Review: Celestial Café

Saintly culinary aspirations
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  June 15, 2010

Celestial Café is pretty ambitious, going for that name. It is in fact a culinary oasis deep in darkest Exeter, not a café but rather a full-fledged upscale restaurant, much appreciated by locals and the stray traveler wandering in off of Route 2. But heavenly?

CELESTIAL CAFE | 401.295.5559 | 567 South County Rail [Rt 2], Exeter | Mon-Thurs, 11:45 Am-9 Pm; Fri-Sat, 11:45 Am-10 Pm; Sun, 8:30 Am-8 Pm | Major Credit Cards | Full Bar

Hmmm. Yeah. After a moment of theological and recollective reflection, I have to admit that if this were the only restaurant available to me in the afterlife, I would be happy beyond my just desserts. I’ve had more than my share of fine meals here.

Branden Read opened it with its aunt, Cheryl Zannella, in 2002, hopeful that the upper-income commuters among the woodland denizens would keep them in business when the summer tourists flocking to Rhode Island beaches flapped away. His if-I-serve-it-they-will-come attitude has worked out well.

The place is attractive, with elegant touches such as chair backs composed of thin strips of bamboo surrounded by dark wood. Violet napkins, folded like bishop mitres, are atop paper on tablecloths, bistro-style. Celestial Bistro would have been more accurate than Café, but Read went for alliteration.

The chef is big on going local. Accordingly, Celestial has monthly farm dinners. We caught one last November that was enjoyable. The squash soup was in little pumpkins, nicely accented with cinnamon and nutmeg. The roasted chicken wasn’t too shabby either. Johnnie is picky about jonnycakes, but the West Bay ones served, thick and moist, met with approval.

Read regularly dispenses samples at farmers markets. In recent memory, he made Kenyon’s Mill pancakes with local peaches and Rhode Island maple syrup, and another time he offered tortilla chips and a delicious red pepper and eggplant relish, having harvested ingredients from the booths of attending farmers.

Celestial Café is a place we gladly go to when we’re not reviewing. In recent months Johnnie and a friend enjoyed two appetizers for lunch — ginger scallops ($14) and steamed sweet potato wontons ($9). The latter is more complex than it sounds, with bok choy and corn complementing the main ingredient, softened with ricotta and perked up with a garlic sherry cream sauce.

With a friend at lunch a few weeks ago, I had the seared sesame-encrusted ahi tuna ($18; $24 for dinner), reprising a meal enjoyed there years before, appreciating the slices of fresh mango on the side. Gary had what was billed as an organic thin-crust pizza, the grilled BBQ version ($8). It was piled high not only with grilled chicken and caramelized onions but also bacon and mozzarella. Reportedly it tasted great, but what wasn’t appreciated was that it was made with a large tortilla rather than pizza dough. It doesn’t waste much ink to specify that in a menu.

On our most recent visit, we started with the calamari. We are always looking for interesting variations on the same-old traditional Rhode Island version. Instead of the standard, both an Oriental and a citrus pesto calamari are offered (each $11). The former contains mushrooms, pea pods, scallions, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, which sound like compatible party guests for a soy-ginger glaze. We had the latter, an interesting lemony version with lots of capers and minced basil. Lightly battered and fried before being tossed with the white wine and limoncello sauce, the crispiness of the calamari came through more than I expected.

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