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Star-Ledger
5/23/2004

Stage Left Now Bigger and Better

Rating (Excellent)
Though Stage Left has changed through the years and the tenure of various chefs, one thing about this landmark remains the same - its dedication to excellence. This longtime standout continues to be a haven for those who can appreciate excellent food, wine and service in a refined, yet relaxed, atmosphere.

A recent expansion and renovation just means the restaurant to the left of the State Theatre is bigger and better than ever. Whether you're in a room where the décor centers on cozy fireplaces, or a chamber dominated by an intriguing array of wine bottles, you will feel pampered at the well-spaced tables.

The food and the service are on exactly the same level, which is a lofty pinnacle. The enthusiastic staffers know what they're doing, and every one of them is eager to share their expertise with you. The average patron may learn more than they ever wanted to know about the cuisine, the wine or the cheese, but they'll come away the better for it. Real gourmands, however, will be in heaven. I'd be very surprised if any guest can ask a question relating to dinner at Stage Left that can't be answered immediately, and in fine detail.

The meals are not only well-prepared, they are also well-paced. We found the interval between courses just long enough to allow what we had eaten to settle a little before the next delight came our way. And needless to say, perfect timing also meant we were never rushed. Servers seemed to vicariously enjoy our pleasure in savoring such sensuous delights as the seared Hudson Valley foie gras, light as a feather, buoyed by Asian pears and a very deliberate port drizzle. We also reveled in asparagus salad ($9.95), dressed for success with a yellow tomato and truffle vinaigrette, whose essence could be felt in every corner of the mouth.

The unusual is common at Stage Left. How often have you had carpaccio of lamb ($12.95) underscored by a brisk olive tapenade, or maple-marinated squab breast ($14.95), with sweet inclinations brightened by a butternut squash purée? Those who do not want to venture near the esoteric, however, have not been forgotten. A wood-grilled filet m i gnon ($34.95), as good as steak gets, shows what can be done with a wonderful piece of meat and the expertise to cook it exactly right. A hint of shallots, wilted spinach, the richness of potato gratin and woodsy wild mushrooms provide the backdrop for greatness here. Another steak, a three-pound, 21-day dry-aged porterhouse, goes for $99 for someone who is both well-to-do and hungry. They are, however, well-advised to share it with a companion.

Chef Anthony Bucco, a New York Restaurant School grad who was formerly Stage Left's sous chef, has a special way with seafood, too. Marinating wild Alaskan salmon ($24.95) in miso adds just enough flair to a fish that can stand on its own. Saffron barley risotto widens the flavor spectrum without being too flashy an escort. A day boat halibut fillet ($29.95), as fresh as if it just jumped from the water to the table, had a crispy skin that offered a textural juxtaposition to the olive oil-poached asparagus. Citrus beurre blanc added a slight but proper gloss to this delightful dish.

There is so much of interest on the menu that it practically demands a return trip. Sumac-roasted venison ($34.95) and rack of lamb ($34.95) with an almond crust both have powerful appeal. Or does one decide between a Maine lobster starter with vanilla vinaigrette and seared day boat scallops ($12.95,) vivid with a blood orange reduction. Desserts present even more intriguing possibilities. David Drake, who brought the Stage House in Scotch Plains to fame, is consulting on the desserts, which also are so alluring that they present some delicious dilemmas. The molten Valrhona chocolate cake ($11.95) with Tahitian vanilla ice cream is great, but it's a dish you can find in almost every fancy restaurant these days. There's no dissuading a chocolate lover, of course, but others might relish a fling with a papaya bisque ($11.95), paired with a lemon pound cake and brisk coconut sorbet. The same tropical theme is indulged in a passion fruit panna cotta ($11.95) with coconut foam and strawberry co nsommé for sipping. You can't go wrong, either, with a variety of ice creams or sorbets ($8.95) made on the premises, with flavors that change periodically.

But don't miss the cheese course, which goes for $15 for one person, and $10 for each additional guest in the party who partakes. The cheeses come from small, independent farmers, and are served lovingly by the staff, who take pains to detail their virtues.

Wine is a specialty at Stage Left, where occasions like the special June 10 ''rare Cabernet'' dinner will run you $595. But the voluminous wine list, while including as many high-end bottles as one would expect, also has enough options available for less. There's a $55 and under category to accommodate those who just want something reasonable to go with dinner. By the glass, wines generally go from $10 to $22, though the Domaine St. Vincent Brut sparkler is $7.

Don't go bargain-hunting at this restaurant, though. Make it an occasion and enjoy a marvelous culinary experience at Stage Left, which has its act down to a science.


Stage Left | 5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 | T: 732.828.4444
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