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The Princeton Packet

TimeOFF’s reviewer hops on the bandwagon to heap praise on the New Brunswick restaurant that consistently garners acclaim for its excellence

Through the years, Stage Left has been consistently praised for all the elements that make up the ultimate dining experience; intelligent service, beautiful food, embracing ambience and an exceptional wine list are its backbone.

As if those aren't enough, the staff goes the extra mile, making Stage Left a star -or four stars as the case may be. Fitting, since it is located just to the left of the State Theatre, George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick. After having dinner there, I am left no choice but to jump on the Stage Left bandwagon.

Despite its suggestive location and name, it wouldn't be my restaurant of choice for a bite to eat before the show. It's just too wonderful to be looking at your watch. You'll want to give yourself relaxed time to breathe it all in.

Our Wine Shop Dining RoomThere is one exception, however. If you order just a hamburger (which, by the way, costs nearly $16 and comes with the reputation of being the best in the area), then pre-theatre dining gives you the best of both worlds. The burger, found only on the bar menu, is one hefty gourmet bite weighing in the range of 10 to 11 ounces. It is decadently topped with three-year aged Vermont cheddar and chipotle mayonnaise.

The ambience at Stage Left is embracing, with walls ragged in shades of gold and handsome wood furniture. Accoutrements are classy and classic from weighty silver salt and pepper shakers to smart wall sconces. An outstanding arrangement of fresh flowers fills the center of one dining room, while a fireplace and European-esque cheese cart fill in the other. Table spacing is refreshingly comfortable and service is well polished, but all this and the pricey menu might suggest an uncomfortably stiff atmosphere. On the contrary, there is a hip, up-to-the minute element present.

Maitre d' Bryan Mack is everywhere at once, it seems. He greets guests, shows them to their seats and studiously pours wine for all tables in the two main dining rooms. Before delivering an opened bottle of wine to the table, he will taste it first, making sure that each and every bottle is as it should be. Right down to the detail oriented bus service, the staff is professionally attired, unmatched in grace, hospitality and always one step ahead of the customer. On our way out of the restaurant, a mere inquiry about the award-winning wine list sent us on a guided tour of the wine library, where a good portion of the wine is housed and private parties can be held.

The wine list is an exquisite compilation of carefully selected wines, including some rare finds. One such wine is a small-production wine from the Savennières region of the Loire Valley in France. A '91 sells for $100 and a '98 for $109. A noteworthy Sangiovese wine from Montecucco, a newly designated wine-producing region in Tuscany, is now on the Stage Left wine list. The 2000 vintage sells for $65 and a 1998 Reserva sells for $89. But not to worry, there is a good selection of more reasonably priced wines for under $50 a bottle.

Stage Left presents two tasting menus every night. The three-course tasting menu is a steal for $39. The six course menu costs $79 or $109 with wine pairings theatre personally selected by the maitre d'. He'll even explain his picks as he pours. What a delightful way to share a meal.

The new American menu is the art of Anthony Bucco, who has been head chef at Stage Left for about a year and a half. The a la carte menu is appropriately concise. Bucco focuses on using fresh local ingredients. He is adept at letting pristine ingredients come through while matching opposing textures and complementary flavors.

Precursors of homemade bread and a mouthful of crab salad sent out by the chef set the stage for what turns out to be a sophisticated meal with lots of falling in love. Corn and clam chowder ($9.95) boasted a light and creamy broth that underscored the combination of clam, corn and potato. Sautéed scallops ($12.95) were so simple, yet impeccably done. A quick swirl in the accompanying green pea sauce that simultaneously worked its way into a center mound of wilted greens culminated in a dynamic trio. The dollop of American caviar on top was, for me, too intensely fishy and mars an otherwise melodious song.

Bucco's sauces are inspired. The creamed leek and truffle sauce was the clincher of the chilled Maine lobster itself was merely presented as the buttery, sweet and particularly delicate flesh that it is. It sat on top of a simple fingerling potato salad that benefited from the luxurious sauce spotted with truffle shavings.

I almost never order chicken when eating out at this level, since it is so commonly prepared at home, but our server spoke so highly of the pistachio-crusted chicken breast ($27.95) that I went with it. I was pleasantly surprised by the crispy, nutty flavored skin and juicy meat that is difficult to achieve at home. Something special happens when the arugula pistachio pesto makes contact with the chicken and summer squash. It's the combination of bite from the arugula and warmth from the nuts that made this dish so provocative. A side of polenta was served curiously on a separate plate - still, a welcome tasting.

I can't decide what I loved most about the lamb loin dish ($32.95). The lamb itself is at once divine and delicate, presented in petite disks and arranged on a textural bed of grits that are hand-milled and flavored with aged cheddar cheese. Add the earthiness of chanterelle mushrooms, the bold texture of fava beans and the depth of a blackberry port sauce and you've got a remarkable mix of inspiration that pairs new and familiar flavors. This was indeed a showstopper.

Becoming too full before the cheese cart arrives is almost a crime, and a crime we regretfully committed. Stage Left presents an enticing array of fine cheeses from small independent farmers around the world. It costs $15 for one person and $10 for each additional person at the table.

Desserts are stylized enough to make the perfect cap to an upscale meal. Strawberry bread pudding ($11.95) resists all tendencies toward the mush that typically becomes bread pudding. The soupy hibiscus sauce served with it was flirtatious as it skirted around sweet, floral flavors. Molten Valrhona chocolate cake ($11.95) is a no-brainer for chocolate lovers. It was as decadent as it should be. The raspberry sauce and homemade Tahitian vanilla ice cream that accompany are both lovely.

During my far too brief study of Stage Left, one thing has become clear: Even after 12 years in business, owners Lou Riveiro, Mark Pascal and Francis Schott will never allow the restaurant to sit on its laurels. They work hard at customer satisfaction, putting together a seasonal menu that always delivers, and finding exceptional wines to add to the list. The restaurant is forever evolving - the distinguishing mark of true excellence.

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