By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – Someone has just dropped off a vegetable that Brandon Read, executive chef and co-owner of the Celestial Café, can’t identify.
The master of creative cooking is stumped by this exotic item which reportedly tastes like the liqueur Benedictine. This is not a disaster; it’s a challenge
“I’ll try it in a rhubarb pie or use it in a martini,” he vows. “Something good will come of it.”
The restaurant, in the Oak Harbour Village mall on South County Trail, will mark its ninth anniversary next month and for a place that’s far from the beaten path, it has become a destination for gourmands.
“We’re pretty busy all the time,” says Read, who calls his adventures in cuisine “comfort food with a new age twist.”
He grew up working in the family restaurant, the former DeRita’s, in Bonnet Shores, and this close-knit concept carries on today. His aunt, Cheryl Zannella, a server for nearly 30 years, is his partner at Celestial Café.
In the kitchen, Read is aided by his brother-in-law Jeffrey “Jazz” Sampson; Jeff’s wife, Marnee, who is Brandon’s sister, is a fulltime server; his mom, Cynthia Scuncio, is the manager and also serves; his uncle Ray Tanguay tends bar. Other employees include Read’s friends from high school.
And, of course, Brandon’s grandmother, Mary DeRita – known to everyone including non-family members as Nana – pitches in, too. “She makes the pickles and the relish,” he says. “A lot of what we do here is inspired by Nana. She’s Portuguese and had an Italian husband.
The restaurant business, he says, “is second nature to us. From the age of 16, I knew I was going to own a restaurant. It’s in our blood.”
In the past three years, the Celestial Café has become known for its monthly farm dinners featuring ingredients from area purveyors. The meal, served Thursday through Sunday, has a prix fixe price of $35 and includes five courses – appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert – plus a glass of wine, beer or non-alcoholic beverage.
It routinely attracts 60-70 diners a night.
The September farm dinner, served last week, included as an appetizer a combination plate of Narragansett Creamery cheese sticks and pickles made by Nana, both tossed in Newport Storm beer batter and deep fried. The soup was a rich tomato and basil topped with a Reynolds Barn goat cheese dumpling; this was followed by corn salsa salad.
The entrée choices were vegetarian, herb broth littlenecks or braised country pork shoulder from Pat’s Pastured and Stony Hill Cattle Co., served with Schartner’s tomatoes, S&P Gardiner Farm beans and onions, local garlic and greens and a Kenyon Grist Mill cornbread muffin.
Dessert was a peaches and cream whoopee pie concocted of yellow cake, Narragansett Angeline cheese frosting and Barden’s Family Orchard peaches sautéed in Thomas Two Newport Rum.
“I love these guys,” he says of the 16 farmers, brewers and vintners he routinely uses. “They’re young, on fire, really good. They’re out there pounding the streets [seeking markets.] It’s a great relationship.”
His connection with local growers began about three years when, he recalls, “I was spending a lot of money buying food from [commercial] vendors. I started looking around, asking ‘What can you grow for me?’”
When farmers had an abundant crop they worried would go bad, he’d buy it up and invent uses.
“I make eggplant relish, smoked peppers. It’s very seasonal. I buy bushels of apples, winter squash, eggplant, potatoes. Ten bushels of apples will take me through Christmas. I like a lot of flavor, color; I enjoy the presentation.”
He gladly takes shanks and brisket from livestock farmers then roasts or braises them all day till they’re so tender the meat falls off the fork.
“With farm pork, it’s darker, more flavorful, not dried. Farm chicken is pink, not yellow. After you’ve had it, you become a food snob.”
Read volunteers at farmers’ markets at URI and Casey Farm in North Kingstown, prepping and giving away food the growers put out for him on a table.
“People ask questions and I give away recipes,” he explains. In fact, three of his specialties will soon be included in a cookbook.
Read and Zannella share responsibility for running Celestial Café where the menu changes every three months, keeping things interesting.
“People bring in vegetables not usually on a menu,” she says. “He has no guidelines to prevent his being creative. He is so outside the box.”
For example, when was the last time you included popcorn in an elegant dessert?
“I was at a farmers’ market,” Read explains, “and the kettle corn guy asked to be on the menu.” He whipped up a rhubarb cobbler with oatmeal and kettle corn topping.
Zannella describes the taste. “The popcorn became sugar and cinnamon corn then it went into the oven and was crunchy. He put ice cream on it and it was amazing.”
Virtually everything is homemade at Celestial Café – all the salad dressings, soups, wontons, ravioli, teriyaki sauce, hand-cut French fries, chips and desserts.
When the economy took a drastic downturn, the restaurant adapted. The bar area was expanded to 35 seats because a lot of people prefer the relaxed atmosphere. Diners who had enjoyed filet mignon now weekly go through 50 pounds of deluxe burgers made from locally-grown beef.
Read’s visionary approach to cooking is attracting a younger, upscale clientele. “They’re finding us and driving to us. There’s not a lot of foot traffic out here.” In the beginning, he admits, “people thought I was a little crazy. Ten years ago we were ahead of ourselves. Now, people understand what we’re doing.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .