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New Brunswick Restaurant Deserves Standing Ovation

Some things go together naturally, like salt and pepper, pastrami and rye bread and Potato Crusted Salmon with marinated cucumber and daikon radish. The same goes with people--they are greater together than they are separately.

Take, for instance, Mark Pascal and Francis Schott, two of the three owners of Stage Left: An American Cafe next to the Cultural Center in New Brunswick. The two met several years ago while working at The Frog and The Peach. They became fast friends and eventually left The Frog to open Stage Left 5 1/2years ago, with help from Lou Riveiro.

With its innovative American food, reasonable prices and commitment to hospitality--not just service--Stage Left was a revelation when it opened up. And, I am pleased to say, it still is. If anything, Stage Left has gotten even better.

Chefs have come and gone, but Pascal, Schott and Riveiro have maintained their commitment to providing the very best in food and drink. They give their chefs latitude, but the unifying style is the uncomplicated elements in each dish, balanced flavors and an insistence on pristine ingredients.

The new chef, Eric Martin, who has worked at Le Cirque in New York and with Joel Robuchon in Paris, has put together a global summer menu that is all-American, Asian, Italian, French and Latin American. Martin's food is unfussy, fresh and simple.

Stage Left is a beautiful, romantic restaurant that has gotten more comfortable with age. Customers enter through a vestibule and are greeted immediately by a graceful wooden bar stocked with every high quality booze imaginable.

The dining room, dressed in warm wood tones, is long and narrow with a small alcove in the back. Filled with paintings by local artists, the room is an ever-changing art gallery. Small lamps that hold candles, not light bulbs, cast a warm glow over the dining room.

If your idea of great restaurant service is a waiter assembling a Caesar salad at your table, then Stage Left doesn't provide great service. It provides warm hospitality that makes everyone feel at home.

The wine list can only be described as impressive, because Stage Left searches out small-batch wine makers. Unfortunately, some of the offerings come with rarified price tags.

Martin always surprises with his daily specials. A platter of cold smoked fishes --trout, salmon and blue fish ($9.95) is perfect on a warm summer evening.

I have a hard time picking the best from the three offered fishes, they are all so good in their own ways. The salmon is firm, only moderately smoky. The trout has just a ghost of a smoke flavor. With its high oil content, the blue fish attracts the smoke like Cindy Crawford attracts men at a fraternity party. A horseradish vinagrette and a pile of greens enhance the fish.

For our main courses we pick from Stage Left's regular menu. The Potato Crusted Salmon ($22.95) stars a huge chunk of fish cooked medium rare. Layers of thinly sliced potatoes turn brown from the heat, but keep the interior of the fish moist and rosy fleshed.

The salmon is served on top of a ring of marinated cucumbers and a zippy Asian soy sauce.

Pounded Veal ($24.95) reminds me of Veal Piccata, but much smoother and richer. The rich flavor comes from preserved lemons, a Moroccan specialty. The lemons take three weeks to make.

The veal is pounded thin and cooked until it looks milk white. Then it is topped with a creamy emulsion of diced preserved lemon, capers, shallots and extra virgin olive oil. The dressing is so smooth it looks like it is made in a blender.

The dish is completed by topping the veal with frisee and matchstick sweet potato fries. The result is a dish that has the saltiness and mild tartness, but none of the astringency of Veal Piccata.

Desserts are always sublime at Stage Left. Before we dig into the sweets, we sample a cheese course ($12): six perfect examples of the cheesemaker's art, with French bread and berries. The cheeses change with what's fresh on the market. The cheeses are brought to room temperature to bring out all of their flavor. The outstanding cheese of the evening is a meltingly smooth and unsalty double cream blue cheese made in the good old U.S.

But sweets beckon and we respond by ordering a Classic Creme Brulee ($5.95). The person who invented Creme Brulee should be canonized, enshrined at Cooperstown and given his own star in Hollywood. It's a wonderful smooth custard topped with a thin crust of burned brown sugar--decadent, sure, but refined.

Stage Left's Creme Brulee is, to date, the very best I have tasted. The custard is loosely set, in some new form of matter between a solid and liquid. It is looser than Creme Caramel and Flan--looser even than pudding.

The coating is microscopically thin and brittle, making a perfect contrast to the smooth custard underneath.

While the Creme Brulee is a classic, the Strawberry Shortcake With Vintage Thyme Honey & Sweet Yogurt ($7.95) is a takeoff on the traditional dessert. The shortcake is really a firm pound cake made with ground nuts. It is piled high with luscious strawberries and topped with sweetened yogurt, rather than whipped cream.

I was one of the first critics to fall in love with Stage Left five years ago. It was a perfect match with the downtown Cultural Center then. I'm glad the run has been such a smash.

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