Monday, August 13, 2007

REVIEW: The Coast Guard House- *** / $$$

The Coast Guard House is a tough place to review. It's got so much charm that often middling food is overshadowed by eminently friendly service, architecture, character, and sights. It's places like this that help me see why guides such as The Michelin and the Gault Milleau only review based on the food and not on other aspects, such as AAA or Frommer's.

The Coast Guard House is set in, get this, a coast guard house. A real one. It was built in 1888 as a life-saving station to go along with Narragansett's status as a resort destination. The archway known as The Towers is all that remains of this bygone era, being the last remnant of the once mighty casino which had a weird penchant for burning down. The third time it went down, they just gave up.

Arriving, situated ON the water, with cool sea breezes sending waves of salty air dancing across your cheeks, the relics of 19th century Rhode Island towering above you, and the calls of sea gulls adding an impromptu soundtrack to your entrance, the Coast Guard House impresses without even having to do anything. On busy summer nights, this impression can be ruined by the unending waves of loud people, cars, and boats. But come on a cool night in the summer, or after the tourist season has passed, and prepare to be just blown away.

Finally entering the dining area does nothing to dampen your impression (This doesn't include The Deck which is mentioned in the note). The bar area is wide and luxurious. Flat screen televisions abound for game nights, showing that the management holds no sense of self-importance. They want customers. Service has always been eager, pleasant, and artfully danced the line between chattiness and professionalism. Table dress is excellent and our waiter once even commented that our silverware wasn't "acceptable" and whisked some of it away for new.

And now for what the night is all about, the view. The view is unparalleled almost anywhere in the world. During sundown, the sky lights up with all manner of colors and shades. Sea gulls drift in the wind. Water crashes on the rocks below. And as night settles in, lights begin to twinkle and dance on the Narragansett shore, Newport becomes visible in the distance, and the periodic flash of the Jamestown lighthouse makes itself known.

Unfortunately, the food does not match the view, the location, or the atmosphere. The Coast Guard House is an example of what can happen when grand ambitions are either unfocused or backed up with a kitchen that just can't handle it. Presentations are always well done, but the quality of preparation can really suffer. One night, the diver scallops can be large and perfectly prepared, and another night be overdone and gritty. Steaks are a real crap shoot. The clam chowder comes in an incredibly impressive bowl, but lacks any chunks. There is no potato and one bowl had no clam in it. It comes across as more of a bisque. For what it is, it's very good, but I wanted clam chowder.

Difficult-to-cook fish steaks are also dodgey, depending on who's in the kitchen or how burdened the place is. Crab cakes are served with almost no aioli, apparently to be artistic. Sometimes, they're excellent, other times they're greasy and over-cooked. A real star is the stuffed lobster, which, possibly because it's so heavily pre-prepared, is always well done. A real knock against the menu is its total lack of variety. It does not venture much into continental and the heavily seafood bias leaves those who don't like seafood are limited to, pretty much, steak.

Desserts are usually good, but their star, the Black Oyster, varies in quality and preparation with the rest of the menu. Sometimes the mousse bombe in the middle of the wafer "shell" is shaped poorly and the mousse is dry. Other times, it's perfectly round with scrumptious mousse. Orange creme brulee is dee-lish. Coffee is interesting. I ordered a cappuccino and got the smallest cup-o-cheeno I've ever gotten. It was only slightly larger than your average espresso. Nothing against Euro-style, but at over six feet tall and 220 pounds, I need more caffeine than that.

Everything taken into account, there is nothing about The Coast Guard house that is bad. It's all adequate to excellent. But the wildly varying quality levels and preparation inflict a big hit on the overall experience. I certainly recommend it to anyone in the area, and for the experience, I'd even say it's worth a drive. But only if they can tighten up their kitchen, recipes, preparation, and expand the menu will The Coast Guard House match its atmosphere with its food.

NOTE: The Coast Guard House also has The Deck. The Deck is used exclusively for the summer tourist season and is open-air. It takes up the bulk of the roof and has ample first-come-first-serve seating. It's menu is cheap and is limited to traditional, Rhode Island seafood such as clam cakes and chowder. The food is good, but it's real intention is as an al fresco bar for tourists. The food is decent and cheap, but the drinks are the real money-maker for them and they cost more than in the house proper.

The Coast Guard House: ***
Price range for two: $25-$65

The Coast Guard House
40 Ocean Rd
Narragansett, RI 02882-1397
401-789-0700 (Reservations accepted)

Brunch: Sunday 10:00am to 2:00pm
Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:30am to 3:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Thursday 5:00pm-10:00pm, Friday and Saturday 5:00pm-11:00pm, Sunday 4pm-10pm

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