If restaurant years were the equivalent of dog years, 5-year-old Sand Point Grill would be beyond angst-ridden adolescence, past the tentative 20s and approaching middle age, content to be what it is: the neighborhood's dining-room table.
This is a come-as-you-are sort of place, which might mean a crisp white shirt and navy blazer or a Little League uniform, a fancy jogging outfit or mismatched sweats. The owners may greet you wearing shorts. One of them, Andrew Walsh or Scott MacFarlane, will likely be at the door. If not, a server is quick to invite you to choose a seat, quick with a menu, quick with the offer of something to drink. One senses it's the rare customer they haven't seen before.
Patrons make themselves at home: A guy ties his prancing retriever outside the front door while he has a beer; a couple park their baby stroller at a table, pop open a jar of Gerber's and feed Junior before turning to the menu. As for that cozy table in the back with the reserved sign, it might really be booked, or just waiting for a party of six to arrive unannounced.
Those who aren't captivated by the TV screen in the bar will be diverted by fresh flowers, the antics of small children and the art: big, bold abstract canvases opposite sharply focused black-and-white photos on walls the color of peach ice cream that flatter everyone from nanas to newborns.
The food has less verve than it used to, but the menu still has broad appeal. It resists categorizing dishes as either appetizer or main course. Taking a cue from the seasons, it veers toward comfort food, be it plain fried chicken ($16) or a fancy raviolo — pork, tangy black olives and parsnips between pliant pasta sheets bathed lavishly in truffle butter ($9).
Dinner here can be a big deal, or just a big bowl of mussels ($6) glistening in saffron and rosemary cream; a burger and fries, or a Roquefort-laden beet, frisée and watercress salad ($6). Make a meal by pairing and sharing, or zero in on hearty entrees featuring chicken, steak, chops and seafood. Not even once-a-week regulars are likely to get bored.
That said, they flip a lot of burgers here. You'll know why after hoisting one, juicy and tartar-sauced, topped with bacon and cheddar on a sesame-seed bun ($9). The peppery fries are good, too. They are also available as a side on their own, along with things like sautéed spinach, polenta and grilled asparagus (all $4).
Asparagus is all over the menu at the moment. Grilled spears frame citrus-dressed watercress and frisée studded with chevre ($7), and garnish a bounteous antipasto platter ($14). An ideal starter for the whole table, this Mediterranean hit parade features white Spanish anchovies and marcona almonds, prosciutto and chorizo, manchego and quince paste, chevre and tapenade, fresh mango and apple slices, and marinated olives and peppers. Thick slabs of toasted bread obviate the need to reach for mediocre offerings in the breadbasket.
Steamed asparagus stalks even sprout from a plate of buttermilk fried chicken, supported by leg, thigh and breast and a mound of mashed potatoes. The bird's crusty exterior is a deep golden brown, its sinews running with juice. Warming the plate would prevent the pale country gravy (in need of a little salt and pepper) from congealing before it reaches the table.
The fried calamari ($9) and the sweet-potato tostada ($11) are good nibbles to pair with a "Cosmo Kramer" (vodka, triple sec, lime and cranberry juice, $7), especially the lightly breaded, supple squid, flash-fried and served with cilantro, watercress and fresh greens, all enhanced by a kicky jalapeño-lime dipping sauce. The tostada captures a little bit of Thanksgiving on a crunchy corn tortilla that is nearly buried under diced sweet potato, onion and carrot sautéed in a piquant red-pepper sauce. Topped with fresh pico de gallo, it's substantial enough to be dinner.
Traditional entrees explore diversity with mixed results. Tomato and caper salsa lends much needed excitement to chunks of albacore tuna bedded on creamy polenta ($18). A mildly seasoned "jerk" pork chop ($18) comes with zesty fennel-and-red-onion slaw and "fagioli," small white beans baked in a tomato sauce sadly lacking bravado.
The rib-eye ($22) is an entree in need of an editor. Surrounded by chunks of roasted butternut squash, grilled portobello slices, balsamic glazed onions, truffled mashed potatoes and chimichurri sauce, the steak is so crowded you can almost hear it yelling: "Get me outta here." Delete the harsh chimichurri (minced herbs dominated by rosemary), hold the truffle oil, caramelize those onions and take the meat off the fire a little sooner, and this would be a dynamite dish.
Still, people don't want to eat like that all the time, hence the steady stream of burgers, calamari, fried chicken, pasta and fresh salads emerging from this kitchen — not to mention bowls of classic macaroni and cheese destined for the small fry.
Chefs come and go at Sand Point Grill, and they are allowed their creativity, but the restaurant doesn't lose sight of whom they're feeding every night: neighbors and friends.
Providence Cicero: email@example.com