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10/26/2001

Restaurant Review: Stage Left

Clever updates of beloved classics, intriguing new ingredients and consistently fine execution make this New Brunswick classic a winner.

Food Excellent
Service Professional and well-informed
Cuisine Contemporary American, with clever twists
Ambiance SoHo, but without pretension
Prices Expensive

Everything about Stage Left is clever, in the best sense of the word.

Take the name: The restaurant is literally on the left as you leave the State Theatre in downtown New Brunswick. The decor of the main dining room is simple but clever, conjuring up SoHo sophistication with its dim lighting, glass-block room dividers and its use of non-colors like black, white, gray and taupe. At the same time, it manages to radiate warmth and comfort.

Executive chef Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome's food has been lauded from the first, but this year--the restaurant's ninth--it takes a particularly clever turn by not only giving retro classics like lobster Thermidor and banana splits a new lease on life, but making them to die for.

Take the lobster, actually a starter of Lobster Thermidor Ravioli ($13), comprising three plate-filling, ruffle-edged poufs filled with tarragon-scented lobster mousseline. Nothing stodgy about this Thermidor. The pillows rest on a bed of spinach and swim in deep, rich chicken consomme touched with whole grain mustard. An airy wreath of microgreens provides a perky touch of color and freshness.

My starter was a contemporary take on petite marmite, in this case a soup made with duck ($12). Vividly flavored, bronze-colored broth envelops shreds of nicely gamy duck meat and slivers of carrot and celery root. Floating in their midst are tiny ethereal dumplings made of duck foie gras.

Among the salad choices is one of field greens with vinaigrette made from Duche de Longueville sparkling cider ($7), one example of how the menu is sprinkled with boutique brand names, such as Neuske apple-smoked bacon, which shows up in at least two other preparations. We opted for an autumnal classic, a combination of pear, Stilton and walnuts ($10). Here, slices of a honey-roasted Bosc the texture of silk are fanned out over baby greens, drizzled with walnut Stilton vinaigrette, surrounded by chunks of cheese and walnut halves. Every ingredient is at its peak. Nothing is stinted. In combination, they make music.

I don't know if cleverness or serendipity makes Stage Left one of the quietest restaurants I've encountered in years. With the main dining room almost full, the room reverberated only a pleasant buzz, despite an abundance of wait staff. I noticed at least three gentlemen roaming the room discussing wine choices with guests and correctly surmised that, in two cases, they were co-owners Francis Schott and Mark Pascal, whose great interest in wine led them to open a wine shop next door.

Perhaps that venture is what makes their award-winning wine list sparkle with hard to come by (albeit pricey) finds like Vega Sicilia 1981 Unico, offered at $450. There are fine choices at all price points, and I was particularly pleased when we asked our wine captain to choose a Syrah somewhere between $30 and $40, and he delivered with an excellent selection, a Hill of Content petite Syrah from Australia for exactly $30.

Other aspects of service are equally polished and well informed. Among the evening's specials was a fish new to me: nairagi ($33). Our waiter enthusiastically explained that it is flown from Hawaii and is a type of striped marlin he described as orange marlin. Not one to resist something new, I was rewarded for my daring with a fish that has the winning attributes of monkfish--silky texture, dense, white flesh--but with the satisfying meatiness of swordfish. That last quality was underscored by black chanterelle mushrooms and a thick, creamy tomato vinaigrette. Emerald green, crunchy tender snap peas completed the colorful and tasty dish.

Another dish with an unusual ingredient was a special of ahi tuna that came with a sauce containing paw-paws, the native American fruit that is sometimes called custard apple. We chose instead another update on an elegant classic, the Duck Wellington ($35), a rich extravaganza of duck done four ways. Very rare boneless breast (1) is surrounded by duck foie gras (2) encased inside beautiful, burnished puff pastry. An excellent duck leg confit (3) fills the other side of the plate, along with a sauce dotted with juicy oakwood shiitakes and duck cracklings (4).

A sizable Colorado lamb shank ($25) was prepared almost like short ribs, with the meat literally falling away from the bone, making the steak knife that had been plunked down with it superfluous. The moist, highly flavorful meat glistened with an earthy reduction the color of mahogany that included pearl onions, carrots and mushrooms. The accompanying garlic mashed potatoes were held in such high regard by my dining companion, who ordered them, that I was allowed the merest wisp of a taste.

At dessert, we again opted for one of several backward-looking choice ' s. We were curious but passed on the Blenheim ginger ice cream soda but dug right into the Stage Left banana split, at $11, probably the highest priced example of its kind. This deconstructed. and reconstructed dessert has a ring of brul6ed banana slices resting on melted Valrhona chocolate for its outermost ring. The combination of, lush chocolate, rich, soft banana and crunchy, sugared caramel is alone worth the price. Inside the ring is an ice cream sandwich of Tahitian vanilla ice cream nestled between soft ginger cookies. A spritz of whipped cream sits atop the sandwich, and--to complete the requirements of any self-respecting banana split--it is decorated with four tiny dried cherries lined up like soldiers.

Other desserts--good but not spectacular--include a molten chocolate cake ($12) with the same vanilla ice cream in a pretty tuile, and a berry shortcake ($11).

My only reservation about Stage Left is the price tag of some but not all dishes. Desserts in the $11-12 range seem high to me, as does a $17 appetizer, even if it is one with foie gras. But diners can pick their way around the higher-ticket items, or perhaps make up for them by plucking from the wine list a winner with a good price/quality ratio.

No one can argue with the chef s clever updates of beloved classics, his use of intriguing new ingredients and consistently fine execution.


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