Paul Shire, the Executive Chef of 2 Pauls’ City Grille, was a miserable computer scientist. Sitting behind a desk and writing code, all he could think about was getting out. He’d reminisce about the cooking jobs he’d taken to make some extra cash and wish that his day job provided at least an inkling of the enjoyment he’d felt while preparing meals, a craft he picked up from watching his grandmother make Lebanese food.
Shire would think fondly of the days when, as a fifteen-year-old, he worked as a dishwasher for Eliot and Anita Solomon, owners of Lloyd’s, the East Side restaurant he describes as “a classic Jewish delicatessen.” It was that atmosphere of family, shared bread and camaraderie that he lacked in his nine-to-five profession; it was what ultimately drew him back into the food business.
Along with Anthony Salemme, he opened DownCity Diner to rave reviews from patrons and critics alike. He describes those years as being very difficult. Novel restaurateur, Shire used to change the menu every week. He says that the self-imposed requirement was an unnecessary challenge since it meant constant experimentation with fresh ideas, a concept that didn’t always work well in practice. Shire shares one particularly draining experience that he regretted. On the night a new show opened at the nearby Providence Performing Arts Center, DownCity offered a newly created baked dish that consisted of seven layers such as potatoes, salmon and roasted peppers. After the premiere of this chef d’oeuvre, Shire was forced to take it off the menu immediately following its unveiling. He explains that the assembly of the multi-layered masterpiece took too long since hungry theater goers had limited amount of time to spare before their show started.
By the time he opened 2 Pauls’, Shire was an experienced chef, having run such well-known and well-regarded area gems as Oak and the ROI. During his years cooking for discerning crowds, he has learned to stick to a seasonal menu and to prepare some items, such as sauces, ahead of time. That doesn’t mean, though, that you will not get the freshest possible ingredients in your selections at 2 Pauls’. Shire attests to buying locally whenever he can and receiving fresh seafood and produce every day, and fresh meats every other day. He concedes that it’s hard to do, but says that it’s worth the trouble because he is a believer in great quality and because “people can tell the difference.” In fact, Shire is so dedicated to making 2 Pauls’ the ultimate comfort food destination that he chose to remove himself from being involved with the ROI, finding he couldn’t give his all to both restaurants. He says, “2 Pauls’ is my home and that’s where I cook.”
Recently, the restaurant introduced their fall and winter menu. Not to worry, Shire’s famous meatloaf dish is still on it; he says he can’t take it off the menu because people request it whenever he opens up a new restaurant. The dish fits nicely with the rest of their offerings, which he describes as fare “that’s going to fill you up” and remind you of your mom’s cooking. In Shire’s case, tasting his dishes evokes memories of his famous aunt’s delectable cuisine. Shire cites Lydia Shire, along with Jasper White, her past co-chef and business partner at the renowned kitchens of the Copley Plaza, the Parker House and the Bostonian, as his culinary idols. In addition, Shire names Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child, whom he met a couple of times while learning the tricks of the trade from his aunt, as his “all-time favorites.”
This season particularly appeals to Shire because he loves slow-cooked foods that lend comfort to strong appetites cold weather enhances. In addition to braising, his preferred cooking method is grilling as it reminds him of his childhood. Shire says, “Growing up, my dad always had something on the grill.” Not a picky eater, Shire likes everything. When pressed to choose a favorite dish, he goes with a baked rib eye steak with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. In a pinch, he’ll also settle for a grilled lamb chop or a shish kebab, a dish he perfected while heading the kitchen at Andreas. Shire shares that he’s still quite friendly with the restaurant’s owners, but glad to have a place of his own to mold. He reveals, “Even though it’s hard getting a restaurant off the ground, it’s still rewarding to know that it’s something you’ve created. Whether you win or lose, you can express yourself how you want to.”
And Shire does express himself. Someone who enjoys music, he brings that pleasure to his patrons. While at the ROI, he used to listen to jazz in the evenings. Now, Shire is offering karaoke on Friday nights and acoustic guitar on Saturdays. The entertainment is not intrusive, Shire assures. People who want to have an intimate candlelit meal can do so. Around 9:00 p.m., as the dinner crowd begins to taper off, the restaurant begins to cater to a younger scene.
Another way Shire puts his signature on 2 Pauls’ is by offering traditional comfort food. While he tries to stay away from chasing culinary trends, Shire still creates innovative dishes such as his recommended braised short rib with porcini mushrooms that’s served with loosely made ravioli and winter vegetables. A meat guy who won’t say no to sword fish and salmon, Shire presents multiple seafood items on the menu; after all, we do live in Rhode Island – he might as well take advantage of the ocean’s bounty. Shire names salmon with mushroom risotto, along with baked cod filet and an exotic-sounding appetizer, Shrimp Mozambique, as their best sellers.
While all of these dishes sound mouth-watering, Shire admits that cooking great food is no longer enough as a recipe for success. Everything has changed from his beginning days as a restaurateur. He says that, to promote a restaurant, it used to be sufficient to be featured in a newspaper article, but now marketing requires numerous ingredients, including social media and internet advertising. While at ROI, he appeared on the Rhode Show to share his recipe for polenta fries (now listed under “Starters” in the 2 Pauls’ menu).
The most obvious transformation is the city itself. Shire says that the first element that jumps out about Providence is the amount of restaurant competition. Another challenge he faces is the economy. He explains that many have cut their disposable income that includes dining out and entertainment expenses. He has to be very competitive with his pricing because people are spending less money on luxury items now.
2 Pauls’ menu lists various specials, including half-price, happy-hour appetizers; three-course dinner for two with a bottle of wine for $45; and five-dollar burgers. To sum it up, Shire says, “Everybody’s got some kind of a gimmick these days.” If by gimmick he means easy-going atmosphere and generously sized portions, I’m sold. If you, too, would like to lounge at the bar while sampling fish and chips on a Friday, I’ll buy you a cup of chowder. Okay, you caught me – it’s complimentary that day.
Editor’s note: This is one of a series of profiles of local businesses, some of which advertise in The Jewish Voice.
WHO: 2 Pauls’ City Grille
WHERE: 315 Waterman Ave.
East Providence, RI