[Sidebar] November 5 - 12, 1998
[Food Reviews]
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Past and Presents

Rococo profusion with a wink

by Bill Rodriguez

2753 Main Road, Tiverton, 624-2890
Open Thurs, 5-9 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30-9 p.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Past & Presents is an entertaining idea that got out of hand. Thank goodness. It started out in another location as a Victorian gift shop in 1994 and, in natural progression, added a tea room two years ago. Last month, it turned a spacious portion of the gift shop into a dining room, and the merriment continues.

You see, the place doesn't take itself seriously at all, even with all the pinky-lifting implicit in the high-tea ritual. The restaurant, from décor to menu, establishes a kind of campiness for blue-hairs with a sense of the absurd and for the rest of us who are into excess. Rococo profusion with a wink.

In the restaurant, a central square column is wound with gauzy netting and grapevine tendrils that spread across the ceiling, dangling with ornaments like the fairies' idea of a Christmas tree. The top of one wide window sports a crazy quilt of various lace patches. Across another window top is an array of hats -- not big Victorian bonnets but equally festive pillbox variations decorated with feathers or flowers. Diners with pun- or wordplay allergies should avoid the place, however -- or have someone whisper their order for them -- because you can't get through the appetizer list without groaning ("Silence of the Clams" stew, $9.95).

As my regular dining partner and I waited for a friend, we nibbled on fresh-baked cranberry scones as we anticipated our order of "Mr. Bill's Grilled Baby Buggy Bumper Caps" ($6.95). (The proprietors are Bill and Judy Galloway.) These consisted of a portobello mushroom cap grilled in olive oil and topped with pesto, sundried tomatoes, and goat cheese. A tasty choice.

When there were three of us, we looked over the range of entrées. For seafood, one of us chose the fresh Chilean sea bass ($18.95), a special that evening. She was curious about it, having read recently that it is not really sea bass but rather a much uglier cousin called a Patagonian toothfish. Beauty contest reject or not, it was firm-fleshed, delicately cooked, and topped with baby shrimp in a white wine, lemon and capers sauce.

My other companion chose a signature dish, the "Past & Presents Roasted Chicken" ($13.95). It was succulent, herb-infused and stuffed with a dressing of scones rather than bread crumbs. It, too, was appreciated.

I had something titled "Destination: Orient Express." The two fat pork chops, marinated in plum sauce, were delicious, and the concoction they lay atop wasn't bad either, just a bit bland and not what was described in the menu. I'm a big moo shi fan at Chinese restaurants, and I'll accept a wide range of variation. But this was akin to chop suey served on crispy noodles.

As for their original quaint culinary offering, afternoon tea, they serve a three-tier assortment of finger sandwiches, desserts, scones and so forth for $12 a person, as well as a la carte sandwich and salad choices. High tea, served all day Sunday, is $5 more and comes with additional hot items. Wine and cocktails are also served, some of them from period recipes.

All baked goods are made in their kitchen, as are the dinner desserts. The latter's menu suggests "Life Is Unpredictable . . . Order Dessert First." And, indeed, there is a sort of last-meal intensity to them. For example, their bread pudding ($5.50) packs in white chocolate, orange crème anglaise and a kiwi "salsa."

I couldn't resist their Black Forest cake ($7.95), a dense, flourless chocolate confection accompanied by the above orange sauce and also caramel sauce, plus bing cherry ice cream that unfortunately had crystallized.

Executive chef Tim Murray's version of tiramisu is called TiraMiTimmy ($5.95), since Su had nothing to do with it. (Yes, yes, su means "up" in Italian, as in "take me up" to heaven, which the dessert's name promises.) Served in a tall glass, the top portion is a blend of mascarpone with whipped cream, lightened further by minimized espresso soaking the ladyfingers and adding raspberry tea. We had no reluctance in polishing it off.

Past & Presents is a lot of fun. What it may lack in culinary finesse it certainly makes up for in sense of humor.

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