Order this... Eli’s
Eli’s restaurant is nestled downtown at the intersection of Chapel Street and Weldon’s Way. Each night, a line of people forms a little before 6 p.m. who know that, once the door opens, every table will fill up quickly with patrons who are here for some of the freshest farm-to-table food you will find on Block Island. Chef Erika Monet, by way of Norton, Mass., and a stint at the New England Culinary Institute, takes her promotion to Executive Chef quite seriously. Her established relationships with mainland purveyors Hillendale Farm, Rose Hill Farm, and Narragansett Bay Lobsters have led her to create a menu teeming with local ingredients and creative dishes. Nightly specials reflect early-in-the-day conversations with these purveyors that begin with “What do you have that’s fresh?” And the customers sitting at the bar and tables enjoy the rejoinder to that conversation.
Eli’s is named after the original owner’s childhood dog, and pictures of customers’ and owners’ dogs adorn the walls along with artwork depicting the original grinder shop in its heyday. The restaurant is small with an L-shape bar and a door side coatrack, though usually empty during the summer, can sometimes be bursting with raincoats or down coats once the season turns in September. Customers are dressed casually and seated at two-and four-top tables; bigger parties are easily accommodated by combining a table or two. No reservations means that tables turn once or twice a night, and often new friendships are sparked by the people waiting outside for a table to open up. The waitstaff weave seamlessly around the room, filling water glasses, serving fresh bread knots with tapenade and signature martinis from the bar.
Lobster Gnudi (pronounced “nudie”) is a delicious, light appetizer to start a dining experience. Soft pillowy bites of the dill-infused tiny dumplings are cooked in lobster broth, bathing the butter-poached lobster, summer corn salad and heirloom tomato in a savory sauce that balances nicely with the sweetness of the seafood. The Smoked Boar Belly Bacon is a great dish to share for those with generous appetites. Dried for two days and then smoked for three hours, the tender meat is lightly dressed with an Alabama white barbecue sauce that also accompanies a fresh herb and fennel salad. The tangy taste of the sauce, redolent with a hint of fresh horseradish, is a nice contrast with the marinated endive leaves that complete this hearty starter. Our entrees were best described by Chef Erika as a play on the culinary theme of “American meets Asian:” Pan Roasted Duck Breast was cooked perfectly medium and drizzled with homemade plum barbecue sauce, accompanied by creamed corn spoon bread, local grilled squash and topped with a cucumber and cipollini salad. The tangy sourness of the plum sauce enhanced the flavor of the duck and was a nice contrast with the sweetness of the spoon bread —comfort food at its best. A second entree was also a nice play on an Asian dish — Tom Kha Gai makes an entrance here with an pan-seared ahi tuna loin instead of the usual chicken, making the dish a lighter version of itself. Oyster mushrooms, scallions, charred broccoli, jalapeños and ginger add a smokey heft to the aromatic broth, and wonderfully slippery rice noodles go well with the tender tuna. Coconut milk cuts the spice nicely leaving a warm heat with echoes of basil and cilantro on the palate. For dessert we shared a Key Lime Carrot Cake. Instead of a slice of thick cake laden with cream cheese frosting, Chef turned this dessert upside down and created a light and savory muffin-size carrot cake sprinkled with fresh orange zest and nestled in a small puddle of key lime custard; allowing each person to add as much or little sweetness as desired to each bite.
What everyone else is eating/drinking:
Eli’s is most often filled with regulars and locals, and the night I visited it was certainly more of the former. Lynn and Bobby from Astoria told me that they “stumbled in here the first time seven years ago, and now we eat here two times a week.” The couple own a restaurant and they “know good food, and the chef here really cares about what she’s making.” They’ve eaten the Shrimp Pasta and the Filet, pronounced both “excellent” and also noted that the service is top-notch as well. Jeff and Valerie from Greenwich, Conn., were sitting at the bar. Jeff has been coming to Block Island since he was eight years old and Valerie has been coming with him for over 20 years. Both said the “food is amazing, the staff is great, and the service is phenomenal.” They like sitting at the bar because “it’s no stress, very comfortable and fun to see everyone.” Jeff and Valerie dine here at least three or four times every summer and get the “tuna nachos, the Eli’s burger, the duck, the gazpacho — it’s all great.” Their advice to people who haven’t visited yet: “Don’t miss it if you get a chance to come here.” Tim, Sunny, and Nina from Manchester, Vermont, agree. They’ve been here before and this time enjoyed the halibut, shrimp pasta, tuna nachos, summer salad, Lobster Gnudi, and said that they “love the freshness of the food, the setting, and that when you eat here, you feel like you’re a local.” Rhonda and Grace from Connecticut have “always come to Eli’s because the food and service are excellent, the martinis are great, the menu is diverse and interesting and it’s just a great spot.” Though they prefer to dine outdoors, they said the Eli’s “assets outweigh the lack of view.” They love Emily (“She always remembers us!”) and “she makes the best martini we’ve ever had.” The women shared tuna nachos and an Eli’s burger, and Rhonda reiterated Jeff and Valerie’s earlier sentiment: “Do yourselves a favor and and enjoy a first-class meal and service at Eli’s.”