Middlesex Health and Life
In the world of fine dining, tastes constantly change — think of how many once-chic eateries have switched hands or closed their doors completely. So when a restaurant is able to weather perpetually evolving palates while continually ranking at the top of polls, it must have true culinary chops. Such is the case with New Brunswick's Stage Left, where 15 years have built a solid reputation that is still much deserved.
The exquisite attention given to the dishes spills right off the plate and into Stage Left's expert service and cozy environs. Guests are greeted with a warm wooden bar — the perfect locale to sample a vintage from the award-winning wine cellar. We sat in a comfy spot at the back of one of several dining areas, where tables decked with white tablecloths and silver accessories stood amid striped banquettes. It's a classic image of fine dining, and Stage Left has a menu to match.
We started with an appetizer special of espresso and chocolate short ribs. The buttery-soft beef was cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, and a hint of coffee and cocoa added complexity, while hazelnut whipped potatoes provided balance. The duo of Hudson Valley foie gras demonstrated the versatility of this delicacy: The first, seared with sliced cipollini onions and a blackberry vinaigrette, showed off the liver's dense richness; the other, a spreadable torchon set on a toast round and topped with Sauternes jelly, took on a sweeter flavor. A less successful starter was the grilled baby octopus. Though thankfully not rubbery, it lacked flavor and was actually outdone by the accompanying tasso ham and chickpea toss, which had a refreshingly zesty vinaigrette.
For entrees, thick lamb chops were cooked to perfect medium-rare juiciness, letting the meat's flavor shine. A side of broccoli rabe — a lovely bright green that screamed freshness — had a just-right bitterness.
The pan-roasted halibut and pork belly was another example of the kitchen's deft hand. The seared crust of the filet gave way to moist, tasty flakes. An equally large piece of pork belly eschewed greasiness for a nice balance of flesh and fat. Sauteed greens and a drizzle of honey pulled the pair together.
Honey also appeared in one dessert selection, a sweet and luscious tasting plate. The sticky-sweet substance delicately accented delicious ice cream, then was reformulated as crisp candy. Both were served beside fragrant bourbon-soaked apples, speared with a cinnamon stick. The chocolate hazelnut bread pudding featured two dense mini-cakes, with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream tempering the rich brownie-like bites.
Nestled into the cushy banquette with full bellies overwhelming our thoughts, one thing was clear: The meals served at Stage Left are clearly ovation-worthy.
--Amanda Prost (July 2007)