Just Add Adjectives: Modifying the Usual Main Ingredients in Unexpectedly Theatrical Ways
NEW BRUNSWICK--If you've been feeling dour about the state of dinner in central New Jersey, wishing that someone with your food philosophy (local food, global influences, superb preparation from starters to desserts, service with a smile and style) had a restaurant on the west side of the Garden State Parkway, let me remind you: The restaurant is Stage Left. It's been open for a decade, but with Dan Wood at the stove, it's new again and you need to go.
||Clubby to cool
||Well-rounded, with an interest in estate-bottled specialty wines
||Consomme with Swiss chard purse, lobster with melon, field greens with white balsamic vinaigrette, foie gras, chanterelle ravioli, herbed striped sea bass, filet with coffee and veal jus, lamb chops with barley risotto, all desserts.
Mr. Wood last week formally replaced Clemens Averbeck. Mr. Averbeck, a German-born chef, was hired last spring, along with Mr. Wood, who started as sous-chef. "As the months wore on, it became apparent to us that one person was the leader of that team," said Mark Pascal, one of three co-owners of the restaurant. "Dan was doing all the cooking."
Mr. Wood, 30, attended Johnson & Wales Culinary University in Charleston, S.C., and cooked at Harbor Court in Baltimore, the Peabody Hotel in Orlando, Fla., and most recently, the Hotel Halm in Konstanz, Germany, near the Swiss border.
Because the 100-seat restaurant here is newly renovated, with marble plaster on the walls and new dining space in what once was the restaurant's adjoining wine store, it reels like the bare wings of an stage set.
As one would expect from a restaurant with a boutique wine shop (open by appointment) and a hip sommelier wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a ventless suit, the stemware is appropriate to the broad and deep wine list that plays to foods from the restaurant's wood-fired oven. Menus are easy to read and clear despite creative spellings (Swiss charad, raison bread) and lack of punctuation. Stage Left also continues a practice that should go the way of menus with prices for men only--giving a single wine list to a table, usually to a man. This one has a table of contents but no page numbers. In any case, it ends in consultations with Bryan Mack, the man of the horn-rims who is headwaiter, sommelier and cheese slicer.
Mr. Wood knows how to whet an appetite: As multigrain rolls were being placed on bread plates and the little covered butter dish was being set next to the salt shaker and pepper grinder, the amuse-bouches arrived--tiny ovals of crisped "raison" bread mounded with a pate of duck and chicken liver and foie gras and topped with a bauble of fruit compote, strawberry one week, raspberry on another. They were a balance of sweet and savory, crunchy and soft, and they were a tantalizing promise.
The menu is divided into cold and warm appetizers and, theatrically, by water and land or sky for entrees. It changes incrementally; in the space of two visits, the consomme changed from lobster to duck, the filling in the Swiss chard beggar's purse going from lobster salpicon to foie gras. Both were light starters, deeply flavored and translucent. Mr. Wood shows his abilities with dressings, too. The salad of Jersey tomatoes--yellow, green and red, some batter-fried and crisp and hot, some not--lay in a shallow pool of tart goat cheese dressing flavored with fresh basil.
Other starters were more lush. The half Maine lobster was tender and succulent, a Stonehenge of large juicy chunks alternating with melon balls encircling a murky green pool of melon coulis spiked with mint and lobster oil. But a table favorite was the hot foie gras resting atop a baked apple and yet another cutout of "raison" bread, this piece toasted to crunchy foundation for the melting richness of the liver.
Only two starters were less than excellent; the Champagne mignonette overwhelmed a sextet of briny Malpeque oysters and the quail eggs on the greens and haricots verts salad were over-poached and better suited to quail egg salad. They joined the merely acceptable halibut in mustard sauce with spinach (not broccoli rape, as the menu promised) and chicken breast with "tomato fondue" (we call it sauce) from the entrees section, but beyond those attempts, Mr. Wood has avoided a common pitfall and lost neither innovation nor quality on his entrees. Indeed, it took me a few minutes of reading the menu to notice that he was working with the usual collection of meats and fish--it was his adjectives that were different.
He slathered a slab of striped sea bass with a rich mix of parsley, chives, dill, egg yolk and butter, then fattened the dish with chorizo, porcini mushrooms, and mushroom fettuccine. He dolled up an almost overcooked filet mignon with veal jus flavored with essence of coffee. The chanterelle ravioli was a triumph, a study in minimalism and a portrait of the artist as a young chef. Each tender pasta purse was perfectly puckered, near to bursting with a filling of chanterelles, garlic and thyme. The warmed tomato water was clear, pure flavor, the vegetables a palette of the dwindling season. It won't fill you like the three-pound, porterhouse special, a dry-aged hunk of flesh for $90 that serves at least two, but it will make you smile, and it will leave you with room for the cheese course, cut and served with precision and dried fruits scattered about the plate, plus more raison bread.
Then there's dessert, in other restaurants a wasteland of chocolate, creme brulee and imported sorbets, but Mr. Wood goes where few pastry chefs (at least in central Jersey) have gone before. His desserts, save the requisite molten Valrhona cake, are light and sophisticated, bright endings to memorable meals, and memorable themselves. Table favorites included the tart goat cheese mousse with berries, the spicy pineapple tartlet with mocha mousse and chocolate sorbet, the peppered cherries in lavender leaves with a frozen ginger parfait and the New Jersey peach tart with a raspberry sorbet.
Stage Left is on my short list of favorite restaurants. It is a raison d'eatre.
NOTE: Stage Left invested in the latest Spell-Check technology subsequent to the publication of this article.