Order this... An eclectic menu at Eli’s

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 9:30am
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There’s a painting in Eli’s of the “old Eli’s.” It hangs on the wall at the end of the bar and, looking at it, I realize that the original place was actually next door to where Eli’s is now. Named after original owner David Silverberg’s childhood dog, the restaurant pays homage to dogs that have belonged to owners and long-time customers with photos on the wall of beloved four-legged friends.

Atlantic Inn owners Brad and Anne Marthens, and then-Executive Chef Ed Moon always liked to go to Eli’s for dinner, and at some moment in time in 2001 the restaurant went up for sale, a handshake deal was made in a bar, and it became the restaurant we all know now. Many things have changed in the intervening 18 years, but three items have remained on the menu and always will — the arugula salad with goat cheese, the tuna nachos, and some version of calamari. 

These three standards anchor an eclectic menu (including a very creative vegetarian menu) that brings in a little over a hundred customers a night in the summer, and allows the chefs to create specials that focus on a fresh vegetable or catch of the day. Eli’s is one of the few restaurants open past Columbus Day, and will stay open through New Year’s Eve with limited hours after the holiday weekend.

Eli’s also has the distinction of having one of the few female chefs on the island. Chef Erika Monat, under the supervision of Executive Chef Adi Mandel, starts her work each morning between 10 and 11 a.m. and by end of service and clean-up, usually after midnight, has logged anywhere from 18,000 to 25,000 steps on her Fitbit (that comes out to approximately seven miles every day). Eli’s and its sister restaurant, Restaurant 1879 at The Atlantic Inn, are also teaching restaurants and employ interns from culinary schools, which brought Erika to Eli’s. 

I asked Erika some basic questions about how she became a chef and what it’s like to work on the island, and then we talked further about being a female chef in a male-dominated industry.

Q: What’s your earliest food memory that made you think “I want to work in a restaurant”? 

A: When I started college at New England Culinary Institute, we went through all the classes and sections on the school and the part that interested me the most was the restaurant. After taking all my classes and working in different aspects of the culinary career paths —catering, baking, and line work at the restaurant — I enjoyed the restaurant the most.

Q: How did you end up cooking on Block Island?

A: I started my career on Block Island as an intern from NECI; I worked through my two internships out here at Eli’s. I learned a lot about food and fell in love with the island. When my second internship ended, I knew I wanted to return to Block Island and continue my career out here.

Q: What’s it like being a female chef on an island where most of the chefs are male? Do you find some things challenging or no difference at all?

A: Being a female chef on an island where males are the majority, as well as in the industry in general, is challenging at times. I realized early on that this could be a struggle I may have to face; but I also realized that if you work hard, know your stuff, and show your coworkers you mean business then gender doesn’t matter. I have noticed in a few moments in my career that it does affect the way some of the males react to my position in the kitchen. Just like anyone else, in any other field, I sometimes have to deal with being underestimated. But I work just as hard, and I feel confident in the work I do. 

Q: What is your favorite food to cook with on the island?

A: My favorite food to cook with on the island has got to be local striped bass. Because we are lucky enough to have a relationship with the farms and fishermen both on Block Island and Narragansett, we are able to get fresh, local and delicious striped bass! 

Q: Who was your most memorable customer?

A: My most memorable guests that have come to Eli’s would be a couple that sails from Florida every year to Block Island. They stay for one week and eat at Eli’s every night; they like to order a different thing every night to try the whole menu. A few times they have asked for me to come out to pay the kitchen compliments.

Q: If you’re eating out on the island, what other restaurant do you go to and what do you order?

A: I may be biased, but I love the Atlantic Inn’s Restaurant 1879. The food is delicious, constant and creative. I love to order the oyster shooters when I come in, it is a raw oyster placed into a shot of a classic mixed drink such as a martini or even a bloody.

Q: What is the one food you never want to eat again?

A: I would never again eat fish eyes; they have a very unappealing texture in my opinion.

Q: What’s your favorite dish to cook right now that you wish everyone would order at least once?

A: My favorite dish on the menu right now is the Sicilian-style tuna. This is a dish that is made with traditional Sicilian style ingredients, such as sun-dried tomatoes, capers, eggplant and olives.

Q: What would you want to eat for your last meal?

A: For my last meal, I would like to eat surf and turf, with a filet and shrimp, because those are my two favorite proteins.

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I asked Erika why she thinks there are not as many women who are working the line as she is, and, speaking from her experience, said that many of the women in her culinary class went on to become caterers and bakers because that life is more conducive to having a family and friends. She said that restaurant work is hard (seven miles a day!) and you take a beating, being on your feet all day and working long hours late into the night.  Her dad raised her to be tough and she learned early on how to hold her own with her peers, and that has served her well in the kitchen. As for mentors in the restaurant industry, which can be very machismo, Erika looks up to Barbara Lynch, who owns several restaurants in the Boston area where Chef Erika grew up.

My husband and I tasted four items from Eli’s menu: A steak dish with a vegetable tortilla pie, the Sicilian tuna entrée that Chef Erika spoke of in her interview, a calamari appetizer and a lemon curd parfait for the finish. The grilled calamari was a great surprise, as most of the calamari I’ve ever had has been small and fried. This squid was cut to the size of large steak fries and tasted smoky from the grill with a fork-tender consistency. Accompanied by an alla Mama lemony-garlic sauce, banana peppers, roasted red pepper and an olive puree, the dish comes together with salty, tangy and sweet notes that make this a perfect appetizer — enough to whet the palate but not fill you up prior to the meal. 

Our grilled churrasco skirt steak entrée is an ode to Adi’s parentage and his South American roots. In Argentina, where this style of cooking developed, churrasco actually refers to many types of meats prepared on the grill. The churrasco cut steak is a long flat cut of skirt steak, cut from the plate of the cow, and is marinated to make it tender and full of flavor. Rajas poblano peppers, the vegetable tortilla and spicy red sauce, are redolent of southern hemisphere tastes. We found the dish both complex and hearty.

My husband commented that the steak “melts in your mouth,” and we both loved the queso cheese and grilled vegetables with the tortilla.

Chef Erika’s Sicilian Tuna dish was another standout — a delicate, salty olive tapenade tops a perfectly seared Ahi tuna that, like the steak, was fork-cut tender. Local Italian peppers and a beautiful soft eggplant caponata melded these flavors together in almost symphonic fashion. We concluded our tasting with a lemon curd parfait topped with blackberries, brandy-macerated blueberries, whipped cream and Nilla wafers. 

Some people may feel anything chocolate is the perfect dessert, but my idea of a consummate finish to a meal is this —  tart, sweet, a crunch of wafer, the sourness of a bite of apricot, and creamy lemon to tie it all together.

Each bite was a exclamation point to the tastes that preceded it, and we left Eli’s feeling sated and delighted by the exciting combination of flavors Chef Erika and Adi have used to create the eclectic menu that defines Eli’s.