The Provincial keeps the menu fresh, simple
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 8/4/2016
The grilled bacon-wrapped peach that has been showing up of late on the seasonally evolving menu at The Provincial is, in a word, lush. Or, put another way, the presentation is restrained.
Wait! Before you call the food writer cops to suspend my license for using mutually exclusive terms to describe the same dish, let me explain.
The dish consists of just four ingredients, if I’m not mistaken, and the peach – a local variety at the perfumy peak of ripeness, the cut surface of each half caramelized in stripes of candy sweetness where it was seared on the grill – is clearly the star of the show. The bacon plays salty, crunchy percussion – softly, so as not to upstage the peach – and a finishing drizzle of mingled honey and balsamic vinegar harmonizes with notes as sweet and liquid as a flute.
The presentation is representative of the culinary philosophy of owner/chef Wayne Alcaide, which he expresses with fittingly poetic succinctness in his restaurant’s motto: “Fresh. Simple.” That’s a deceptively difficult promise to keep, as any chef will tell you. Paring a dish down to its essentials, reducing sauces and other adornments to a minimum, exposes even the tiniest flaw – the culinary equivalent, you might say, of walking the tightrope without a net.
Alcaide rarely stumbles. What’s more, he manages to accomplish this balancing act at surprisingly modest prices (generously portioned entrees average around $17) for a chef whose résumé includes restaurants and resorts from San Francisco to Las Vegas to Florida, three of them run by James Beard Award winners. Further adding to the degree of difficulty, Alcaide can always be counted on for an unexpected twist or two – without venturing outside his self-prescribed constraints of honest, uncomplicated food.
His onion rings are shoestring-thin and cornflour dusted, making for an exceptionally light – not to mention addictive – riff on an American classic. His house-smoked fish dip, brightened with lemon juice and zest, transforms the trimmings that every responsible chef must deal with into a dish worthy in its own right.
And what’s that hiding beneath the Farmers’ Market Salad’s colorful patchwork of heirloom tomatoes, grilled Silver Queen corn and arugula in a basil vinaigrette? Lightly breaded disks of eggplant, somehow still crispy under all that juicy goodness.
In addition to being a fine shareable starter, the fish dip is the first hint of the chef’s penchant for seafood. Fully half of his Big Plates are hauled from the water, much of it from Carolina shores.
“I’ve been getting some spectacular local tuna,” he says when asked about the Sriracha-marinated tuna poke tacos that have earned a justifiably strong following. He’ll also explain, to those mystified that the wild-caught catfish doesn’t taste “muddy” (as Southerners are taught from childhood), that these are not taken from river bottoms, but from the brackish waters of the Albemarle Sound.
His brown butter-basted N.C. flounder – a pair of irreproachably fresh and expertly seared filets, draped over a medley of summer vegetables – isn’t likely to elicit any questions. If anyone pauses long enough while devouring the dish to utter anything, it will surely be a muttering of appreciation.
The chef caters to landlubber tastes with the other half of the offering, including a grilled chicken breast that was served recently with whipped Yukon Gold potatoes and sautéed local greens. His Southern fried chicken sandwich takes a toothsome detour from the boneless breast main road, featuring dark meat (also boneless) in a crunchy batter.
Missteps are infrequent and generally minor. The fries that accompanied the chicken sandwich could have been crisper. Lamb chops were properly seasoned and accurately grilled to order, but when cut oozed a puddle of bloody juices that betrayed a lack of the rest period that’s essential before serving.
At the other end of the food chain, it’s disappointing – and surprising, in light of the chef’s philosophy – to note that the entree offering doesn’t include a single option for vegetarians.
Anyone with a sweet tooth, on the other hand, will be amply rewarded by desserts made by Alcaide’s wife, Kristyna. Especially the walnut-studded Caribbean rum cake, set in a puddle of caramel and topped with whipped cream.
Located in a circa 1906 building in downtown Apex, The Provincial’s spare furnishings make the most of inherited period details – molded tin ceilings, exposed brick walls – to create a casual contemporary bistro setting that’s well-matched to the food. Locals will recognize the space as the former home of Rock Harbor Grill – and before that, a string of at least a half dozen other short-lived restaurants since Carley’s on Salem flourished some 15 years ago. Looks like the space has finally found a tenant that will be around for a good long while.
119 N. Salem St., Apex; 919-372-5921
Cuisine: contemporary American
Prices: Entrees $11 to $25
Atmosphere: casual contemporary bistro
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly, occasional lapses in attentiveness
Recommended: bacon-wrapped peach, Farmers’ Market Salad, tuna poke tacos, flounder, Caribbean rum cake
Open: Lunch Saturday, dinner Wednesday-Monday, brunch Sunday
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in lot behind the restaurant.