Restaurant review: Stash's Cafe in New London

Following a perhaps fated and circuitous path, Stash's Café in New London is once more under the purview of Steve "Stash" Schiavone. The popular, all-are-welcome establishment - where judges happily eat next to bikers next to members of a retirees' book club - was for years operated by Graham Thompson, who bought the restaurant from Schiavone almost six years ago.

A few months back, though, Thompson decided to move in different directions, and Stash, with his son Anthony onboard, reassumed command of the Café. There are plenty of the Thompson Era staff still working, and while the Schiavones have made some cosmetic adjustments, it's almost like Stash's is Bigger than whoever might hold the deed at any given moment.

That said, Thompson had expanded the menu in some creative directions. The new Stash's culinary offerings come in a stripped-down format - soups, appetizers, salads, burgers and sandwiches, entrees; a few solid options in each category.

To start, Blue Chips ($4.95) is an evilly seductive premise, wonderfully pulled off. The house-made potato chips are ladled with a thick blue cheese sauce, chopped fresh tomato, and crumbled bacon. HA! A note: my wife and I enjoyed a superb dinner at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain a few years back, and one of the fine elements was an appetizer of blue cheese potato chips. Here's the truth: Stash's Blue Chips are more cleverly conceptualized and, frankly, they're better. (How cool would a Blue Chip showdown be? Bring it on, Bobby!)

Another cool appetizer, which absolutey works as a stand-alone entrée, would be the Stash's Quesadilla ($7.95), a robust dance of onion, jalapeno, tomato, olive, shredded cheddar-jack cheese, and sour cream chambered snuggly in toasted flour tortillas. A side of tart salsa is at the ready, to be doled out as necessary.

For an extra three bucks, you can add pulled BBQ pork or chicken; we went with the former. The pork is lean and smoky - more chunky than shredded - and has a nice sweetness balanced by the heat-sparks of the jalapenos. The flavor of the pork doesn't go particularly well with the salsa, but there was enough flavor to make the salsa unnecessary.

The Philly ($8.95), available with either steak or chicken, isn't the foot-long torpedo of namesake lore. We tried steak and received a squat food-bomb of greatness. Each half was liberally stuffed with lean, seasoned strips of steak, blanketed with melted American cheese and strands of green peppers and onions. You get your choice of sides - fries, coleslaw, chips - and the fresh-cut fries were a fine textural component.

A word on the burgers ($8.95-$9.25). There are eight different kinds including portabella, salmon, veggie and turkey, and the beef burgers are remarkable. Half-pound giants, beautifully cooked, juice-packed and, served on fresh rolls, just about perfect. (The quality of the portabella, topped with hot gorgonzola, roasted red peppers and spinach, is over the top, sayeth the Vegetarian Bride.)

Entrees ($9.95-$16.95) hit the basics: boneless short ribs, KC strip steak, broiled cod, baked salmon, cheese ravioli and chicken marsala ... Because Schiavone knows from Italian, we tried chicken parmesan ($12.95).

Two large, boneless, flattened breasts, juicy and delicately seasoned, were coated in thin batter, quick fried for a brittle exterior, and swathed in melted parmesan and mozzarella. I asked for the marinara on the side, personally preferring a smaller sauce presence. Nice marinara. The menu promised a bed of linguini., which was absent, but the chicken was terrific. From sides possibilities, I asked for rice; it was a saffron style and reasonably flavorful, though it had that clumpy texture you see in Asian buffets after the rice has sat in a pot for a few hours.

Service was familiar and friendly; Stash's is very much a casual and welcoming place. A first draft beer was flat and room temperature; a frosty replacement from another bank of taps was cheerily supplied and our first round complimentary.

Here's wishing all best for Thompson in new endeavors. His era at Stash's was a fine ride. For now, it looks like the Schiavones are eagerly resuming control of the legacy with pride and quality.

STASH'S CAFE

95 Pequot Ave., New London

(860) 443-1095, stashs.com

Cuisine: Basic and representative bar food with a small survey of standard entrees.

Atmosphere: Spacious sports bar with a front and back bar, two dining rooms, a stage for live music, and a gazillion big screen televisions to root for the Sox and curse at the Yanks.

Service: Cheers-style: everybody-knows-your-name. Casual but very efficient and eager to please.

Credit cards: All majors.

Reservations: Probably not.

Handicap access: Very accomodating. No steps, a big parking lot, and a very roomy dining room.

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