You might wonder what could be “celestial” about a café in an out-of-the-way strip mall on a country road in South County. But there’s definitely an other-worldly feel to the quiet sophistication of Celestial Café’s décor, and the kitchen certainly has a heavenly touch. OK, enough with the wordplay. Suffice it to say, this is one of those off-the-beaten-track places that has kept both menu and service outstanding since it opened four years ago.
Co-owners Brandon Read and Cheryl Zannela (Read is executive chef) have been influenced by their travels (New Orleans nuances) and their taste buds (Southeast Asian twists), as well as by their home state (Italian-American dishes). Such wide-ranging eclecticism can sometimes go awry, but in this case, it works — extremely well.
Celestial’s menu has been designed to interest various appetites, with selections ranging from a baby back ribs appetizer or grilled pizzas (pepper pesto with andouille sausage, or garlic shrimp and spinach, to name just two) to a chockfull saltimbocca entrée, offered with chicken or veal (and optional Applewood bacon). The Royal St. Jambalaya (with andouille) can also be refined with Cajun chicken, shrimp, and/or crawfish tails.
The fried calamari is served in both Oriental and Louisiana interpretations. The former has the squid rings tossed with mushrooms, water chestnuts, peapods, and bamboo shoots in a soy-ginger glaze. We chose the Creole version, which came with plenty of scallions and roasted tomatoes in a jalapeno hot sauce, topped with fried okra ($8, with crawfish tails, $3 extra). The okra chunks had been dipped in a light tempura-like batter, and they were delicious, nothing like their soggy cousins, a la gumbo.
Other appetizers at Celestial include fried pumpkin ravioli, pork pot stickers, littlenecks casino, and thin-sliced steak rolls stuffed with caramelized onions, roasted garlic, and cheese. Any salad can be topped with chicken, shrimp, or scallops, including the spinach/Stilton, the Caesar, or the antipasto.
The catch of the day was farm-raised Atlantic salmon, but Bill’s appetite led him to the ahi tuna ($22), sushi-grade encrusted with black and tan sesame seeds. Two thick tuna steaks were expertly seared, otherwise left rare, as requested, topped with a pomegranate beurre blanc, and accompanied by a mango salsa and rice. The promised wasabi was initially missing, but appeared upon request.
Despite the peach marsala chicken and coconut tofu entrée choices, I was drawn to the pastas, which are served with fresh pasta, soba noodles, or risotto. Again, you can fine-tune several of these, with your choice of meats or tofu (even in their signature piccata) or, in the case of “Italian gravy Parmesan” or the Creole cream, over eggplant. There’s also a pesto cream, a spicy red curry, and a seafood risotto.
The grilled veggies with risotto ($14) beckoned to me, and I added chicken for $4 ($6 for shrimp). The risotto, with scallions, roasted tomatoes and roasted garlic was delectably flavored with a white wine and butter sauce, and the chicken breasts were moist and flavorful. The grilled vegetables were cooked long enough so that the natural sweetness of the summer squash came through, and the eggplant and portobello were fork-tender. Two slices of roasted sweet potato formed the base for this veggie Napoleon, named after the sweet confection that is many layers of flaky pastry and a cream filling.
Chef Read is adamant that everything at the restaurant is made in-house, from the sauces and marinades to the amazing desserts ($6-$9). Several of these have a liqueur theme, with tequila in the Key lime pie and Amaretto in the German chocolate/peanut butter cheesecake. We lusted after the molten chocolate cake ($9), with Mississippi mud pie ice cream, and it didn’t let us down.
Celestial’s full bar offers 14 martinis, with different vodkas and flavorings. There’s also a selection of dessert coffees, port, sherry, cognac, and after-dinner cocktails. The restaurant boasts a Sunday brunch, from 10 am to 3 pm, and features live entertainment on Friday nights.
A crisp elegance defines the atmosphere at Celestial Café. Dark chair rails on the soft gray-green walls match the dark wood tables. Small bamboo plants on the tables, covered with white linens and butcher paper, correspond with bamboo backs and seats in the chairs. It’s quite a proper setting for the excellent food. One might even call it heavenly.
Celestial Café, 267 South County Trail, Exeter | Daily, 7:30 AM-10 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access | 401.295.555