11/04/2014 10:58 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

If You Must Eat Brunch, Do it at Nick's in Providence

Million Dollar Critic

Providence began for me at the very beginning, at Joe Marzilli's Old Canteen in the famous Italian district of Federal Hill, centre of the indigenous blue-collar eating scene and traditional home of the local Mob. Things are a bit different now, of course. But even today, when I asked an elderly Italian guy for directions and a gang of noisy youths on motorbikes came by, revving their engines and being abusive to pedestrians, he narrowed his eyes and said, "Once upon a time, we wudda sorted dose guys out for good."

"Sorted?" I asked.

"Sorted," he said.

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Nobody sorts anybody out here anymore, but other traditions die harder. At the Old Canteen I had my first sea snail salad, the traditional dish of this city... and survived. I also had great Merluzzo fish and the signature osso buco. And, best of all, I got to take part in a real live Italian American christening party and share the delicious wandies that have been served at such gatherings for centuries.

But Providence is not all about tradition, it's the only city I've been to where a rapidly expanding restaurant scene (due in part to the huge student population here) is actually driving the economy out of recession, rather than merely following it.

There are super-hip joints like North, where they donate almost all their profits to feeding the homeless. The Asian fusion cooking was quite brilliant, but service was diffident and everyone was just a bit too cool for school.

There was Los Andes, a bumping Peruvian/Bolivian joint where the waiter was so enthusiastic I thought he was going to eat my food himself. And then possibly cry. And then there was the Dorrance, a handsome and well located restaurant that was struggling to relive former glories but serving food too casual for the majesty of the dining room.

In the end I surprised myself by deciding to give my Million Dollar Review to Nick's on Broadway where I had really only popped in for a quick brunch.

Brunch. A horrible word. A clumping, ugly, muddy, sweaty portmanteau made from two perfectly good words that were all we ever needed to describe the meals we eat between sunup and sundown. A sort of replacement meal for hungover hipsters who have woken up too late for breakfast after a big night out and want to deal with their hangovers by getting drunk all over again in the presence of some eggs.

Still, if you're going to eat brunch, it should be in a place like Nick's: big and airy, beautifully clean and shiny with its red tiles and expanses of metal ducting (good ventilation is crucial when your frying food for a lot of people who do not feel 100 per cent of their best), lively and attentive service, ambitious cocktail list, and terrific, crisp, fresh food. There's even a vinyl store next door, through whose outdoor stacks you can pretend to rifle while waiting for a table, to endorse your retro-muso-hisptero-youthful credentials.

I ordered a pretty straight breakfast of coffee, granola and a plain omelette, but Derek Wagner, the chef proprietor, suspecting (possibly correctly) that I would find it hard to give my "million dollar review" to a spot of breakfast, sent out some dishes from his evening menu. A cheap trick. But it worked. Because they were phenomenal.

There was a wonderful beef heart and shank terrine with a sort of marmalade of bone marrow and red onion; a beautifully arranged dish of raw local fluke (which is a kind of flounder) dressed with a little fresh citrus, herbs and wafers of radish that was so fresh, so lively, so captivatingly coloured as to be a sort of ballet on a plate; and then the tour de force: a cassoulet of pork and lamb with a perfect poached egg on the top which, because he had sweetened the cassoulet with wine, enabled the different elements to bond very positively and create a sort of joke -- a very delicious joke -- about traditional breakfasts of sausage or bacon, egg and beans.

Overall, the cooking was superb. It was creative but restrained, modest and pretty, using terrific fresh ingredients. There was a wonderful atmosphere and above all a sense that on that Sunday morning there was nowhere else in Providence, Rhode Island, that you could possibly rather be.

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