Things Are Getting Heated: But Avenue N stays cool

On September 4 Avenue N American Kitchen’s chef and owner, Nick Rabar, debuted as the host of “Heated,” a new television series produced by Rhode Island PBS. Not only did I want to call Nick immediately and ask to be part of the show — I mean, congratulate him — I also realized it has been far too long since I visited the Rumford establishment.

Avenue N is not a new restaurant. It’s been around since 2010, and if you do the math, calculating restaurant longevity like dog years, it’s equivalent to half a century. Nestled on the ground floor of a converted industrial building, the space is cozy, with bench seats surrounding a central bar. Exposed beams, a worn-brick interior and simple but stylish warehouse lighting are a nod to its past. 

Nick and his wife, Tracy, chose this location for Avenue N (which stands for “Newman,” the street the restaurant faces) because of the community. “I love Rumford,” Nick says. “Everyone here is genuine and sincere.” The Rabars also opened a second establishment next door, The Pantry, seven years ago: a small café and market that Nick describes as “pure local” because it stocks products from 150 local businesses. I know Rhode Islanders shy away from crossing bridges, but these restaurants are only a six-minute drive from Wayland Square in Providence and there’s free parking.

The night I visited, I invited a “genuine and sincere” local who dines at Avenue N weekly. She was helpful in pointing out her favorite dishes, but also acquiesced when I wanted to order items she hadn’t tried before. I qualified them as “research.” 

We began with cocktails. The problem was that I was caught in a seven-way tie, ie, their entire cocktail list. Usually I can eliminate drinks made with tequila, but the Southern Discomfort was made with jalepeño-infused tequila blanca, which I actually like. And I’m not typically moved by gin and tonic, but All the Racquet was made with Fevertree tonic, the only brand I’ll ever buy. What are you trying to do to me, Avenue N?

I deferred to our waitress’ recommendations. Since it was a cold day, she suggested None of Your Beeswax, with cinnamon bark-infused bourbon, honey and lemon. It was even garnished with real honeycomb. It was perfect. Karen ordered the Loft Collins, Tanqueray and grapefruit bitters, and she graciously gave me a sip. It was light and refreshing.

For food, we shared an embarrassment of riches: Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts, Crispy Walrus and Carpenter Oysters, Lobster and Chourico Empandas, Smoked Cauliflower and Sweet Potato Enchiladas, and a special Bibb salad topped with roasted red beets and candied butternut squash. I want to write an entire article on each dish because they were that good. I wondered for the second time, Why has it been so long since I visited?

I’ll highlight the first three dishes because they are fan favorites, and as Nick said jokingly, if he takes them off the menu, “the villagers will riot.” The Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts include tofu, chopped peanuts and a generous coating of spicy sauce, so much that the Brussels sprouts are seeped in flavor. It’s not for the faint of heart, but neither is it oppressively spicy. I definitely ate more than my half.

Fried oysters are always a surprise to me because growing up in the southwest, I never knew such things existed. Walrus and Carpenter oysters arrive fresh from Narragansett, so the starting material is top notch. They’re fried and paired with a horseradish mustard sauce. Add a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon, and it’s exquisite.

Lastly, the empanadas. This is a southwest favorite, albeit sans the lobster. I think of empanadas as a Mexican version of dumplings, but a more accurate description might be a baked or fried turnover, often with a sweet filling. This, however, was savory, the lobster and chourico mixed with cream cheese and green chiles. It spoke to my heritage. It is served atop guacamole and street corn, and I give it a 10. 

Chef Nick, upon seeing Karen, one of his regulars, came out from the kitchen to say hello.

“The man behind the magic is here!”

“Oh, I’m just the head janitor,” Nick said with a laugh, adding, “No, really.”

After copious amounts of praise for the food, I asked a few questions about “Heated.” The show features a round table discussion with local personalities who debate food-related questions centered on a theme. In the pilot episode, Nick visits three unique doughnut establishments, including Providence’s KNEAD Doughnuts and Block Island’s Payne’s Donuts, to see different ways experts have approached the business. Then Nick and his friends get “heated” in a donut debate, beginning with the most obvious question: is it spelled donuts or doughnuts? The first episode re-airs on November 20, so there’s still time to catch it.

In addition to being a chef, entrepreneur and television host, it turns out Nick is also a published author — not to mention a husband and father to three sons. 

“My family understands. When I’m able to do fun things — like cater a tailgate party for my kids’ games — I do it. But in the evenings I’m here. In fact, my son has a huge varsity game tonight, and I’m working. But I love my job. At some point you have to put your flag in the ground and stick with it.”

His passion for his many roles is evident in the way he talks about his restaurant, his family, his neighborhood, his customers and his staff.  He looks at the big picture and appreciates every detail.

“We run the restaurant the way we like to dine — not rushing guests or constantly trying to upsell. That’s so hokey. It’s about the experience,” Nick says, on his way back to the kitchen. “Come! Join us, keep us company. And stay as long as you want.”

Avenue N American Kitchen, 20 Newman Ave, Rumford. avenuenamericankitchen.com

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