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XO returns, emphasizing farm-to-table dining

By Bruce Newbury
Providence Business News | May 23-29, 2011 | Workforce

XO Café

Bruce Newbury

Ten years ago, a farmer called on a restaurant located in the closest city to his farm Would the restaurant’s chef be interested in purchasing his fresh produce? “The restaurant owner looked at me like I was crazy,” the farmer said. “It did not go well.”

At around the same time, the restaurant that became known as XO was establishing itself on the emerging restaurant scene in Providence.

It is fitting that at the meeting of the rivers in providence, there has been another convergence. XO Café has reopened at its original 125 North Main St. address to embrace the current philosophy of farm-to-table dining.

“When XO opened 14 years ago, it set the standard for dining in Providence,” said John Elkhay, chef and proprietor of XO and its parent company, Chow Fun Food Group. “With the encouragement of so many of our loyal guests, we are proud to bring this landmark restaurant back to the city with new and traditional flavors and even a familiar face or two.”

Many of the themes at XO have returned. The murals are back; in fact they never left. Elkhay calls the atmosphere of XO “seductive and playful.”

The menu reflects the ambience. The top of the first page of the menu lists dessert – on purpose. Elkhay and XO Executive Chef Simon Keating urge their guests to “order dessert first, because life is short.” Elkhay has even trademarked the phrase. The farm-to-table influence starts here with English Bread Pudding with caramel sauce and Hill Farm pear sorbet and Molten Chocolate Cake with Schartner Farm raspberry sorbet among the selections.

From lavish hotel restaurants to university cafeterias and even nursing homes, the push toward using local food is reaching something of a fever pitch. New chefs make friends with local farmers and producers even before they unpack their knives. “The trend of local sourcing has grown across the board over the last several years,” said Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C. “Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in what’s on their plate and where it comes from, and, in response, restaurants give them what they want.”

The association’s research shows that 69 percent of consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food.

XO is in the vanguard of the movement with a list of “Friends and Farms” that occupies the top fifth of one of its menu pages. Growers and purveyors from American Mussel Harvesters to Yacht Club Bottling Works, 21 local companies in all, are cited as ‘proudly supported local farms, fishermen, bakers, brewers and winemakers.”

Elkhay had a challenge in reincarnating XO. He would be put in the position of being at the helm of a heritage restaurant with its inherent benefits and drawbacks. Comparisons would inevitably be made to the original menu and décor. But a new generation which had no sense of history would be judging the restaurant by contemporary standards. He handled the situation deftly, in keeping with his self-titled of “maestro.”

There are plenty of classics on the new xo menu, going back even before XO’s time in INProve of the 1980s, where a young John Elkhay was wowing the narrow-tie-and-leather-pants crowd with his Bento Box – lobster wontons with Thai dipping sauce, beef teriyaki with soy sake, Portobello mushroom fries and crispy calamari with chipotle mayo. The original XO Caesar Salad and XO Filet with seared scallops, asparagus and macadamia nut butter are back. But now the scallops are from the Bomster Family in Stonington and the asparagus is from a local farm. There is Blackbird Farm beef tartare, Baffoni Farm roasted chicken, and spinach and mushroom ravioli stuffed with Narragansett Creamery ricotta.

XO’s culinary team is led by Executive Chef Simon Keating, a native of Devon, England, who brings more than 20 years of culinary experience. He was executive chef at the Woolacombe Bay Hotel in Devon. Upon arriving in the United States, Chef Keating was the chef and manager at L’Elizabeth in Providence.

The general manager of XO is Corey Delekta, who is a familiar face on the local restaurant scene having spent several years at Siena.

And the farmer who was turned away at that restaurant’s back door a decade ago? He has almost more customers than he can handle. Business is so good from chefs and restaurateurs that farms have had trouble keeping up with the demand. A middleman was needed and an organization called Farm Fresh Rhode Island has stepped up to fill the breach.

Also, several local chefs are forming a new chapter of Chefs Collaborative to organize the supply line from farm to table. And we who occupy the table have an exceptional, new-yet-classic experience to savor.

Bruce Newbury’s “Dining Out” food and wine talk-radio show is heard Saturdays and Sundays on WPRV-AM 790 and stations throughout New England. He can be reached by email at bruce@brucenewbury.com