Exeter isn’t what we like to call the restaurant capital of Rhode Island. As a teacher in Exeter, my options for after-school dining are limited. On in-service days, teachers often grab breakfast at the Middle of Nowhere Diner. Yet through the years, the Celestial Cafe has remained the class of the Exeter dining scene. Many a EWGTA party has been held here, and it’s always been good. I hadn’t been in for a proper dinner recently, so I was eager to go.
The Celestial Cafe opened for business in 2002 with a mission to provide locally sourced food. Back then, farm-to-table wasn’t at the forefront of the local food scene, but co-owner Branden Read bought from local farms as a way to support the businesses he admired. The restaurant is located on South County Trail in an upscale plaza close to Schartner Farms. The restaurant space is open, comfortable, and more sophisticated than you expect it to be. The bar area is large with plenty of seats for watching URI hoops or Boston Celtics games.
The beer and cocktail lists focus on local producers. Just about every cocktail is made with some sort of spirit from Wakefield’s Sons of Liberty. My friend and I have been on a craft beer kick, so we ordered Warwick’s Proclamation Derivative/Galaxy Style on draft. They also had plenty of other local choices including selections from Grey Sail, Whaler’s, Ragged Island, and Shaidzon – to name a few. If you like craft beer, this is the place for you. I’m always quick to remark when a restaurant doesn’t have local beer, and Celestial Cafe has it in spades.
I would consider the menu to be vegetable-centric comfort food. It’s eclectic – from jambalaya to ramen to BBQ ribs. Yet, what all the food has in common is the abundance of fresh produce brought to each dish. At first I thought, “if you don’t like vegetables, this might not be the place for you,” but even veggie haters shouldn’t despair because every dish is cooked to order, and you can get something customized to your liking. The restaurant is also very good about food allergies and many things can be made gluten free (including the pizza crust).
For starters, we were intrigued by the Lobster Rangoon special. The fried wontons were stuffed with cream cheese and lobster meat and then finished with a spicy thai peanut sauce. We also sampled the Stuffed Wickford Oysters. The oysters were stuffed with gluten free bread crumbs, smoked pork belly, pickled red onion, Laurel Hill Farm spring mix, and garlic-chili butter. There was a lot going on in this dish, and although all of the components were delicious and well prepared, the oysters seemed a bit overwhelmed. We didn’t opt for any thin crust pizza, but I’ve had it many times and can vouch for its quality. The toppings are unique and fresh (think Pat’s Pastured pulled pork and smoked kielbasa with Narragansett Creamery cheeses).
Though neither of us ordered vegetarian meals, we got our daily vegetable intake with our entrees. I chose the Winter Catch. On this night, the featured fish was Atlantic salmon. The salmon, though good, was such a small part of this dish. The fish was surrounded by roasted garlic brussels sprouts and carrots, gluten free buttermilk fried leeks, red wine poached cranberries, dressed salad greens, and served with a horseradish aioli.
My friend had the Petite Filet Mignon. The 8 oz filet was perfectly cooked (though under seasoned) and so tender you could cut it with a butter knife. Along with the beef, she was served fresh-roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, and whipped potatoes.
Once a month, the Celestial Cafe hosts local farm dinners. For $45, the price fixed dinner includes either a local beer, wine or a crafted cocktail in addition to a 4-5 course meal. February’s menu featured Kale and Arugula Rocket Soup, Green Leaf Salad, Stuffed Portabella Mushroom, Loaded Fingerling Potatoes, and Coffee Crème Brulee. These dinners are very popular, and reservations are highly recommended.
Working in Exeter, I am used to partaking in the town’s farming life. One of my students brings me in a huge bag of produce each week and a student (before she graduated) used to bring me in a dozen farm fresh eggs every other week. The Celestial Cafe takes its farm central location and uses it to the fullest. There is no need to order vegetables from a Cisco truck when you have such an abundance of produce grown right at your doorstep.