PROVIDENCE — Here’s something special. A dim, narrow room lined in wood. Two wood counters that seat a handful of diners, and at the back two small booths. On the shelves: iron teapots, glassware, Japanese whiskey backlit a glowing amber. Before you: a row of sake bottles, a notebook with the night’s handwritten menu.
Big King is James Mark’s second Providence restaurant. It occupies the West Side space that was previously North, his first, opened with two other cooks in 2012. (That restaurant has since moved downtown, to hipster hotel The Dean.) North was a freewheeling explosion of flavors, the menu filled with cheerful irreverence, drawing from Mark’s time in New York’s Momofuku empire, Providence’s many immigrant communities, and his own life and travels. It was a perfect first restaurant, in the way, say, Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” was a perfect first novel: a coming-of-age tale, exploratory, skillful, and singular. Mark was then in his mid-20s.
Now he is in his 30s, a father. On several visits, he’s wearing a T-shirt printed with an image of his kid. This year, for the first time, Mark is nominated for a James Beard award, for best chef in the Northeast. And Big King, coming up on its one-year anniversary in June, is a perfect second restaurant: mature, focused, and intimate.
The restaurant is named for Mark’s grandmother Big King Lee Mark. It seats about 20 and is open four nights a week. To be sure of a spot, make a reservation online and pay a small deposit, $5 per person. No-shows are a killer, and this helps cover the cost. Mark tends to cut his margins particularly fine. He worries about affordability. He does not want to make restaurants that are only for rich people. A four-course menu at Big King is $40; a six-course version is $55. There are a la carte items, too, if you want to spend less or mix and match.
The dishes are based around vegetables and seafood, mostly, with a little meat. Mark has direct relationships with Point Judith fishermen. He goes to the docks, he goes to local farms. He brings his daughter with him everywhere; childcare is expensive. There is a pureness to the food here that is inextricably tied to costs, to ethics, to the will not to exploit suppliers, workers, animals, or customers. Yet this doesn’t come across as overly earnest, as it might. It is a steady, gentle motor powering things in the background.
What you feel when you eat at Big King is that it is nice to be here, that the food tastes good. When the first tatsoi arrives in spring, it is served by itself on a plate, cooked lightly, in tamari and the Japanese broth dashi. It is almost too simple; it exists just to remind you that green is a thing that comes out of local soil, and soon there will be more. When radishes and squash are what’s available, many varieties are corralled, cut into half-moons, cubes, squiggles; grilled and served raw; a plate of different shapes and colors. The salad makes two ingredients feel abundant.
Raw black bass is folded around seaweed paste, a burst of salt from the sea; or slivers of raw fluke, so thin you can see through them, are arrayed atop a smear of tahini-esque sesame paste. When live surf clams come in, as big as a palm, they are sliced, crosshatched, and placed on pats of rice for nigiri sushi. When Maine uni is in season — it just was, and now it is gone — its rust-colored lobes curl over a little rice in a bowl, sprinkled with sesame seeds, beside a golden egg yolk and black chips made from nori. It’s so fresh, with a smell like clean tide.
Much of the food is, if not Japanese, Japanish. Kabocha squash with custard, bright green with scallion oil, resembles the traditional dish chawanmushi. Tempura is a strength, whether it’s battered and fried petals of purple and white potatoes with a soft-cooked egg in Japanese-style curry sauce, or sweet potatoes with a lush, spicy tofu-based dipping sauce we can’t stop eating, using fingers after the sweet potato is gone.
Fish is often grilled over charcoal, infused with smoke — sea bream one night, monkfish another — served with a bowl of mild dashi on the side. It is interesting to find such restrained flavors from Mark, who went so bold at North. Sometimes this feels careful, almost meditative — an embodiment of the Japanese quality of shibumi, or quiet refinement. But it’s a fine line. Sometimes it feels too subdued, as with this dashi, or the tatsoi. On one visit the squash and radish salad is so balanced, so purely delicious, I can’t help but order it again upon my return. The second version comes so lightly dressed, it simply feels like eating plain vegetables.
Meat appears sparingly; the kitchen gets a whole pig (or, in the summer, whole chickens), breaks it down, and uses it up, so what you get depends on when you visit. Pieces of pork belly skewered with daikon have good flavor but are a tough chew; I want to see more char on them from the grill.
For dessert, light and fluffy Japanese cheesecake with quince ice cream is a fine ending to the meal one night. Next visit, a bowl of warm preserved strawberries with burnt marshmallows and crunchy oat crumble is a combination of tastes and textures as unlikely as it is wonderful.
Sake is as much a reason to come here as the food. If you can, order one of the tasting menus, Set A or Set B, with sake pairings. Mark pours, then tells the attentive listener about how the brewer of this sake is the last one in Japan to use solely traditional cedar barrels, or how that one is made by the rare female head brewer, who suggests you open the bottle, then wait a few days to drink it (most sake should be consumed within a few days). His passion is evident; the pairings coax more dimension from the food.
Big King is described online as a “small weird restaurant.” I don’t know. It is, at least, one of a kind. It feels very much an expression of Mark himself, at this moment. There is authorship here. The ability to translate oneself clearly on the plate, and through the experience, isn’t all that common, and it isn’t something anyone can fake.
3 Luongo Square, Providence, www.bigkingpvd.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Four-course menu $40 (plus $25 for sake pairing), six-course menu $55 (plus $35 for sake pairing), a la carte dishes $4-$15.
Hours Thu-Sun 5-11 p.m.
Noise level Perfect for conversation, and for listening to James Mark’s illuminating sake explanations.
What to order Set B with sake pairing, any a la carte dish featuring seafood.
(No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.