(Stove's exceptional jumbo shrimp cocktail with tequila lime cocktail sauce)
Stove (45-17 28th Ave., Astoria)
"Oh perfect choices! That makes me so happy!" our server smiles and lightly claps her hands in approval as we turn in the order for our main dishes. How often are you met with a server who not only knows every ingredient in each dish, but seems to genuinely love the food she is serving, investing in it as if it came from her own kitchen? With fiery Irish locks of hair the color of glowing embers juxtaposed with the equally warm hospitality and slight drawl of the south, she offers that rare level of service that almost seems to even make the food taste better. Not that the food here needs any help at all. Everything we tried was quite simply outstanding.
At Stove, chef-owner Declan Cass has brilliantly executed a menu that is as diverse as any I have seen, yet expertly edited and focused, each dish prepared with meticulous care. A small, intimate dining room with white linens, dimly lit by sconces, seems somehow lifted directly from Manhattan's upper east side. And after finishing our last sips of cappuccino, I have to wonder were it located anywhere closer to the trains, if it would even be possible to grab a seat. Stove's dishes are deliciously addictive. Sunday brunch at Stove is rumored to be one of the best anywhere, and Chef Declan was even recently featured in the New York Times for his corned-beef hash.
The dinner menu runs the gamut from steamed Prince Edward Island mussels to hickory smoked barbecue ribs, a bubbling crock of browned cheese-capped french onion soup to pate maison with toast points. Entrees range from trout meuniere and honey-glazed pork chops to chicken kiev and wiener schnitzel. Somewhat overwhelmed by the options, we decided to sample some classics from across the pond (considering the chef's Irish heritage), along with a few recommendations from our server.
After a satisfying bread service appetite-quencher, our feast begins with baked stuffed clams with bacon bits, herbs, and a paprika crust. Another server, a native of Ireland and longtime friend of the Cass family, has a distinct twinkle in her eye when she checks to see how we enjoy the appetizer. "It's unbelievable how so very many ingredients are combined in such a small dish." She's right. These clams are exponentially superior to any version I have ever tasted, and as soon as they are gone, I wish we had savored them a little longer. Like fluffy seafood cakes in a clam shell, they contain the perfect blend of bread crumbs, minced clams, a hint of clam juice, a whole spring garden of seasonings, garlic, and a crown of Irish smoked bacon, simultaneously smoky, salty, crunchy, and tender. You don't even need the lemon wedge, although the drip of citrus illuminates the flavors even more.
Our other starter is master class in shrimp cocktail, jumbo prawns, sweet and tender, shelled with the exception of the tail, accompanied by a tangy, just spicy enough cocktail sauce, kissed with a hint of tequila and fresh lime.
The baked shepherd's pie arrives in a casserole dish the size of a large football, and is the ideal comfort food for the drizzling freezing rain and snow-slushed sidewalks outside. A blend of winter vegetables such as peas and carrots are stewed in a gorgeously seasoned minced meat gravy that smells deliciously of a hint of Worcestershire. The hearty meat stew is adorned with artful pipings of whipped potatoes like a savory decorated cake, with crispy golden peaks browned while baking in the oven. I am in love with this version of an Irish classic, and it makes me want to curl up by the fireplace with a mug of Jameson and coffee and slowly drift to sleep.
The server asks if we are finished with the bread, and my dear friend and dining companion this evening, Rachael, nearly throws her body over the basket in disapproval. "We need it for chip butties," I think she says, but I shake it off as something lost in translation. Rachael nearly gasps as our next entree approaches the table. She is from England, and a huge part of what I adore about her is her British slang. A wobbly stroller is called a wonky-wheeled pram, and the oversized stocking cap she gave me this winter is called a slouchy beanie. So as the platter of fish and chips arrives, I can only chuckle in anticipation as she exclaims again, "I can't wait to make a chip butty!"
Within moments, Rachael tears off pieces of the table bread and slathers them with butter, before building a sandwich of french fries (chips). "You have to make it right away," she explains, "while the chips are warm enough to melt the butter." Apparently "butty" is a term for sandwich, and chip butties are common and popular wherever fish and chips are served. As a matter if fact, one of the fan songs for Sheffield United is known as the "Greasy Chip Butty Song" (alternative lyrics to the tune of John Denver's "Annie's Song"). The chip butty is surprisingly tasty, and I may have finally found a vegetarian sandwich I enjoy...
The fish and chips are unlike any I have tasted, and Rachael instantly affirms that her mother, who is extremely picky when it comes to fish and chips, would immensely approve. Flaky but moist white fish is ever-so-delicately battered and fried. These fish planks are not greasy at all, but rather light as air. Generous filets of tender, juicy seafood with a remarkably thin, crispy coating are absolutely divine as we dip them in a new england style tartar sauce. The thick chips are perhaps the best fries in Astoria, substantial fingers of hearty potato hand cut and lightly fried, even more delicious when doused liberally with malt vinegar. I cannot imagine that even the most highly acclaimed fish and chips in Manhattan could rival the version at Stove.
For dessert, our waitress informs us that Declan has just removed an apple-blueberry pie from the oven, and so we order a slice a la mode. Tart blueberries and sweet apples are baked into an exquisite compote wrapped in a lattice of buttery, flaky, pastry. This slice of pie alone is worth the visit.
Although our waitress swears there is no match for Declan's chocolate mousse, we vow to try it on our next visit, already having been delightfully filled with a spread of rich and decadent dishes. The sherry trifle, layered with cherries, pears, pineapple, jello, and english custard, is the perfect ending to our proper Irish dinner, and we stumble out the door with both stomachs and spirits fed. And though we couldn't tuck another morsel in our mouths, already we are planning Sunday brunch to enjoy the corned-beef hash, traditional Irish breakfast, and eggs royale.