Ladies and gentlemen, the Celestial Café in Exeter is excellent. Everyone reading this should go, possibly even right this moment since the restaurant is open seven days a week. I’m not kidding – go now if you can. This’ll wait. You can always come back and
Still here reading? Oh I get it, you want to know a little bit more before you pop off for lunch or dinner. I can’t say I blame you. There are a lot of mediocre places out there, even in the outstanding culinary destination that is Rhode Island. There are a lot of places out there that claim they serve local ingredients, too, without really telling you what that means. Celestial Café isn’t one of those places. It’s very good, as if you couldn’t tell from my push to get you to go there right now.
Okay, so how good is Celestial Café? I had a jambalaya there that was remarkably close to the jambalaya that I make, and I learned how to make my jambalaya from a grandmother in New Orleans. After a bunch of great dishes, that sealed the deal for me. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Clearly you’re reading for all the facts. So let’s start at the beginning.
Celestial Café is in a strip mall on Route 2 in Exeter, one of those spots that’s almost in the middle-of-nowhere, even for Rhode Island. Before you write off the place because of the strip mall part I should point out that most of the finest restaurants in L.A. are in strip malls. So move past the late 20th century architecture and step inside to a very nicely laid out restaurant. The space is about one-third bar, with some seating by the bar, and then tables through the rest of the dining area. It’s pretty big too, and the first reaction is it could be a loud space. But the high ceilings and layout allows for a lot of hubbub without overwhelming noise. It’s a comfortable environment to eat in.
We started with drinks and a Basket of Chips ($6). The wine list is basic and hits the more common notes, the beer list leaned toward interesting and intriguing microbrews. The drinks aren’t going to compete with a top notch cocktail bar, but they were well made and not fussy. I especially enjoyed the Cajun Cold River with a pickled green bean and red pepper flakes – simple but delicious. The Chips on the other hand were outstanding. Whoever’s slicing and frying potatoes – from Schartner Farms right up the street– has a steady hand and a great eye because these were some of the most perfect from-scratch potato chips I’ve had. I would’ve liked a bit more salt on them, hit them right as they come out of the fryer with it, but wow were they fried right.
Next we tried the Sweet Potato Wontons ($9) and I had a bowl of the Chowda ($8). I’m not one for the cutesy spellings of chowder. Yes, I know, lots of people around here talk funny. Fine, so how’s the chowder? Honestly? This was one of the better chowders I’ve had in Rhode Island, if not New England. It didn’t hurt that it’s served with a grilled oyster, which was a complete bonus because the balance of flavors in this chowder was impeccable. The potatoes weren’t over cooked, it was creamy without being heavy, the herbs were a nice touch and not heavy-handed. For $8 I’d get three and call it a dinner. The Sweet Potato Wontons were a huge hit with everyone at the table. They’re definitely on the sweet side, but if you don’t mind that at the start of a meal, dig in.
Dinner included the aforementioned Royal St. Jambalaya ($18) for me, along with Chicken Carbonara ($18), Veal Eclipse ($24) and Apple Cider Pork Tenderloin ($21) for my family. Everyone tried everyone’s dish, something that doesn’t always happen (okay, yes, I always try everyone’s dish, but that’s my job, right?). It was one of those meals where we all said, “you have to try this.”
The Chicken Carbonara wasn’t a traditional carbonara – it added mushrooms and pea pods and used prosciutto instead of pancetta or guanciale, but what it sacrificed in tradition worked well. The Veal Eclipse was loaded with bacon, peppers, onions, cheese and a Marsala mushroom sauce, but under all that was some thoroughly breaded and fried veal cutlets with an excellent crispiness. The Apple Cider Pork Tenderloin was also well cooked with a ton of apple and maple flavor cutting through to coat the pork. As I mentioned before, the jambalaya was perfect for me with some tasty Andouille sausage and nicely cooked rice. If I had to make a note I’d suggest using chicken thighs as the chicken can get a little dry when you stew it, but honestly, I am quibbling here.
By this point we were all so full and couldn’t be tempted by dessert, but I do have a craving to head back and try the Banana Chocolate Foster Bread Pudding ($10). I hope by now you’re ready to head to Exeter. One added bonus to the Celestial Café, they really do try to use as many local ingredients as they can from Rhody Fresh and Narragansett Creamery, to nearby Schartner Farms, as I mentioned, and S&P Gardiner Farm. What’s better than eating food that’s good and helps the local economy?
567 S County Trail, Exeter. 295-5559.