Anyone who has lived in southern Rhode Island since the '70s, as we have, has almost surely discovered the then-hippie/now retro-hippie enclave of the Fantastic Umbrella Factory. There used to be a sign out front explaining that it was named the Umbrella Factory "because." Perhaps that's also true for Small Axe Productions, which has managed the craft shops and mini-businesses that are set amid sprawling gardens (floral and vegetal), greenhouses, animal pens (goats, rabbits, and emus are currently big attractions), an amazing bamboo forest (don't get lost!), and . . . a café.
RURAL CHARM at Small Axe.
After a hiatus of four years, Small Axe Café reopened last summer and has slowly but steadily been re-discovered by South County-ites and summer visitors alike. The café is tucked into one side of a large barn-like structure. The expansive store on the other side has always been a haven for wide-eyed children and hip (if not hippie) clothing mavens.
But the food is distinctly not a throwback to those early vegetarian days. Chef Mark Pendola, who was a sous-chef at Up River Café for four years, emphasizes local products (veggies and herbs from out back), made-from-scratch sauces, and creative recipes. We were first won over at brunch: by the homemade corned beef hash ("the best ever!" Bill said) and the banana-almond bread pudding presented as French toast, with plenty of extra fruit and nuts surrounding it and "real" maple syrup for no extra charge.
We decided to come back for dinner and had similarly inventive and tasty dishes. We began with soups, potato/leek for me and tomato bisque for Bill ($3.50/$6), They were both very hearty for that chilly May evening. And so was the other starter we ordered, the baked mac and cheese with achiote, broccoli, and cheddar ($8). Achiote is a seed used in Latin American and Indian cuisine, and it gave a complimentary mustiness to the rich cheddar and earthy broccoli.
The four entrées that evening (they change seasonally, and there are occasional specials) were duck breast ($18), flounder ($17), braised chicken with farfalle pasta and broccoli rabe, and pan-seared polenta with king oyster mushrooms, roasted shallots, and goat cheese. We ordered the first two and were pleased with our choices.
Bill once again declared the sliced duck breast "the best ever," partially due to his taste buds' preference for anything with Asian spices. The duck had been marinated in oil and rice vinegar, with lime juice, soy sauce, scallions, and fresh ginger. It was served with coconut rice (presumably cooked in coconut milk), pea pods, baby carrots, and watercress. He was speechless with delight.
I have a recent craving for flounder, and this was nicely seared with orange slices atop, accompanied by roasted vegetables, including carrots, beets, and asparagus. My only quibble would be that the fish was too heavily salted.
The only dessert at Small Axe that night was Key lime pie, and we took one home, with our leftovers, to nibble on for a couple days. It was creamy and tart and almost didn't need the whipped cream on top. I'm not a fan of graham-cracker crusts, but I definitely appreciated the lack of gelatin in the pie itself.