A Place To Count On
To open Stage Left in 1992, Rutgers grads Mark Pascal and Francis Schott rebuilt and expanded the old Ritz Restaurant, an eatery where office workers could count on quick service and good rice pudding. Out of sentiment or respect, Pascal and Schott retained one reminder of the old joint: the patches of concrete on the bar floor where the counter stools once stood. Stage Left doesn't do breakfast or lunch, and its prices are geared more toward office owners than office workers. But it's still a place to count on. After 12 years, despite a succession of executive chefs, Stage Left continues to offer some of the most sophisticated food and service in the state.
At age 28, Anthony Bucco, the eighth and latest chef, is as self-assured and capable as he is young. The marvelous sliced lamb loin with fava beans, chanterelles and blackberry port sauce, for example, sits on a bed of strikingly flavorful and creamy grits. Called Antebellum Style Coarse Grind Grits, they are made in South Carolina by Anson Mills and have to be refrigerated before use because they contain some corn meal and corn germ as well as the familiar ground kernel.
Another example is California caviar. He buys the nutty, poppingly fresh, farm-raised osetra made by Mats and Dafne Engstrom under the Tsar Nicoulai brand. He incorporates it with a stunning starter of sautéed scallops in a light, intensely flavorful green-pea sauce.
Other winners on the September menu included seared tuna dusted in Tellicherry pepper with spinach and yellow tomato sauce and chilled Maine lobster on a fingerling potato salad with creamed leeks and (lavishly) truffled cream sauce. For dessert, the molten chocolate cake was voluptuous (yet restrained in sweetness), and the dowdy-looking financier, a moist almond cake swimming in a seeded wild raspberry sauce, proved to be a revelation.
All this was presented with unobtrusive synchronicity by one of the most pleasant and knowledgeable service staffs around. The cheese course is recommended as much for the servers descriptions as for the cheeses themselves. None of this, of course, comes at diner prices. A three-course dinner-for-four with tax, tip and one $28 bottle of wine (a lip-smackingly refreshing German Riesling from Kruger-Rumpf) totaled $350. But you get your money's worth.
If you're booking a private party, you have a choice of four rooms, two of them lined with bottles of wine and kept at 63 degrees. Long sleeves recommended. The one off-note in the entire place is a ceiling with protruding pipes in the otherwise romantic downstairs wine room.