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Star-Ledger
5/12/2002

Stylish Stage Left Does Everything Right

Stage Left always has a lot going for it: a location convenient to New Brunswick's theaters, a fabulous wine cellar and caring, hands-on proprietors.

It gets an extra jolt of excitement every few years when a new chef arrives. Clemens Averbeck is continuing that tradition, presenting a stylish menu that offers innovation without stretching credulity.

Averbeck, who arrived this spring, ran his own one-star Michelin Guide restaurant in Germany for years. Though Stage Left's owers proudly state that he is the only Michelin-starred chef in New Jersey, the credential that counts is how the customers like what's on the plate.

It's hard to imagine who wouldn't be thrilled with the beautifully presented, exhilarating meals being delivered to the tables at Stage Left these days.

Averbeck works with sous chef John Livera, just returned from six months cooking in Paris, in offering dishes that are a light yet satisfying voyage of discovery at every touch of the fork.

My first glimpse of the "minute-marinated" Atlantic salmon ($13) with a warm salmon caviar emulsion and sea beans was nearly as gratifying as my first bite. The dark green of the sea beans (a type of seaweed) trellised the translucent orange orbs of salmon roe. They set off the pinkish cast of the fish that had been briefly marinated in olive oil, citrus and a touch of salt. The contrast among the textures of the creation added to its tingle, and the slightly briny taste of the sea beans gave it just the right accent.

The New England diver scallops ($33), their tops carmelized to the perfect shade of brownish gold, perched prettily atop parsnip cakes set in a Merlot reduction. It was a dish of the utmost delicacy.

A frizzy green seaweed topknot made a dramatic statement aboard the red snapper ($33) roasted on lemon grass with fennel and orange sections that added intriguing hints of more citrus and licorice.

Averbeck is not one to overly gild his lilies. The seared Hudson Valley foie grass ($18) was displayed only with a huckleberry compote and celeraic purée, letting the rich goose liver shine on its own but not entirely unadorned.

It's also entirely possible to stick to more down-to-earth food impeccably prepared, such as the colorful vegetable terrine with a frame of red peppers ($11), or the breast of Amish chicken ($24) with morel sauce. But why not take this opportunity to explore some different terrain, such as the sea beans, thyme-roasted rabbit loin ($34) or sweetbreads? There are several chances to dip into the sweetbreads here, but they slip down so easily when folded into the carefully made miniature ravioli. The pasta came with the veal loin ($32.50) in a parsley sauce like a chiffon veil.

A wood-grilled filet mignon ($35) served with willed spinach could have stood on its own, but it was topped with a compound butter that included shallots, garlic and anchovy, with a bit of egg to keep it stable on the surface of the very good cut of meat.

If this wasn't enough new territory, just wait for dessert. I was skeptical about the frozen buttermilk parfait ($10.95) with strawberry compote, but it called to mind ice cream, only creamier, lingering on the tongue long after plain old vanilla or chocolate would have been a memory. The black rice soufflé with candied quince and vanilla ($10.95) was not as ethereal, and perhaps a better choice for those eating less than we had. The Blenheim ginger ale ice cream soda ($8.95) is a spicy, fizzing froth that settles comfortably into whatever nook or cranny is available.

Those who want to go with what they know should choose the classic crème brulee ($9) or the molten Valrhona chocolate cake ($11.95) with vanilla ice cream. There's also a cheese course featuring the products of "small, independent farmers." It's $12 for one and $6 for each additional person, but $18 worth could easily serve four.

The wine list is truly amazing, and while you can find many bottles of something rare for whatever price you're willing to pay, there is also plenty that's available and worth drinking. The list of choices available by the glass is limited. A moderately priced half-bottle for two should do it. There's a broad spectrum of beer, port and brandy. Expert help from co-owner Francis Schott ("the wine guy" in the restaurant's literature) is offered.

The service is top-drawer. You will not want for attention or information. Specials are explained, but also listed in brief with prices on cards set on the table. Our waiter had the immediate answer to all our questions. Nothing more than a flickering glance summoned a server tableside. (The only touch I would suggest skipping is having a staffer open the restroom door for a patron looking for the facilities.)

The dress code suggests jackets for men, but smart casual is the rule. It doesn't do to look sloppy when everyone around you is payin $24 and up for their entrees. Things are a little less formal in the bar.

Parking can be a problem. If you can't find a space, leave your car with the valet at the restaurant's entrance and Stage Left will validate your ticket.

Stage Left's new chef brings a different dimension that should provide diversion for the regulars and delight to first-time visitors.

Cody Kendall can be reached at CodyDine@netscape.net


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