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Mix and Match: At Stage Left, the Food (Italian, Pacific Rim) Is as Eclectic as the Crowd

Atmosphere P.C. haute cuisine
Service Attentive, discreet
Recommended Dishes Linguine with olives and tomatoes; steak au poivre; tuna; grilled portobello mushrooms; honey-cinnamon and mint ice creams; cheese.

I'd drive the 35 miles down to New Brunswick all over again just for a bowl of the fabulous linguine with roasted tomatoes, calamata olives and the world's creamiest cannellini beans served at Stage Left. And the waitress said it wasn't as good as the steak au poivre.

She was right about the steak--it is terrific--but wrong to steer anyone away from the pasta. Again and again, you try to kick the pasta habit, especially in non-Italian restaurants and ones that seem more interested in fashion than in food. And then you're confronted with a bowl of linguine so flavorful that you end up back where you started, convinced that pasta will always be your No. 1 love.

This linguine is simple. It doesn't come with any sauce, except for the fruity residue of the calamata olives and oven-roasted tomatoes, combined, perhaps, with oil to keep the noodles slippery and garlic and basil to perk up the beans. It's the kind of dish you expect to be served on a hillside overlooking Florence. And here you are on a spot where 20 years ago no one would walk at noon. How nice that the renaissance keeps happening in New Brunswick, and that since the arrival of Michael Weiskus in the kitchen in April, it's happening all over again here.

Stage Left, which opened in 1992, is small and attractively furnished with candles, fresh flowers and an art deco mahogany bar. But what makes it feel different from every other small, attractively furnished restaurant with candles, fresh flowers and an art deco mahogany bar is the crowd. A theater town and a college town, New Brunswick has a more diverse restaurant-going population than other cities, and depending on whether the Dresden Philharmonic, Melissa Etheridge or the Dance Theater of Harlem is in the neighborhood, you'll see people wearing black tie, jeans or traditional African garb.

The pictures on the wall, the work of local artists, are also distinctive, but this time of year, especially, it's almost always nicer to dine outside. There, your view is of Monument Square (which is really a triangle) and the fountain built in 1893 to honor the Civil War dead. If both the cherry tree beside you and the one across the way blossom simultaneously, you might forget that the reason you came was the food.

The style of cooking at Stage Left is generally known as "American eclectic," but really means everything under the sun (Creole, Southwestern, Italian, French and the obligatory touch of Pacific Rim). Not every dish is successful, but the ones that are succeed on a grand scale. Among them are the steak au poivre, the sesame-seed encrusted tuna and the beans that come with the lamb shank and that, for some reason, have more lamb flavor than the lamb.

Once, before the new chef's arrival, I ordered the sea bass, mostly because I liked the sound of the smoked trout mashed potatoes served with it. That the bass is no longer on the menu doesn't concern me--it wasn't especially memorable--but that the potatoes aren't does. The combination of trout and potatoes may sound unusual, but it's wonderful in the way lox and eggs is wonderful. These are comfort foods with an edge.

The only other item that has the same impact is the wood-fired portobello mushrooms. The manchego cheese melted over these two gargantuan creatures has character, but not so much that it overwhelms the haunting flavor of the "meat." On the plate are also orzo and smaller, more delicate wood ear and oyster mushrooms. "Mushroom overload" is your first reaction, but it doesn't diminish your pleasure, or stop you from hunting amid the orzo for any mushroom you may have missed.

Among the better appetizers are the crispy grilled quail with sesame. flavored noodles and the poached clams and shrimp in a lime- and fennel-flavored broth, The black bean terrine looks as dainty as a date-nut bread sandwich with cream cheese, but is hardly as tame, with its blast of chipolte peppers and smear of tangy cheese. Skip the spinach salad with jicama and orange segments (boring) and the confit of duck with mushrooms, lettuce and way too little flavor in the vinaigrette.

Even more than for its kitchen, Stage Left is known for its wine. Francis Schott, one of the three owners, teaches a course on wine, and unless you've taken it, you're apt to be confused by the list of mostly estate-bottled wines from small producers. This is an exigency Mr. Schott is not only prepared for but relishes, and in moments, he's at your table, discoursing on French wine and his other passion, Belgian beer. It's hard to believe he's just a local boy from Orange; harder still to believe you've finally made a choice (a Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence "Les Baux" 1992; Mas de Gourgonnier, $22).

Cheese is the other specialty, and if you can bear to pass up the kitchen's homemade mint ice-cream (the first you've ever had that doesn't taste like toothpaste), then try either the Capriole Banon, a chevre wrapped in chestnut leaves that have been soaked in eau de vie, or the Brin d'Amour, a sheep's milk cheese dipped in rosemary and savoury. By the time you sample even a fingerful, the last thing you'll want to do is exit Stage Left.

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