The short version of the Randy Zweiban story goes like this: After a brief stint in New York and a long one in Miami (where he worked for, and eventually became partners with, Norman Van Aken), Zweiban was recruited by Lettuce Entertain You to head up the kitchen at Nacional 27. The restaurant was touted as the first Nuevo Latino restaurant in the city, and it was received warmly. Zweiban’s food (which pulled inspiration from 27 Latin and South American countries, hence the name) was bold and seductive, and the city swooned.
But ten years later, the menu was pretty much the same, and the restaurant was getting more attention for Adam Seger’s cocktails than its food. Whether the static state of things at Nacional was a product of Zweiban getting lazy or Lettuce’s reluctance to let him change the menu wasn’t clear when Zweiban left earlier this year to open his own restaurant. But after a couple of meals at Province, I’m inclined to point the finger at Lettuce (which has kept Nacional’s menu virtually untouched). Because it’s clear to me that Zweiban still has a lot of good, exciting food in him.
Not that his time at Nacional was a waste. One thing he seems to have taken away from the experience is the importance of a good cocktail. With Jeff Donahue (formerly a cocktailian at Nacional), Zweiban has built a small but solid list of tipples here, most of them classics with a Latin update. The “Setenta y Cinco” is the best of the list, a tart, pomegranate-spiked play on the French 75 that is an ideal accompaniment to one of Zweiban’s “bites”—the three amuse-bouche-sized dishes that top the menu. For $3 a bite, you might be skeptical, but the pork bocadillo, squash taquito and peekytoe crab toast have flavors big enough to be worth it.
Big is the key word here. Unlike Nacional’s pervasive Latin flavors, the cuisine at Province is truly American with hints of Latin flavors, aggressively seasoned and yet still sophisticated. In fact, when a dish disappoints it’s not because it’s bad, but because it can’t compete with the more aggressive food on the table. Next to the house-smoked sable ceviche, which has a wonderfully powerful smoky brininess, the fluke ceviche seems to lack excitement. Similarly, shrimp and grits pale in comparison to a blue-cheese fondue tempered slightly by sweet smoked onions and a taco filled with rich, oily tuna and fiery serrano-chile salsa.
Dishes from both the “big” and “bigger” sections of the menu (Don’t worry: The menu is not nearly as confusing as it sounds) were more consistent. Rabbit confit, shaped into a round cake and paired with a thick marcona-almond emulsion, exhibited the richness and savoriness that makes “umami” so indescribable. Slow-cooked salmon had a sumptuous texture that I’ve rarely encountered (but hope to again). The slow-roasted pork was good if a bit standard, but the slow-roasted lamb was a different story: paired with crumbled cornbread, eggplant and chorizo, it was a dish that grew on me with each bite, until I was completely smitten and the lamb was gone.
With the exception of a brilliant pear tart, dessert was the low point. Too-tart lemon yogurt overpowered a nice lemon pound cake; a stack of cocoa crisps and goat cheese didn’t exhibit either flavor to its advantage; and a trio of chocolate desserts proved sadly pedestrian. Knowing what Zweiban used to do with chocolate at Nacional, that latter dish was particularly disappointing. Still, he’s better off here, where his food has grown more intricate and more sophisticated—and where, no doubt, his chocolate will soon follow suit.