NORTH KINGSTOWN -- The Contes are back and better than ever.
Chef Ralph and interior designer Elisa have opened the Plum Pt. Bistro in Saunderstown on Boston Neck Road. She designed the romantic bistro and he's back in the open kitchen, at least for the time being.
"We put together a place that is like we live," Ralph said.
It's farm and sea to table with herbs from the family's home garden.
"We've always lived this simple life of farm to table in our house," he said. "We have a big garden. We do our own fishing, little-necking."
"So we said let's open up a restaurant that we would want in our daily life," he said.
Elisa is the driving force for that lifestyle, he added.
Their kids are working with them, too. Daughter Zoe, 24, is the manager but on a busy night can be found expediting, organizing food from the kitchen to send off to the diners. Son Raphael "Raffi," 21, is tending bar.
It's been four years since the closing of Raphael Bar-Risto in Providence, once a hot spot both for dining and drinks that won accolades from near and far. The restaurant's fans have clearly missed the food and the hospitality, as many of them seem to have found their way to Plum Pt.
"We've come so far, professionally and personally, this business can be a roller-coaster ride," said Elisa. "We just want to run a neighborhood bistro."
She's "tickled pink" to have the family working together, something she didn't expect with her children who hated the business when they were growing up. Zoe is finished with college after majoring in film and Raphael is still in college, so Elisa's still taking a wait and see attitude for their long-term plans.
The Contes looked at a lot of places before deciding the home of the former Heffie's ice cream shop would be perfect for their new restaurant. Part of the appeal was the proximity to their Jamestown home.
Running back and forth to a restaurant at all hours of the day and night is easier when it's down the street, said Elisa. She did just that on the night of the restaurant's soft opening on June 19.
The place was "slammed," she said, using the restaurant lingo that means you have so many diners you don't know what to do.
"I had to go home to get my own wineglasses," she said. "We ran out."
Elisa, a RISD grad and interior designer with her E2 Studio Interior, transformed the space with a vintage bistro ambiance that make a tin ceiling and dark woods so appealing, especially when combined with unique decorative lighting fixtures. A blackboard of specials is part of the design and adds to the charm, as do the long aprons worn by the servers.
The partial wall between bar and dining room is lined with Moët & Chandon magnums.
An outside deck offers the extra seats needed plus a 12-stool bar, but gives no indication of the setting inside. Next year, a patio is planned.
Make no mistake that it is the food crafted by Ralph Conte that brings in diners.
It was almost 30 years ago when Elisa and Ralph opened their first restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and eventually dinner, in North Kingstown in the Monte Vista Motel on Post Road. The Contes moved their operation to Providence a year later on Pine Street, where they offered fine dining and Raffi's Pizza. Raphael Bar-Risto was the new spot they opened on South Water Street in 1992 before moving next to Capital Grille by Waterplace Park in 1998. They opened a second spot in East Greenwich in 1995 which they ran for five years.
Which all brings them home again. Elisa likes the vintage feel of her new Saunderstown space, which reminds her a little of the South Water Street setting.
Though Chef Conte began his culinary education at Johnson & Wales University, it was no doubt the 2 ½ years he spent cooking across Italy that made its mark. He learned about using fresh herbs and lightening up sauces. His is a sophisticated and exacting take on Italian cooking, always with an interesting blend of fresh ingredients and textures.
Consider the zucchini rollatini that was a special at Plum Pt. last month. The squash grew in Elisa's organic garden. Paper thin strips were rolled around a mixture of cheeses including ricotta and mascarpone. On top was a tomato concasse, a blend of fresh tomatoes dressed with herbs and olive oil. It tasted like a summer garden.
All the pasta here is homemade and delicate, making it a light pairing whether with egg and pancetta or mushrooms and peas or just clams.
But Plum Pt. Bistro has a French, Provençal flair as well.
Duck confit crêpes are adorned with blueberry brown butter that tastes as happy as dessert.
A delectable tuna tartare sits on creamy avocado chunks and is brightened with horseradish crème fraîche. A bit of roe is on the side. It comes with beautiful waffle fries big enough to grab a little of each for a bite.
A lobster stew is rich with seafood including clams, mussels, octopus and calamari. But it is the rich broth that tastes as if it simmered for days that is so memorable tippled with a little Pernod.
"You see people drinking Pouilly Fuissé now, instead of Pinot Grigio," Ralph said.
A bistro steak is a huge seller, he said, as is the grilled octopus and daily specials such as the fish of the day (R.I. striped bass poached in a saffron lobster broth).
Amazingly enough, there are always the homemade desserts: a new signature plum tart tatin and lemon meringue pie among them.
Also back are some of the servers who had worked for the Contes before. There are other experienced faces too, including Gene Allsworth, of Trieste fame, who helped out the first month in the kitchen.
Ralph wrote the menu for Plum Pt. and he's seeing to its execution in these early days. But he hopes to not be in the kitchen nightly and a new chef is on board. For now, however, you'll see him, with that dark-haired wavy mane, distinguished with a bit of gray, commanding the kitchen in his family's new neighborhood bistro.
Plum Pt. Bistro
1814 Boston Neck Rd.