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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Limestone Café
89 Main Street
Peapack, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 234-1475

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
April 8, 2002

Over the years, this homey clapboard building has enjoyed several interesting restaurant incarnations: La Maison Des Poelles, 89 Main, and now the Limestone Café. And judging by the crowds -- and the quality of the food -- the casually chic eatery currently in residence appears to be in for a long and prosperous stay.

Just one admonitory word: If you're a party of four or more, the Limestone is a great spot for an informal, fun-filled evening at table... Conversely, if you're a duo in search of an intimate gastronomic rendezvous, it is a gilt-edged invitation to a chronic case of peristaltic and romantic indisposition.

I am not suggesting that the restaurant is couple unfriendly... merely that it is infinitely better suited to fun and frivolity than to a quixotic tête-à-tête. The small dining rooms, for example, are lovely to look at but extremely noisy when filled (which is most of the time). Tables are arranged in close proximity to one another and appear to be jammed into every conceivable space. This is especially true of tables for two, which are painfully small and uncomfortable. Cozy nooks are conspicuous by their absence. On the other hand, should you and your spouse/significant other be feeling particularly gregarious on a given occasion, in the mood for a little hustle and bustle, all will be well. Just be aware of the spatial and acoustical limitations. Forewarned is, indeed, forearmed.

Chef Chris McAlly's cuisine, however, is in no need of such a caveat. It is hearty, home-style fare characterized by a number of innovative twists and turns. Portions are generous and their accompanying sauces somewhat on the rich side, so there's little chance that either your stomach or your psyche is likely to feel short-changed.

Typical of the offerings you're likely to encounter -- and also a first-rate starter -- is the mid-winter salad ($11.00). A mountain of baby spinach is gently tossed with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette and then topped with Roquefort cheese, slices of red onion & mushroom, and toasted pecans. $11.00 may seem a bit over-the-top, but, when you consider that there is more than enough for two to share, the price is a relative bargain.

The "T&M" ($8.25) -- slices of yellow and plum tomatoes interspersed with fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzled with balsamic, and embellished with capers, red onion, and caper berries -- is a definite eye-catcher and challenge to even the most ardent appetite... But since the tomatoes in question exhibit an off-putting Styrofoam-like taste and consistency, I would suggest that this is one item best put on hold until the Garden State's growing season rolls around.

Soups, on the other hand, are always worthy of consideration. Recently sampled, for instance, was a robust southwestern ham and bean ($6.00), which arrived at table piping hot and exhibiting a delightfully subtle hint of spice. Highly recommended. Ditto the pan-roasted littleneck clams with a touch of lemon and butter ($7.75). However, the calamari presentation ($8.25) -- spicy fried tubes and tentacles decked out with capers, kalamata olives, hot cherry peppers, and splash of balsamic vinegar -- is likely to draw mixed reviews. The dish didn't do a great deal for me, but was downed with gusto by several members of our party. It's your call.

Entrées are cut from the same cloth as the appetizers: homey but sporting a series of appealingly creative touches... and several are something of a must. The jumbo lump crab cakes ($21.25), for instance, are simply wonderful. A perfectly seasoned crust gives way to a sweet, succulent interior enhanced with a lemon caper tarter sauce and complemented by pommes frites (although, on a recent visit, whipped potatoes were inexplicably substituted) and tangy homemade coleslaw.

The autumn chicken breast ($19.00) is also not to be missed. It arrives off the bone, thickly sliced, and still sporting its crispy skin. The meat itself is juicy and extremely flavorful and adorned with sautéed mushrooms & baby spinach. The consummating touch is a sumptuous white wine cream sauce and melted Fontina cheese.

The venison mixed grill ($29.50) -- grilled rack of venison teamed up with a pan-seared loin of venison -- served medium rare and finished with a piquant dried cherry demi-glace is a mouth-watering delight. And the same may be said for the veal piccata ($25.50) topped with two extra large shrimp and finished with a lemon caper shallot butter sauce.

When it comes to finny fare, I've always been of the opinion that various species, no matter how stalwart of constitution, benefit most from accoutrements that intrude the least... And, evidently, the kitchen is of similar mind. The salmon filet ($18.75), for example, matches up quite well with its crispy potato crust and both are chaperoned by an ingratiating lemon white wine sauce. The pan-seared sea bass ($25.00), on the other hand, reaps the rewards of a simple topping of herbed breadcrumbs.

Desserts ($6.00) are even more homespun than their predecessors. The apple crisp -- arrayed in an appropriately crunchy oatmeal crown and garnished with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream -- is comfort food taken to the max... as is the brownie à la mode. But even more highly recommended are the crisp chocolate chip meringues filled with vanilla or chocolate ice cream and topped off with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

As you've undoubtedly noticed, sweet endings here are not designed for the calorie conscious. If you have a craving for simpler, somewhat lighter fare, you might want to give the nod to the Key lime pie, berry tart, or fresh fruit.

Along with complaints about the cramped quarters and excessive noise level, service is the other item here that has received its share of knocks. One critic even went so far as to intimate that rudeness on the part of some servers might very well jeopardize the future of the establishment. In all fairness, however, I've always found the service to be relaxed -- and, occasionally, a bit matter-of-fact... but never rude. Even in the heat of battle on a madcap Saturday night, deluged with large and often boisterous parties, servers manage to maintain both their competence and their cool.

If you're looking for professional spit & polish and gastronomic subtleties, you've come to the wrong address. But what the Limestone lacks in finesse it makes up for in enthusiasm. Indeed, this energetic, bustling eatery has been packing them in for over three years now... So why not make a reservation and join the party!?

Cuisine: Home-style American with innovative touches
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Strongly recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: No

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