At The Mount Vernon Stable And Saloon, Casual Fare Gets a Little Too Casual.
The phrase “comfort food” came up several times during a recent meal at the Mount Vernon Stable and Saloon. Sometimes it was said in praise, but other times it was meant more defensively, as in, “What do you expect? It’s only comfort food,” as though standards had stopped applying. Now I’m all for everyday fare, and for the neighborhood places like the Stable that serve it, but I’m still going to want quality ingredients and attention to detail when I go there. The Stable does turn out some seriously good pleasure grub—the ribs in particular are top-drawer—but the place sometimes seems to wallow in its in own unpretentiousness, and that’s when things get sloppy.
A recent dinner there featured dishes that ranged from borderline outrageous examples of foursquare comfort food, to middling fare, to the occasional atrocity. Not too surprisingly—this is American dining, after all—appetizers tended to satisfy the most. The Chicago onion loaf ($8.95), the size of which our waiter compared to a horse’s leg, is a flamboyant crowd-pleasing absurdity—a cinder block of deep-fried thin and sweet battered onions. Six of us put barely a dent in it. The batter was underseasoned, but liberal applications of salt and ketchup brought out true onion flavor. Ably conceived and very satisfying, too, was an appetizer of toasted ravioli ($5.95). Stuffed with ricotta and (not enough) jalapeño, the pasta pillows were lightly breaded, baked, and served with an excellent peppery homemade marinara sauce.
The Stable does one important thing—its signature dish, baby-back ribs—extremely well. The house barbecue sauce is smoky, hot, and messy, and it flatters exceptionally well the falling-off-the-bone rib meat. A ribs and chicken combination platter ($15.95) brings together a half-rack of the ribs with a choice of light or dark quarter chicken, and the chicken suffers badly by comparison—it tastes like plain meat with sauce ladled on it. I don’t like the Stable’s undercooked, wobbly french fries, either.
Into a big middle ground of yeoman fare—competently assembled food that is more serviceable than delightful—fall such dishes as the chicken fajitas entrée ($9.95). The sliced meat had been thoughtfully marinated, and the accompanying tortilla fillers were nicely assembled, but the overall effect lacked impact, sizzle, or urgency. Likewise, a bowl of crab soup ($4.50) surprised us with an abundance of what tasted like fresh vegetables—peas, carrots, corn, and lima beans—but was lacking full-on crab flavor. Just barely acceptable was the T-bone steak ($19.95), a good-sized but tough piece of meat that yielded neither essential beef flavor nor evidence of any compensatory seasoning. It seemed a chore to have to eat it, and the accompanying baked potato had the tasteless flesh and skin of a microwaved spud.
Something truly bad was the linguine di Lorenzo ($14.95), rubbery shrimp and flavorless chicken served in a gruel of blue cheese-flecked cream. A bigger bowl would have helped circulate some of the flavors—a lot of the cheese had settled under the pasta, which itself appeared to be less linguine than spaghetti.
Doing some things right and a few things quite well appears to have earned the Stable an appreciative following over the years. Fond relationships between customers and staff are obvious. But it’s time to ask a little more of the Stable and to expect a little more of the kind of casual American fare it serves. Some fresh ideas might liven up the menu, which, notwithstanding some playful specials, has gone stagnant. And sprucing up the place wouldn’t hurt, either.