Enter Stage Left, and You Won't Want to Exit
A commitment to service is more than just lip service at Stage Left, where the restaurant's owners visited our table (and everyone else's) four or five times during dinner to make sure everything was perfect.
It was. That type of dedication explains the success of this cafe in the heart of New Brunswick's theater district. The owners, chef and servers work effectively as an ensemble to make your meal a memorable production.
Eric Martin, formerly the chef de cuisine at the expensive Les Celebrites in Manhattan, arrived at Stage Left in December and has fit into the restaurant's cast seamlessly.
Of course, he has given the menu a look reflective of his background.
"Eric is our first chef who was classically French trained," said Francis Schott, who owns the restaurant with Mark Pascal. Martin's parents are French, and his father, Michael Martin, served as head chef for Air France. Schott describes the food as "American pushing the envelope," with touches of Italian and Asian influences.
So there is risotto, of course, and pasta, as well as lobster dumplings as good as any you'd get in a top flight Chinese restaurant. The French background is apparent in the meticulous preparation and presentation. Everything is wonderful, but nothing is extravagant.
"It's pristine, clean food," Schott explains.
Martin seems able to capture the essence of his ingredients. A perfect example is the mushroom soup ($5.50), made from a mushroom stock. So it's really double mushrooms, with exotica like hedgehog and Chinese princess mushrooms added to make the flavor more complex. A bit of black truffle oil gives it depth.
Likewise, a grilled portobello mushroom ($9.95) is cooked until exactly the right moment, then whisked to the table while it has the texture and flavor of an excellent rare steak. This certainly is not an innovative dish. But it's done so well, with a mesclun salad, 8- to 10-year aged balsamic vinegar and crisped squares of polenta, that you forget you've had it anywhere else.
The chubby lobster dumplings ($10.95) are served as expected with daikon and ginger, just enough for contrast with the sweet shellfish inside the pasta. Risotto ($8.95) made with roasted tomatoes and leeks, had exactly the proper creamy consistency.
The American sturgeon caviar appetizer ($10.95) was slightly disappointing. I expected something with a little more substance (I guess you can't have that when you're dealing with caviar). This is something to savor, rather than gobble. Tiny globes of golden and black caviar are arranged tidily on quarters of potato pancakes, with a dot of creme fraiche. It's a time-tested, classical preparation, but don't order it if you like to see a lot of food on your plate.
It is, after all, an appetizer. The main courses offer heaping portions.
The double cut pork chops ($24.95), for instance, seemed skyhigh in their meatiness. They were made even taller by a graceful golden tangle of fried shoestring sweet potatoes. The accompaniments are the browned Brussels sprouts in apple vinegar that adds the right subtle note of fruit.
Grilled tuna ($23.95) is brilliant, skewered with a spear of sugar cane that gently imparts its sweetness. Pearls of mint couscous were a clever way to make the most of the cane/fish combination, bringing the elements together with a Caribbean kick.
Slices of seared duck ($24.95), crisped around the edges, were glazed lightly with cherry port and served with sweet corn bread.
Vegetarians are treated well at Stage Left. Too often, those who do not eat fish must content themselves with an unconstructed dish of grilled vegetables and rice. Here, they have a choice.
Ravioli bursting with butternut squash and mascarpone cheese ($21.95) is dressed with Styrian (from a section of Austria) roasted pumpkin seed oil for an elegantly nutty flavor.
An enormous chickpea pancake ($18.95) is heaped with sauteed vegetables--caramelized onions, Brussels sprouts and tomatoes predominate and creme fraiche, spiked by a smidgen of chipotle.
After all that food, another course before dessert probably was not what we really needed. But we couldn't resist the cheese and fruit platter ($12.95) after we found out the cheese was produced by "artisans."
The offerings included English Shropshire bleu, well-aged and intense; French morbier, made with morning and afternoon milk, separated by a layer of vegetable ash; three-year-old Vermont cheddar and a petite Basque sheep's milk cheese. They were served with grapes, as well as strawberries and thin slices of apple and pear, a platter that served four people easily.
Albalonga Ausles, a dynamic late harvest dessert wine ($69 a bottle), is perfect to sip with the cheese. Should you not want to spend as much, the owners will be happy to recommend something else from their copious wine list, which is a little short of choices under $25.
Desserts are in harmony with the rest of the meal. Classic creme brulee ($5.95) will suit those looking for something relatively light. Anyone who still has a craving can satisfy it with a volcano of a molten chocolate cake ($7.95), oozing warm chocolate paired with Tahitian vanilla ice cream made by an outside vendor, Ciao Bella. On a cool night, a nice ending is the warm pear tart ($7.95) with cinnamon ice cream.