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Stage Left: This remarkable restaurant aims high and consistently reaches the mark

A meal at Stage Left offers the opportunity to recalibrate our standards — a benchmark by which we evaluate other restaurants. From the beginning, owners Mark Pascal, Francis Schott and Lou Ribiero have aimed high. With growing confidence and resources, they have consistently reached that mark while expanding Stage Left and opening a second restaurant upstairs, the remarkable Catherine Lombardi. Stage Left may have had 10 or more chefs since it opened in 1992 but its vision has remained constant: appealing dishes that emphasize the character of the ingredients; deft yet unpretentious service; and attention to detail.

All this comes at a price, of course, but Stage Left has adapted to the current economic climate. The seven-course tasting menu is $10 less today than it was three years ago; a prix fixe dinner is available for $35; and the comprehensive wine list offers 100 bottles for less than $50. The menu is tightly focused but still covers a broad range with eight starters, seven entrées and a short list of grill offerings, including steaks and a wild boar chop.

Also available are two tasting menus. The “Petite Tasting Menu” — really a prix fixe dinner and a bargain at $35 or $49 with wine pairings (20 percent gratuity added). It begins with the soup of the day or one of three salads, followed by either chicken or pork loin, and a simple dessert. The true tasting menu, called the Grand Degustation in one of the restaurant’s few lapses into pretention, is a bigger investment at $89 ($139 with wine pairings) plus 20 percent tip. Its seven courses permit a thorough tour of the kitchen’s abilities and represent real value. When only one diner chooses this tasting menu, a timing problem can result: the diner who orders an appetizer, entrée and dessert must wait through long gaps. The kitchen makes this somewhat easier by sending out an extra plate for each course so both diners can taste everything.

But that’s the way we dined. From the regular menu came Garlind Farms tomato salad ($13), with succulent green, red and heirloom tomato slices served over a lemon-laced avocado purée, accented by a sprinkling of corn kernels and lightly dressed with ice wine vinaigrette. We were disappointed in the rolls: the pecan-raisin alternative was tasty, but the sourdough lacked bite, and they should have been served warm. The robust flavor of the Berkshire pork Porterhouse chop ($29) bathed the palate with the heady but delicate taste of organ meat, an association accentuated by sautéed, golden onion rings. The side serving of fresh asparagus ($8) complemented these dense, hearty flavors.

The degustation began with hamachi (yellow fin) carpaccio — a translucent slice served with strawberry vinaigrette and radish. The fish was bland, but this complaint was forgotten with the first bite of the second appetizer: a sweet scallop atop a small johnny cake (somewhere between polenta and a corn cake), surrounded by a savory corn sauce. The scallop was sautéed and served with a strip of pork belly, a pairing that made the dish voluptuous. The succeeding course was pleasantly austere by comparison: a chunk of halibut with sautéed fava beans, mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and English-pea mint sauce.

A grilled quail came next, returning us to the sybaritic side of the menu. It was tender and delicate, complemented by firm, nutty Honshimeji mushrooms, polenta and perfect, al dente asparagus. The orchestration of flavors in the tasting menu culminated with a medium rare, smoky grilled lamb chop, served with a cabernet reduction, whipped potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts so sweet we first thought they were artichoke hearts.

The selection of artisinal cheeses that followed seemed chosen not for range but for balance: dainty Constant Bliss, with floral overtones enhanced by cherries and truffle oil; dulcet Hoja Santa, a Texan goat cheese wrapped in the eponymous leaf, which lent hints of mint and sassafras; a sturdy cheddar; a buttery tomme de Savoie; and a creamy Wisconsin blue, with a vein of live culture adding both tang and visual charm.

Three sublime little boules of espresso chocolate chip sorbet, as rich as fudge brownies, were elegantly presented in an oval silver dish that lent itself to sharing. The degustation menu brought a banana crepe wrapped around ethereal, creamy filling accompanied by slices of quite-ripe banana wrapped in chocolate, looking very much like sushi.

Stage Left is noted for its wine cellar, which features estate-bottled wines from small producers. The choice of wines by the glass changes daily. Here they are served in a small carafe, called a quartino that holds about a glass and a half. We enjoyed a pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley ($15), a Bandol rosé ($13), and a sauvignon Roche aux Moines ($25) from the Loire. This trio provided complementary pairings for every dish, including the cheeses.

Servers are dressed in conservative dark suits, white shirts and red rep ties. They sometimes appear in phalanx, each bearing a plate for a table of four to six. Our pleasant server detailed the preparation of every dish, named every cheese and its provenance, and offered insights on the wine choices. The dining rooms have a clubby, understated elegance: a chandelier, a shaded candle flickering on each table, large art deco paintings, many by Tamara de Lempicka, and dark wood walls.

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Stage Left | 5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 | T: 732.828.4444 | F: 732.828.6228
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