||Attractive, intimate cafe restaurant
||Perfectly professional and understated
||Expensive but worth it
What I particularly like about Stage Left is its complete lack of identity crisis. The folks that run the restaurant, Francis Schott, Mark Pascal and Lou Riveiro, know exactly what they want their restaurant to be and they accomplish it beautifully.
They have created a high-end supper club with exquisite decor, discreet and professional service, and cuisine that after 10 years has only gotten better. The restaurant sits to the left of New Brunswick's three professional theater spaces, but it does not particularly cater to the pre-theater crowd. That's not what Stage Left is about.
If you do want to dine there before attending the theater, there is a pre-theater menu available and every effort is made to provide the proper pace so that you finish on time. But I prefer to enjoy Stage Left when I am not concerned about making a curtain. Better to reserve for a post-theater late supper or perhaps dessert and an after-dinner drink.
Dining at Stage Left is theater in itself.
All this excellence comes at a price, of course, and Stage Left's customers are happy to pay it. The price range of main courses is $21.95 to $35.95. Specials are usually in the $30 range.
The food at Stage Left has always been good, but it has finally reached four-star status with its current chef, Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome, formerly of Yves in Montclair.
Pierre-Jerome came from Haiti to New Jersey as a child. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked in France for a year and eventually opened Yves. He has also made desserts at the Ryland Inn in the Whitehouse Station section of Readington. His cuisine is American with a French flair.
Service is thoroughly pleasant and professional. The dining room is manned by a young staff that works as a highly polished team. It is the kind of service that is so restrained that if you were asked later what you thought of it, you would have to stop to think for a minute. Water glasses seem to replenish themselves, dishes arrive and leave at a leisurely pace all by themselves.
The restaurant's regional American menu, which changes seasonally, is augmented by nightly specials. The wine list is extensive and includes a well thought out and well-balanced selection from all price ranges. Many of these wines are available next door at Old Vines Wine Shop at Stage Left, which is affiliated with the restaurant. The shop also has an online ordering service.
When I am starving and stuck in traffic or on a stopped train that shows no sign of continuing its journey, I have evolved a method for getting through it. I daydream about my favorite restaurant dishes, imagine myself in the kitchen trying to make them and, of course, eating them. Three of the dishes from Stage Left are on this list.
At top of this roster is an appetizer that is on their current menu, a dish whimsically called "liver and onions," ($17.65) and is sophisticated comfort food of the highest order. It is goose liver, seared French foie gras that melts in the mouth. It is accompanied by a sweet and sour onion profiterole that is the perfect foil for the "liver."
Other worthy starters included a mushroom ragout ($11.95) a heavenly union of Oregon and Washington mushrooms with truffles in a delicate jus. We scraped the plate. No morsel remained of the other appetizers either, lobster cassoulet en croute ($15.95) and sable Napoleon ($12.95), sable being a lovely soft-textured white fish.
For salad we had baby greens in which were nestled lovely slivers of honey-roasted bosc pear ($9.95). The salad is dressed with vinaigrette and bits of Stilton and walnuts.
Of the main courses, the dish that I daydream about is the duck Wellington ($34.95), tender pink duck breast and portobello mushroom duxelle covered in a lovely pastry that is soaked with the juices of the duck and the mushrooms. It is those juices that my mind returns to.
The other main courses we tried were equally compelling. For those who want something a little lighter, the lobster bouillabaisse ($33.95) should fill the bill. This is lobster, shrimp, fingerling potatoes, lobster mushrooms and fresh baby corn in a delicious basil and saffron broth.
Apple wood grilled venison ($35.95), covered in a brandied huckleberry sauce, was tender and lean. It came with a truffle bacon vegetable parfait and a stuffed Cabernet poached pear.
Braised lamb shank ($24.95), the epitome of comfort food, is earthy but given an elegant touch with a vegetable confit. Add garlic mashed potatoes and you have a smashing wintery dish.
The dessert from Stage Left that I can't get out of my mind, and certainly don't want to, is the simplest but most creative of all Pierre-Jerome's imaginative desserts: Blenheim ginger ice cream soda ($8.95). Blenheim ginger ale, which comes from South Carolina, is not your ordinary ginger ale; it is rich and spicy and meant for sipping. Serving it with a generous scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream makes it perfect for the food-sated stomach that nevertheless desires something sweet.
Other wonderful desserts were brioche bread pudding served with butter pecan ice cream and hot buttered rum raisin sauce ($10.95), bananas Foster ($10.95) and creme brulee ($8.95).
All of these desserts were such remarkable takes on old classics that I keep wondering what the Stage Left banana split is like, but that will have to wait for another time.