By now we should expect an ample dose of the absurd from Stone Mad owner Pete Leneghan. After all, who else would invest untold dollars and countless hours erecting a "legacy bar" on an out-of-the-way block in an "up-and-coming" neighborhood? Who other than eccentric "American Pete" would forbid the installation of TVs or jukeboxes, so as to encourage good old-fashioned conversation? Who, for heaven's sake, puts an Italian bocce court inside an Irish pub?
Leneghan, for those who don't know, is the gentleman who once installed a large tree in a bar. That place, Tremont's Treehouse, seems to be faring just fine. His latest endeavor, one that has literally been years in the making, turns the notion of "neighborhood pub" on its head. Every detail, from the hand-laid cobblestone parking lot to the hand-rubbed walnut woodwork, has been composed in the finest manner possible. If the place didn't serve Guinness ($6), it would make an exceptional men's clothing store.
Stone Mad features two barrooms, an expansive patio and the restaurant dining room. The first bar is bright, lively and loud, owing to a tin ceiling and tiled floors. Its large storefront window looks out onto West 65th Street. The interior barroom is darker and more tranquil, with warm woods, a fireplace hearth and deeply coffered ceiling. Both rooms could pass as original to the 100-year-old structure.
In stark contrast, the restaurant feels like an addition. It was added on to make room for the sunken bocce court, which runs the length of the narrow room. To play up the Italian motif, tables are dressed with red-and-white checked tablecloths. (Thankfully, they are not plastic.) A very large wall-mounted chalkboard obviates the need for menus. But for the neck-craning souls seated with their backs to the board, the approach works great.
The reason the chalkboard menu works so well is because there is very little on it. The incongruity is as striking as the patio's 20-foot stone chimney. For a pub now famous for over-the-top embellishment, Stone Mad's cuisine is, by comparison, remarkably simplistic. In a place where grand flourishes turn up around every bend - yes, even in the loo - one would be hard pressed to uncover a single surprise on the food menu. This is not meant to imply a lack of quality, merely a lack of imagination.
Stone Mad takes the concept of back-to-basics almost to its conclusion. There are two salads, a burger, a brisket sandwich, some meatloaf, a steak and daily fish and pasta specials. But don't let the lack of variety fool you. Executive chef Michael Fadel, former partner in Sage Bistro, manages to eke out maximum flavor from these seemingly pedestrian dishes. Excellent technique coupled with fine ingredients means that most items come out tasting great. And for the most part, prices are good and cheap.
A cup of chicken and broccoli soup ($3) is pleasantly creamy without being leaden. Potato, chicken and broccoli are all diced finely, providing an elegant texture, and raw scallions add a little snap. Less enjoyable is the potato and bacon soup ($3). The chunky chowder has a disagreeably sour taste, and it arrives less than hot.
Don't ask me what an appetizer of baba ghanoush ($6) is doing in an Italian-themed restaurant tucked inside an Irish pub, but the dish works. Served with grilled flatbread, the puree is smooth, lemony and not overly smoky.
Stone Mad's kitchen lacks, by design, a deep fryer. This likely makes it the world's only Irish pub without fish and chips. It also means that if you'd like a side of potatoes with your burger, expect home fries. Thin-sliced and sautéed in a pan, the potatoes are similar to those you'd find in a diner, though not as crispy. I enjoy an order alongside a heavenly beef brisket sandwich ($11.50), the meat slow-braised until buttery. I didn't much enjoy shelling out an extra $3.50, though.
Over time, these add-ons can seem kind of chintzy. Want cheese on your burger? That's 50 cents. Bacon? Tack on another buck. One night's pasta special is rigatoni ($9) and meatballs ($3). Yep, the balls are extra. When we ask our server if the kitchen offers side salads, she says no, but suggests we split the Italian salad. At $10, we pass. But on a subsequent visit, the salad does make a fine and filling lunch, loaded as it is with fresh greens, pepperoni, capicola, salami and cheese.
When it comes to dessert, Stone Mad really goes for simplicity: It resells fat slices of Carnegie Deli N.Y.-style cheesecake ($6). Ungodly rich and velvety, the cake is four fingers thick and impossible to finish. The strawberry garnish, I'm happy to report, is free. email@example.com