[Sidebar] March 2 - 9, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Log cabin luxury in Narragansett

by Bill Rodriguez

945 Boston Neck Road, Narragansett, 789-1135
Open Tues-Sun, 4-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

When a veteran foodie recommends a restaurant to me, I sit up and listen, and perhaps even salivate. So when the head waiter at our favorite continental restaurant in South County told us he liked a new place that opened last October, Gabriela's quickly appeared on our must-check-out list. The image of Brett zipping across town on a break to satisfy a chicken melanzana jones was droll inducement.

The building seems an unlikely spot for fine dining, outside of an episode of Northern Exposure. Previous tenants have included a pancake house and a steakhouse. Nowadays, the two-story log cabin has a pair of facing swans on the door. Inside, leftover Valentine wreaths also declare the opportunity for romantic intimacy and distract you from the lumber that they decorate. (You also may consider the votive candle on each table as expressing your devotion to your dining companion, if you wish, instead of to fine cuisine.)

The night we were at Gabriela's, the starry sky and light-bedecked Newport bridge looked rather romantic from our vantage point at a window table at one end of the bar (this view is also available from the upstairs level). We would have appreciated the view from our distant table, even if the hostess didn't come over -- as she did to three other couples -- to take us to the window and point out the most unusual full moon I recall seeing, rising just over the horizon as orange as a pumpkin.

All this without taking a bite. Or a sip (full bar, good wine list). Our first bites were encouraging -- into light, freshly baked bread containing sunflower seeds, dipped into a platter of red-pepper-flecked olive oil with some cheese grated on top. An even more pleasant signature touch was Gabriela's version of the Official State Appetizer. We didn't have any, but certainly will the next time: Santa Fe calamari ($10.95), batter-fried and spicy, served in a blue corn tortilla bowl with kitchen-made roasted corn citrus salsa. Chef Keith Thurber, who designed the menu, lists restaurants from New Hampshire to Nantucket on his résumé, plus a cooking stint in the Army while stationed in the Southwest.

We shared the stuffed portabello ($8.95): four baby bellos, packed with a Ritz cracker and ricotta blend with shrimp. They were surrounded by mesclun greens, and a tangy chipotle and cilantro cream sauce that had just enough of the roasted chili's smoky heat. The single large mushroom cap promised on the menu would have grilled up even more succulently, but our waitress was quick to announce the substitution. I indulged in a special of the day, a favorite of mine -- baked onion soup ($6.95). I'm fussy about this, but was pleased by the hearty stock and the well-browned gruyere topping.

I also like a good puttanesca sauce over linguini, and Gabriela's ($14.95) is up there with the best I've enjoyed. Not too salty from the anchovy paste (I could have used a bit more), the calamata olive halves burst into flavor amid the plentiful lemony capers, strips of roasted red peppers, wild mushrooms and chunks of plum tomato. My three tender pieces of chicken breast could have been veal or fish at the same price, an option with the Marsala sauce as well. The linguini was garlic herb, and interesting flavored pastas are also used in other dishes, such as chili pepper penne in a baked vegetable dish ($13.95).

Johnnie chose what I would have had otherwise, the By the Bay Seafood Medley ($18.95). The scallops, shrimp and lobster were sautéed with restraint and served in a delicious pesto cream sauce, with sun-dried tomatoes complementing the other reds of the combination. Instead of having it over pasta, she felt like having a side dish of white and wild rice. The billed focaccia was merely grilled bread soaked with garlic butter, but it was welcome. Thank heavens parsley is out of favor as a garnish, for we found both our main dishes and the appetizer ringed by generous portions of mesclun greens, and the sauces were all fit dressings.

For dessert we had a pricey but yummy chocolate torte ($6.95). The full-flavored cake and icing were nicely presented within a circle of fudge and fruit sauces. A pleasant farewell. For an even nicer introduction, you might consider the six-wine dinner at Gabriela's, scheduled for Monday, March 13 at 6 p.m. It's $50 per person.

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