In New Brunswick, a Minimalist Approach Is Simply Successful
No matter how you wind up dining at Stage Left, arguably one of New Jersey's finest restaurants, it's hard not to feel like you've finally arrived, like every decision you've ever made about your future was surely the right one to have brought you to a place like this.
Certainly the decision to dine here would be dead on. The restaurant's atmosphere, at once both clubby and hip, romantic and business like, intricately elegant and intimately simple, complements any occasion perfectly. Its attentive staff is helpful, charming, informed, and keen-eyed.
And its food is streamlined and focused, often achieved through a razor-sharp, almost contradictory balance of minimal cooking and maximum consideration of elements paired in each dish. It all points to the kitchen's control of fresh ingredients and flavors that puts Stage Left at the top of its game.
The menu is brief enough to give the kitchen a chance to dote on each offering as much as its front of the house attends to each patron. Appetizers and entrees number in the precious few, and only about five desserts are available. But often a dish has so much going on--I'll cite a recent offering of Wild Alaskan Salmon with Grilled Fennel, Kalamata Olives and Fennel Pollen Emulsion entree as a good example--that you can still find yourself overwhelmed by your choice.
Other dishes can seem deceptively simple. Take the Duck Confit starter, for example. Confits are traditionally salted meats that are slow-simmered in fat, an ancient French practice of preserving pork and fowl. Today, though, the procedure is less about preservation and more about slow-cooking to create a tender piece of meat with maximum flavor. That certainly describes Stage Left's version, made up of a burly duck leg and thigh whose meat is falling off the bone. A bed of barley and spinach add earthiness to the dish, compounding and bolstering the already sturdy flavors of the meat.
The soup du jour on the night of my recent visit was a Corn Bisque ($9.95), in which fresh sweet corn is coupled with the light crunch of other fine-diced vegetables. All floats in a lusciously light yet deeply satisfying cream broth in this summer starter that, like most of the other dishes here, isn't big but is so full of flavor that you'll savor each mouthful.
Two stacked rounds of fresh salmon fillets are the stars of the delicious Wild Alaskan Salmon entree ($25.95), served simply during my visit with a saffron barley risotto and vegetables. The fish and risotto dovetail nicely, with the velvety starch adding texture to the barely-cooked fish's rich, creamy flesh. Pretty strips of red pepper and other vegetables also add textural variety and visual appeal. Like the salmon, the Pekin Duck Breast ($29.95) entree seems minimally handled. Cooking the beam of the breast meat to just medium-rare preserves the flavor and fundamental gaminess that makes this meat so potent. As with the confit, earthy elements such as root vegetables--julienne carrots and a dice of wonderful golden beets--support these basics to unify the dish nicely.
Not every dish I tried was a smash hit. I was a little dissatisfied with the Papaya Bisque ($11.95) dessert, a beautiful creation that pairs a pleasantly tart soup of tropical fruit with a piece of lemon pound cake and coconut sorbet. The sorbet was fine, but the lemon cake was dry and even a little bitter. Way better was the Bread Pudding ($11.95). I'm a bread pudding fan, and that makes me a huge admirer of Stage Left's version. Its subtle, warm spice flavors and moist texture pair nicely with the ice cream and floral scents and flavors of the hibiscus sauce.
Stage Left raises the bar so high on fine dining in New Jersey that I'm willing to bet that the Papaya Bisque was just having a bad day. But even with this slip, and even with the visit's high price tag--my three-course dinner for two, including one drink each and tip, totaled $175--I'd return to this New Brunswick gem in a minute, even if just to finally arrive all over again.
Christopher Thumann, a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia and Jersey City's Culinary Arts Institute, is a former food editor at Woman's World magazine. He has also edited and written for Weight Watchers, Chocolatier magazine, and Pastry Art and Design magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.