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Our Gourmet: At the heart of a very cool town

30 Central Square, Keene NH

Just as our Teenage Bottomless Pit wraps up his college search, our culinary tour of New Hampshire college towns comes to an end as well - in what we think may be the best college town in the state.

Keene's beautiful, vibrant downtown is big enough to keep students and residents busy, entertained and well-fed, yet it maintains the charm of a small town. Hopefully, Keene State College students appreciate what they've got just outside their dorm door.

The Stage occupies prime real estate right next door to the landmark United Church of Christ at the head of Central Square. Warmer weather brings sidewalk seating, but it was a little cold for that when we visited on a recent Sunday night, so we got to soak in the art-deco, New York themed interior with an abundance of what we took to be original 1930s-ish details from flooring to ceiling.

The bar, source of a colorful menu of martinis and specialty drinks, lines one wall of the space, which is divided by two rows of tables. The environment gave us the feeling we could be dining in an after-theater spot somewhere off Broadway.

The Stage's entree menu has a nice mix of beef, chicken, pork and seafood, along with pastas and burgers. Some offerings on the imaginative appetizer menu include a curry cashew veggie pita, a southwest-themed chicken dish called Mohavi Pollo, and "Chicken and Kielbasa from Hell." (The prices we'll be quoting are from the online menu; an itemized printout of our order wasn't available.)

My appetizer came from the daily specials list - fried Brussels sprouts, served atop salad greens in a wire cone basket with an aioli on the side. The Brussels sprout is an underappreciated gem of a vegetable, and this tender, garlicky, salty, slightly sweet presentation makes them as addictive as bar peanuts. An excellent appetizer.

Less successful, however, was my main course, the Pork Tenderloin Medallions ($17). Three large, thick pieces of pork, sliced from a tenderloin and finished on the grill, came with a thick, intensely flavored pan sauce with smoked-gouda mashed potatoes and a veggie medley. Great concept and great presentation, but unfortunately the meat was cold in the middle - cooked, thankfully, but refrigerator-cold - and the potatoes were barely warm.

This was the first time I can remember sending back a meal as unsatisfactory. There was an apology from the waitress, and the meat and gravy came back piping hot - and very tasty - but the potatoes were no warmer. If you're not going to offer some sort of compensation, it seems to me the least you should do is replate the dish from scratch.

The Dining Companion had a much more consistent experience, starting with her Scampi Casanova appetizer ($8.50). It was a treat for the garlic lover that she is. Shrimp, spinach, roasted red peppers served with excellent garlic bread. Fantastic, she said - too fantastic to share more than a bite.

Speaking of shrimp, they were a strong co-star in TDC's Steak Morgan entree ($24), which featured a New York sirloin with a rum and shrimp sauce and four tender shrimp on top. Her steak was grilled just right (medium rare) and the sauce was sweet and very rich, pairing extremely well with the beef. Broiled potato wedges were equally perfect, she said, as were the sauteed veggies under the steak.

Our desserts got high marks as well. TDC chose the Blueberry Lemon Cheesecake ($7). It was rich and dense, but the lemon citrus made it taste light and summery while the blueberry gave it just the right amount of sweetness.

My chocolate bread pudding ($6.50) was a nice, moist concoction of sweet bread textures with the chocolate arriving in a variety of routes - in bits, in powdered form, in some of the bread and in sauce. It might not be rich enough for a chocoholic, but for me it was just right.

TDC's only complaint about The Stage was the seating. We sat on the bar side of the room, directly across from the entrance. There were long, thick dark fabric panels hung on each side of the entry in an attempt to keep out the draft, but they never closed tightly enough. Each time a patron opened the door, a rush of cold air came through. So if you're visiting on a cold, breezy evening, be forewarned.

The Stage is very popular in Keene - every time we've been to town, the place has been packed. And our visit for the most part validates that popularity. Had my entree arrived hot, it would have been excellent, as was everything else. I'll chalk my cold entree up to a kitchen oversight, but a more concerned response to the problem would have earned a higher grade from me.



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