Review: Café Zelda

A truly memorable experience
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  August 9, 2011

Café Zelda is one of those places that feels elegant but homey; luxurious but not pretentious. The small two-level dining room is a combination of dark wood and nautical themes, apropos of its 1970s owner Murray Davis, who founded Cruising World and named his café after F. Scott's wife. He sold the 19th-century building, which started life as a liquor store and small brewery that delivered beer to the Newport mansions, to Tom and Roxanne Callahan in 1986, and they have kept alive the mariner theme (blue stripes in the wallpaper; prints of sailboats) as well as the conviviality of an Irish pub, in Zelda's sister space.

Chef Kevin Wood has helmed the kitchen the past six years, and the menu still holds a steady course of well-executed dishes, served with a flair. Chicken-fried lobster is one of their most popular items.

Café Zelda | 401.849.4002 | 528 Thames St, Newport | Lunch Fri-Sat, 11:30 am-3 pm; Sun brunch 11 am-3 pm; Dinner Mon-Sun, 5-10 pm | Major Credit Cards | Full Bar | Not Handicapped Accessible
But we cast off with other local seafood: clams and calamari. The littlenecks ($2 each) were broiled with an herbed garlic butter on top, and they were delish. The Point Judith calamari with banana peppers and espelette peppers had a Thai dipping sauce, which pulled us in ($11). They were crisp and tasty, and the peppers had been fried with the same light batter. The Thai sauce was a new lagniappe for this old favorite.

Our daughter and son-in-law shared a special salad, of endive and pear ($11), with bits of Gorgonzola, toasted pecans, dried cranberries, and a Dijon dressing. It was served already split onto two separate plates, and they both enjoyed it.

When it came time to ponder our entrées, Bill was torn between "Zelda's mac 'n' cheese" and the chicken-fried lobster. So I ordered the herb-roasted chicken breast that was accompanied by the mac 'n' cheese ($23) and Bill got the lobster ($35). My chicken was delicately cooked, with a delicious jus pooling beneath it. The mac 'n' cheese was sparked by Gorgonzola and Parmesan, adding a bit of zing to each bite. It pleased Bill as much as he'd hoped.

But he also got a kick out of his lobster plate: claws without shell had been dipped in batter and deep-fried; the tail had been halved but left in the shell and also batter-fried; the empty head stood atop the presentation as a reminder of what was hidden in batter. Mashed potatoes had a lobster gravy, made from lobster stock, vegetables, white wine, brandy, and heavy cream, with bits of knuckle meat from the lobster tossed in. Truly decadent!

Stefan's tuna ($26) was longfin albacore, caught in Rhode Island waters, and it was set atop a ratatouille of zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, peppers, onions, and tomatoes, most of which came from Chef Wood's home garden.

Sabrina settled on a half-dozen shrimp ($3 each), lemon-grilled with garlic. Straight-ahead, barely adorned, but she liked her choice (augmented a bit by forkfuls of Stefan's ratatouille).

The wine list is well-selected from California, Oregon, Italian, New Zealand, French, Spanish, Australian, and Rhode Island (a Newport Vineyard Chardonnay, a Greenvale Vineyard Cabernet Franc, and a Sakonnet Vineyard Pinot noir). Bill and Stefan chose white wine by the glass to accompany their meals; Sabrina and I toasted with Prosecco, a slightly bubbly dry white wine.

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