The charred flavor, dry consistency, and texture didn’t really work for me, but my wife liked it, so it’s a preference I guess.
The beef itself seemed like a crumbly mush seasoned with lemon. I didn’t really care for the texture or flavors there either. That didn’t stop me from eating it, but it just fell short for me. With that said, it was creative at least, so I don’t regret trying it and that is part of the experience. You may not like every dish, but it’s fun getting to try something new.
Anellini Squid – Another first for me, I’d never tried Annelini like this before. It’s normally a small ring shaped pasta, but Oberlin served a larger version with a twisted swirl throughout the ring. Cooked to a perfect al dente, the pasta mimicked the rings of calamari tossed together in a spicy sauce. I found it a visually clever pairing of ingredients.
Potato Gnocchi and Braised Duck – Easily my second favorite dish of the night followed by the Fluke. Another somewhat lackluster presentation, but completely forgivable due to the fantastic flavors. The delicate braised duck tasted rich and flavorful. The gnocchi had a pan fried exterior with a pillowy center as all great gnocchi should. Last, but not least, the broth swirled about featuring the essence of all of the ingredients with a touch of pepper. The breadcrumbs added a welcome variation in texture to the dish. I could and would have happily eaten this whole bowl myself.
Oberlin is a solid choice for anyone seeking fresh, creative, quality small plates in Providence, RI. It is versatile enough for a quick drink and light food or for an entire meal shared with friends. Each dish has unique flavors using local ingredients prepared in an expert manner by an award nominated chef and his staff. The overall casual yet still upscale experience makes for a great night out. It’s close proximity to the Providence Performing Arts Center make it an ideal stop before or after shows. I’d recommend Oberlin as one of the better restaurants in the Providence area for a night out.
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