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Hot Performer Enters, Stage Left, to Lead Culinary Show

Stage Left has always been a place where service, atmosphere and the wine list do not fluctuate. They are, quite simply, at a very high standard. The food becomes the only real variable, at least in terms of style.

While what is served at Stage Left has a history of being uniformly good, its approach changed as chefs came and went. Now there's another new hand in the kitchen, though he's familiar to New Jerseyans as the former proprietor of Yves, the much-missed four-star restaurant he shut down in Montclair three years ago.

Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome came to Stage Left in June and has been settling in for the last six months. A native of Haiti who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, he polished his training by cooking with top chefs in France.

"There's maybe a little more from French influence on our menu than in the past," said Francis Schott, one of the owners who also serves as a host.

Pierre-Jerome speaks not just French and English but Spanish and Creole as well. That fluency comes through in his food as well.

Though he may not know many words in Italian, Pierre-Jerome communicates in that language through his saucepans and pots; his raviolis are outstanding.

An entree of wild mushroom ravioli ($24.95) in a deluxe mushroom truffle broth with a sprinkling of fried leeks is as delicate as angel hair, coupled with a potency that is unexpected because of the pasta's ethereal nature.

Equally sophisticated is the appetizer of lobster dumplings ($12.95), translucent mouthfuls of shellfish touched with just enough black sesame to make a statement in the sesame soy vinaigrette.

Another of his favorite mediums is the Napoleon--one waiter joked that the chef had a Napoleon complex.

They tend to pop up unexpectedly, these layered treasures, as in the small stack of prosciutto and rice thins (with a consistency like potato chips) that accompanied the seared, buttery foie gras starter ($17.95) one evening.

The Atlantic salmon ($25.95) had a top tier of delicate puff pastry. Beneath it, the fish reveled in its blend of celery root and fennel, with the latter's licorice taste a wonderful complement to the salmon and the black trumpet mushrooms that came with it.

Mushrooms also were the stars of an expressive wild mushroom soup with a garnish of wild mushrooms and white Tuscan truffle oil ($9.95). Like the squash soup ($7.50) and the tomato soup with a hint of garlic, finished off with a swirl of pesto cream ($7.50), these were brews of pure flavor, distilling the essence of their ingredients.

Pan-seared sea scallops ($29.95) the size of golf balls were encrusted with Chinese five-spice powder, which includes cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns. But the spices were just a dusting, so they did not interfere with the saffron risotto and lemon coconut sauce that completed this special.

The chef also produces simpler fare, including a wonder of a cassoulet ($22.95), in which white beans and harn are topped by duck, and a magnificent wood-grilled Angus New York strip steak ($32.95) with asparagus and truffled mashed potatoes.

The only hitches during our visits to Stage Left involved two entrees. The venison chop, served over venison stew with Jerusalem artichokes ($29.95), was overcooked. It also was too one-note, lacking the nuances of other things we tried.

The garlic bread pudding that came with the free-range chicken ($23.95) would have been much better with a little less garlic. It was overwhelming, dominating everything on the plate, when it should have been just an adjunct. The chicken also was served with collard greens and a bacon sauce, but the sauce was just too scanty to help balance the flavors.

Desserts tend to be as complex as what came before them. Austrian pumpkinseed off makes a hazelnut cake with warm spiced apples, caramel and a razzle-dazzle maple gingersnap ice cream ($11.95).

Pears ($9.95) are served alongside a glass of the wine in which they were poached. Schott himself comes to the table to drizzle precious 20-year-old balsamic vinegar over the fruit, which is flanked by soft dollops of vanilla goat cheese. A molten Valrhona chocolate cake ($11.95) is a volcano of delight, as its warm center spills out.

As an alternative to a sweet (or afterwards, if you can find the room), try the amazing selection of cheeses ($12) from small dairies. Each offering was explained to us, and the descriptions were fascinating.

There's the Hereford red, made from raw cows' milk from England, while the Greystone farm goat cheese is produced from the milk of floppyeared Nubians and takes just 96 hours to get from the goats to New Jersey. Another goats' milk cheese, from Catalonia, is tinged with the rosemary on which the animals nibble during their grazing.

Served with nuts, fruits and burnt-orange-colored quince paste, the cheeses are the most interesting way to end a meal at Stage Left.

The prices here run to the astronomical, but they are not the highest in New Jersey, if that's any comfort. Remember that you're paying not only for the restaurant, but also for the convenience of being a few steps from the State Theatre (hence the establishment's name). Frankly, it's tough to get away for even $100 a couple. If you order the least expensive items on the menu and stick to three courses, however, you can come close.

Entree portions are generous, but this is a place for those who appreciate and savor fine food and wine, not someone who is looking for all-you-can-eat or a quick snack before the theater.

The guidance from the hosts and servers is exceptional. They're happy to share their knowledge of food and wine. No need to feel intimidated here; it's a customer-friendly establishment.

Though there are many wines available for hundreds of dollars (Stage Left is known for its exceptional wine selection) it's nice to know that a few good bottles are available for less than $25.

They include the Madiran 1994 Chateau Barrajat ($22), a fruity, flowery choice that has quite a bouquet. The Heron Merlot ($24) is another reasonable French red, and if you fancy it, you can buy a case through the restaurant. For variety, try the Miguel Torres ($22) Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile.

Though Stage Left continues its generally excellent course, it is always possible to improve on a restaurant, even one this good.

So the establishment has expanded into part of a storefront next door, with 40 percent more space. As a result, the tables that seat 65 people when there's a full house are,now positioned a little farther from each other. That means you can carry on a conversation in normal tones and hear all your dining companions. What a relief. I've been to too many places recently where the din makes it tough to relax.

Valet parking is being offered for $5 per car Wednesday through Saturday, a real asset in downtown New Brunswick, where spaces are at a premium on a busy theater night.

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