[Sidebar] March 12 - 19, 1998
[Food Reviews]
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Unabashedly quirky with all the right ingredients

by Johnette Rodriguez

404 Thames St., Newport, 846-6862
Open for dinner Fri-Sun, 5:30-10:30 p.m.
Soon to be open for country breakfast and high tea; call for times
No liquor license
Visa and MasterCard
Not handicapped accessible

Keep this in mind when you visit Elizabeth's, whose owner/chef is Englishwoman Elizabeth Burley. The Brits are individualists to the core -- and not the least bit insecure about their eccentricities.

This is evident from the moment you set foot in the overstuffed Victorian parlor that is Elizabeth's dining room to the time you need to thread your way up a stairway and through the tiny kitchen to find the door to a utility bathroom behind the refrigerator.

No airs, no pretense -- Elizabeth mops her brow as you pass, pausing only briefly to assure you (as she does in her handwritten letter on the front of the menu) that she uses no salt, no sugar, no butter, no cream in her cooking.

"What's the white sauce atop the bouillabaisse?" I inquire.

"Yogurt," she replies.

And it's true that Elizabeth achieves amazing taste sensations without those fearsome four. Instead, she goes for fresh herbs, olive oil, garlic, apples, fennel seeds, peppers -- both black and red -- to spice and spark her dishes. She also poaches all of her seafood and chicken in seafood, vegetable, or fruit stock. "No fried foods here!" she declares.

What's more, in a town renowned for its wining and dining, Elizabeth has survived for seven years without a liquor license -- and with an unusual way of charging for and serving her entrées. Of the eight choices on the menu when we visited recently, two popular summer items (lobster paella and baked stuffed lobster) were not available, because the current market price of lobster would have driven the cost sky-high. Of the six remaining, we had to agree as a couple on one, because the meals here are cooked for two (at $25 to $35 per person).

Fortunately, William, our amiable waiter, guided us (and several other diners) toward shrimp e piselli: shrimp poached and then baked with bread crumbs alongside fettucine topped with a pea-onion-mushroom sauce.

Generous helpings of the shrimp and pasta came with bread-crumbed mussels, slices of hot and sweet sausage, and three large wedges of Italian bread topped with green and red peppers and cheese. The pasta sauce was delightfully peppery in some spots, rosemary-laden in others, while the shrimp and mussels were yummy as well.

It can be a bit confusing from Elizabeth's written descriptions to understand what, exactly, you'll get with your entrée, but the sausage, bread, and "stuffed mussels" seem de rigueur for the other seafood and chicken dishes here as well. There is also a vegetarian Parmesan platter, which includes apples, kale, onions, mushrooms, fennel, tomatoes, and peppers baked with fresh herbs and nutmeg under a cheesy crust And all this is "embellished" with pasta covered in either a marinara or pisèlli sauce.

Embellished indeed. The lobster bisque ($4.95) we started out with had a lentil puree, seafood chunks, fennel seeds, and fresh basil leaves in it. A homey melody of flavors. The dessert we tried (imported from New York) was a dense chocolate cake spiked with blackberry liqueur and topped with thickened cream, strawberries, and blueberries.

Overlays of flavors, overlays in the decor -- an eclectic collection of tables, chairs, and dinnerware (from Oriental orange platters to blue willow teapots to cafeteria plates). Planters of geraniums fill the front windows, along with a brass birdcage. Gilt-framed paintings of 19th-century scenes stand on a hutch and sideboard, while classical renditions of '50s songs waft through the room, from "Love Me Tender" to "The Great Pretender."

Elizabeth's is an experience to lean back into. Visitors need to flow with the differences, to appreciate the style of the room, the menu, Elizabeth herself. But the creature comfort that kept me from relaxing was the frigid temperature in the restaurant. Indeed, I noticed that even those farthest from the door had their coats around them.

But then memories of British Isle accommodations came floating back to me, and I recalled the sips of German liqueur that had warmed me at night. So for Elizabeth's at this time of year, make sure you BYOB.

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