[Sidebar] July 8 - 15, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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Doggone good food

by Bill Rodriguez

457 Chapel St., Block Island, 466-5230
Open Mon-Sun, 5-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Handicapped access (limited aisle space)

The way I figure it, if I'm in a resort town and planning to pay higher-than-Providence restaurant prices anyway, I better go for funky atmosphere as well as good food. It's to remind myself of my common humanity. On Block Island, if you dine at the Atlantic or the Manisses, the elegant ambiance, as well as the bill, might make you think you're a Rockefeller. At Eli's, though, the whimsical atmosphere will elicit nothing more harmful than fantasies of being fed to death.

Eli was chef/owner David Silverberg's late, beloved black lab, and the restaurant is sort of his memorial. Judging by the food there, Eli must have been the Brillat-Savarin of dogdom. No kibbles en brochette, but some of the human equivalents I sampled could prompt sighs of satisfaction.

Reminders of the restaurant's namesake are everywhere. There's a dapper Eli in a chef's toque greeting you at the door, one in stained glass amidst doggy bric-a-brac on a wall, even a wrought iron one in the restroom. Eli and assorted canine pals cavort in snapshots under several tables' glass tops. The decor sustains that informal tone, from knotty pine wainscoting to wildflowers on tables, displayed in preserve and Mason jars.

A corner bar fills maybe a quarter of the small place, so you have to sidle between closely spaced tables. There's a decent wine list, with several available by the glass, although on this humid day it was the Anchor Steam beer on draft that won me over. An immediate disappointment, however, was the complimentary garlic bread: not only stingy with the active ingredient, but rather spongy for the French bread it looked to be modeled after. Chacon a son gout.

Appetizers and salads ranged from a black bean hummus crudite ($7) and pan-poached local mussels ($9.50) to salmon carpaccio ($11.50) and a tempting lobster salad on buckwheat soba noodles tossed with satay sauce ($13.50). We chose the smoked fish assortment ($10.50). Three sizeable pieces of bluefish, mackerel and salmon came on a bed of mixed lettuce, accompanied by marinated Bermuda onions, crackers and a sour cream/Dijon dip. It was great with the beer.

When Eli's opened in 1992, next door to its present digs, it received an immediate and enthusiastic reputation for its array of imaginative pastas. On our visit, only four of the 15 entrees were pastas, chef Silverberg having expanded into realms of hoisin duck, cumin-floured chicken breast and surf 'n' turf. Although his signature shrimp puttanesca is no longer a daily offering, a special we couldn't resist was scallops with wild mushroom ravioli ($26). The preparation was unusual: chopped-mushroom ravioli baked under copious mozzarella, accompanied by fresh asparagus, numerous and huge sea scallops, plus whole crimini, porcini and oyster mushrooms, which are strong tasting enough to stand out of the melange. The mascarpone pink sauce was delicate enough to not mask the scallops. A successful combination.

Being in a harbor town, we had to try the fresh seafood, too. Several of the offerings at Eli's incorporate Asian yellowfin steak was encrusted with regular and black sesame seeds, seared on the outside and medium rare inside. Taste contrasts and complements to the mild fish were plentiful and varied: delicate fresh mangoes and roasted red peppers next to mixed wild and saffron rice; string and wax beans next to a robust ratatouille-strength red sauce fortifying chunks of eggplant. I would have been in heaven with some wasabi and maybe a teriyaki dipping sauce. As it was, the dish made being earth-bound quite pleasant enough.

The portions of both entrées were huge, easily enough to fill two people. That is such a sensible practice that there is a hefty $7 charge for splitting an order onto two plates, though nothing would prevent you from sharing one appetizer and one main dish. Eli's prices are quite high for such an otherwise down-scale place, with most of the day's entrée specials $30 or more.

Despite the plenty, Johnnie and I felt professionally bound to have dessert. Although tiramisu and two kinds of cheesecake are kitchen-made there, I had a hankering for their carrot cake ($5.50). Fresh out of the oven, it was worth the wait for it to cool off so that the delicious, not-too-sweet cream-cheese frosting could be applied. Definitively yummy.

For a shrine, Eli's sure is a fine restaurant. At the risk of the chef choking up over it, don't hesitate to ask for a doggie bag.

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