[Sidebar] June 1 - 8, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Salvation Cafe

Heavenly pleasures in the City by the Sea

by Bill Rodriguez

140 Broadway, Newport, 847-2620
Open daily, 5-11 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

There's a certain sincerity implied by visual funkiness in a restaurant. Unconventional and whimsical decor says, "We wouldn't lie to you, man," and makes an anti-chic fashion statement. You get the idea that no way, no how, would this kitchen use the cheap supermarket soy sauce instead of aged tamari.

Salvation Café gives that impression right away, by the sign and small metal sculptures above the doorway, which were fashioned by local metalsmith Russell Daly. Facing the entrance, the bar is topped by a sheet of aluminum, contrasted with a colorful mural below of peasant figures that could be on a wall in Havana. Behind that area, with tables for smokers, paintings by local artists are posted on the way to a patio with corrugated roof, red plank walls and all but chickens underfoot.

We sat in the non-smoking room, to the left of the entrance. At the door is a miniature "fountain" that Las Vegas would be proud of: on an ornate pedestal, a Greek goddess figurine is surrounded by dripping, glowing netting. By the window, a full-size Gulf sign, retired from a service station across the street, is decorated with alphabet fridge magnets. A hair-dryer hood is poised above one booth like a John Waters signature. With the CD changer set to random, the background music was just as eclectic -- rap to merengue to Hank Williams, in pleasantly mind-warping succession.

The wine list is short but appropriately diverse, 10 each of whites and reds, apparently selected by a fractious United Nations panel. Salvation put in a bar about a year ago, so you can also choose their house margarita or, as I did, a novel and tasty coconut lime rickey.

The menu is heavily Asian-influenced, especially among the appetizers. Starters include Thai fish cakes ($6), tuna sashimi ($7.50), the ubiquitous fried calamari ($6.95), and the most original "salad" I've come across in a while: a grilled peach accompanied by gorgonzola and walnuts ($5.50). Johnnie had the vegetable dumplings ($5), five plump, packed offerings served in a bamboo steamer, with a green smear of fiery wasabi and gentle ginger soy sauce on the side. The filling had the seaside touch of wakame, for a nice accent. I had a bowl of "corn chili chowder" ($4.50), featuring the dominant ingredients in that order, the former colorfully accompanied by bits of red and green bell pepper, and the next providing a glow but not overwhelming. We weren't served bread, but I enjoyed the bowl enough to not think of asking.

The entrée choices return to this hemisphere, although you can get vegan or shrimp pad Thai ($8/$10) and teriyaki salmon ($12). The two main course specials that night were a chicken dish and a halibut one ($14), and my partner was hooked by the fish prospect. Good choice. The firm, nicely grilled flesh was spiced with a chipotle chili, orange and basil butter. On the plate were purple potatoes and a Japanese salad box filled with baby greens, seaweed and julienned cucumber.

I had the "harissa-rubbed" rack of lamb ($18), the most original combination on the menu, and I'm glad I did. The most memorable touch was that the spinach was fried, making for onion-skin puffs of green that melted in my mouth. The other novelty on the plate was a block of cinnamon-scented rice. As requested, the little chops, six of them, were medium rare. Harissa is a thick Tunisian hot sauce heavy on chilies and cumin. Generous burgundy dollops of it surrounded the lamb, along with pureed mango, bright yellow dribbles of what tasted like powdered mustard and, for more bold color, ketchup.

Three desserts are offered, all made at Salvation and each a quite reasonable $4.50. There is the mandatory chocolate temptation, a mousse; cinnamon-flavored creme caramel; and the one that our waitress, there three months, still hadn't lost her eye-rolling enthusiasm for -- bread pudding. She was right on. It's baked to a crisp texture on top, contains mascarpone cheese, like tiramisu although not custardy, and is served atop puddles of caramel and raspberry sauces. My eyes didn't roll only because I needed to keep my attention on my half. Don't share this if you have a rocky marriage.

Sue Lamond opened Salvation Café in 1993 and is still calling the culinary shots. Founding chef Story Lewis has handed over her stirring spoon to Bill Stark, former head of the kitchen at Marina Grille on Goat Island, who continues the tradition. In Sue and Bill's hands, our expectations for good soy sauce remain secure.

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