[Sidebar] June 17 - 24, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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The Sea Fare's American Cafe

Seafood stars in a casual atmosphere

by Johnette Rodriguez

Brick Market Place, Newport, 849-9188
Open Sun-Thurs, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri and Sat, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Handicapped access

George and Anna Karousos' award-winning Sea Fare Inn in Portsmouth has spawned two other restaurants in recent years: the Sea Fare's American Cafe in downtown Newport and the Abbey Grill in Fall River. At one time, Chef Karousos's passion and enthusiasm for cooking led him to write food columns and cookbooks, to dig deep into culinary history (Archestratios, in the time of Pericles, wrote the first cookbook, Karousos informs me), and to teach cooking whenever and wherever he could. Presently, he is focused on passing along his knowledge and expertise to the young chefs at his three restaurants and supervising the school he established in Fall River, the International Institute of Culinary Arts.

At the American Cafe, Karousos has striven for an atmosphere that feels like, in his words, a "casual meetingplace" -- a sharp contrast to the opulence of the Victorian mansion in Portsmouth that is the site of the original Sea Fare Inn. The patterned wallpaper and plush Oriental carpets of the Sea Fare become wood-paneled walls and hardwood floors in the American Cafe. Traces of elegance remain: linen napkins and oil lamps on the tables; plush couches in a lounge area near the wrap-around bar; striking and oversized floral arrangements in several places in the restaurant.

The menus are also oversized, to accommodate the cafe's many offerings and to display them in non-squinty typeface. Whatever your appetite, you should be able to find something to fit it: there are small salads, entree salads (grilled tuna, salmon or chicken over greens), soups, burgers, sandwiches, appetizers, "small plates," pastas and pizzas as well as seafood, meat or poultry entrees. (The luncheon menu offers many of the same appetizers and small-portion items, plus a few more sandwiches and several scaled-down entrees.)

With our own leanings backed up by recommendations from our personable waiter Victor, we chose a seafood pasta dish ($15.95) and a baked scrod ($14.95) for our dinners, and lobster fritters ($8.95) to start us off. Karousos' strong suit has always been seafood, and at the cafe he struts his stuff, from a raw bar sampler to baked stuffed lobster, with stops along the way for grilled swordfish, BBQ-glazed salmon and the requisite clam chowder. "It's thin," warned Boston native Victor. "That's O.K., it's Rhode Island-style," we parried, with a smile.

The quintet of lobster fritters quickly arrived. They were saffron-yellow, served around mesclun greens and a citrus aioli. For my taste, the fritters were too greasy, but there were generous chunks of crustacean meat in the batter.

My husband Bill loved his linguine, smothered in a light tomato-basil sauce, with plenty of scallops and shrimp, a lobster tail and four littlenecks. We wondered about the crabmeat, listed so prominently in the menu, but Bill surmised that it was incorporated into the sauce, and Victor confirmed this analysis.

My cod fillet had been triple-dipped in flour, cornmeal and, surprise, surprise, crushed potato chips. That crunchy coating against the soft flesh of the fish was a real delight. Picking up the potato theme of the crust was a circle of mashed potatoes under the fillet and surrounding them both was a delicious and creamy red pepper sauce, with a slight bite to it.

Three side dishes were served family style with our dinners: beets in a garlic sauce, carrots in an orange sauce and cold cannellini beans, marinated with minced red onions, celery and green peppers. The beets were fine but I didn't like the hard inner core of the beans -- most beans will stay firm even if they are cooked until truly tender. The orange sauce on the carrots had an unpleasant undertaste, and the mashed potatoes tasted as if they had hung around too long. Both of these side dishes detracted from the carefully prepared fish.

Two of the half-dozen desserts ($4.95 each) at Sea Fare's American Cafe are house-made: the sliced apples baked in phyllo dough and the chocolate meltaway, winner of Newport Life's award for best dessert in '97 and '98. This is a chocolate cupcake baked with warm chocolate pudding in its middle. It is served steaming hot in the middle of a small pond of delectable vanilla, chocolate and raspberry sauces. We split this decadent finale, and declared it a winner indeed.

Perhaps Karousos' love for preparing food creatively is best expressed in the large romantic paintings of his friend Alexandre Kauznekov, which hang in the restaurant: A flood of water fills an Italian gallery; a frazzle-mopped composer bends over his piano; a ballerina floats through the dark sky. You can almost picture chef Karousos in the kitchen, conducting a culinary symphony, a whisk in one hand, a wooden spoon in the other.

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