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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Stage House Inn
366 Park Avenue
Scotch Plains, Union County, New Jersey
(908) 322-4224

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Should I be prevailed upon to enumerate my candidates for the top five restaurants in the illustrious Garden State, the Stage House Inn would surely be among them. Indeed, there are precious few New Jersey eateries capable of offering potential patrons such a seamless gestalt of comfortable surroundings, first-rate service, and extraordinary cuisine. Dining at the Stage House, of course, is certainly not an inexpensive proposition; considering the decidedly heavy tariffs exacted by the state's other big culinary guns, however, prices here seem positively modest by comparison.

The building itself radiates welcoming warmth that is a most congenial respite from the often intimidating glitzy decorative ornamentation characterizing many temples of haute cuisine or their pedestrian impersonators. Dating from 1737, its cozy collection of intimate dining rooms is bathed in the muted glow of miniature lamps and comes replete with fireplaces, timbered ceilings, and creaky plank floors.

And while Chef David Drake's modern French gastronomy may at first appear to be something of an oxymoron in the midst of this well-seasoned environmental Americana, I assure you that his creations fit the ambiance like a glove... both are stylish and sophisticated yet agreeably understated. There is a good deal of pizzazz here... but it is to be discovered in the perceptive combination of ingredients, the complementary commingling of tastes and textures, and the discriminating use of color and composition. If this explanation sounds a bit convoluted, it is precisely to the point that the food is not. There are no lengthy menu descriptions to deconstruct, no architectural gargoyles to dismantle. The genius is, quite clearly, that Mr. Drake's presentations are artistic without being anachronistic.

You begin, of course, with an amuse-bouche... Perhaps a tiny scallop served with a superlatively subtle vanilla saffron cream sauce or a completely beguiling goat cheese and basil purée Napoleon. This is culinary foreplay at its finest... the gentle teasing and caressing of the palate... the knowledge that the very best, the culinary climax is yet to come.

There are a number of gastronomic options available here and, depending upon the state of your appetite, and your wallet, all are worthy of consideration. Both the five-course "Tasting Menu" ($65.00; $110.00 with sommelier's wine pairings) and the seven-course "Grand Degustation Menu" ($80.00; $150.00 with the sommelier's wine pairings) are available seven days a week. In addition to the aforementioned, Mr. Drake also offers an à la carte menu (appetizers $10.00 - $15.00; entrées $25.00 - $35.00; desserts $8.00) Sunday - Thursday and a three-course prix fixe ($55.00) on Friday and Saturday.

Regardless of your personal predilections on a given evening, however, I guarantee that your experience at table will be nothing short of extraordinary...

If you want to start things off with a rush, head straight for the seared New York State foie gras ($4.00 supplement on the prix fixe menu). Perfectly prepared -- neither too firm nor too runny -- it is pure velvet upon the tongue, accompanied by artistically arranged allocations of cooked gooseberry halves and strawberry purée, and encircled with a thread of spiced wine reduction. All the elements meld together into an utterly seamless gastronomic garment... which is superbly complemented by a 3-ounce glass of 1996 Sauternes from Madame de Rayne ($14.00).

More delicate of disposition is the charlotte of Maine peekytoe crab surrounded by a sea of incomparably sensuous saffron-lobster sauce. Resembling an elegantly embellished Christmas present, sweet, succulent flakes are wrapped in the loving embrace of wafer-thin slices of zucchini and crowned with a bow of diced tomatoes.

Not only is the warm wild mushroom and ricotta tart a striking illustration of the chef's prowess, it is also a poignant example of the fine art of the culinary counterpoint. The tart's soufflé-like interior is ethereal of texture and temperament... but its transcendence is beautifully contrasted with a topping of earthy sautéed mushrooms, slightly peppery micro arugula, and encompassing pool of pungent mushroom velouté.

The salad of duck confit is another standout. Crispy duck cracklings and morsels of roasted yellow beets are dispersed among the frisée... but it is the deliciously delicate coating of fresh horseradish dressing that is responsible for this cunning culinary alchemy. There is just enough assertiveness, just enough flavor to tame the bitter greens without denying them their strong supporting role. This may appear to be a relatively simple presentation, but it is decidedly tricky... and Mr. Drake pulls it off with a definitive sense of style.

And entrées, I should hasten to add, are as totally transporting as their predecessors...

In the piscatorial realm, the deep-sea diver Maine scallops are seared to pristine perfection, garnished with green asparagus & organic baby carrots, and finished with a sweet/tart clementine broth that proves an exceptional foil for the rich, sumptuous texture of the beautiful bivalves. The crispy red snapper is precisely that... a consummately seared crust gently yielding to a moist, flaky interior. The filet is set on a creamy seabed of tomato and baby zucchini risotto... but the coup de grâce is delivered by your server at the last possible moment: a positively beguiling pipérade that is guaranteed to awaken even the most comatose of palates.

When it comes to meatier matters, the roasted pork tenderloin comes in a duo of guises (depending upon your preference for either the à la carte or prix fixe selection). Recently sampled was the latter, an arrangement of three succulently tender towers set on a foundation of tasty stir-fried Asian vegetables thoroughly invigorated with an exotic tamari-sesame emulsion and sprinkling of golden pea shoots.

The Pekin duck breast is also not to be overlooked. Savory medium rare slices are fanned out around an appetizing epicenter consisting of spaetzle, hen of the woods mushrooms, tiny broccoli florets, and sliced carrots. A heady roasting jus provides the punch, a touch of truffle butter, a mellifluent counterpoint.

Desserts, courtesy of Tim Horst -- a distinguished alumnus of the Ryland Inn, the Grand Café in Morristown, and Serenade in Chatham -- are on the same wavelength as Mr. Drake's appetizers and entrées: They exemplify artistry without ostentation, flavor concentration without componential and compositional overkill.

Mr. Horst's banana beignet, for example, is topped with a delicious dollop of nutmeg ice cream, crowned with a tiara of caramelized bananas, and set adrift on a silky sea of lime anglaise -- a wonderful combination of tastes and textures. And the same may be said for his pan-seared pineapple clothed with lime risotto, coconut sorbet, and culminated in a bracing pomegranate reduction.

For confirmed chocoholics, there is always the dark chocolate sponge filled with praline cream or rich but exceedingly elegant warm Belgian chocolate tart garnished with vanilla ice cream. And those who would prefer not to placate their sweet tooth may choose from a marvelous selection of artisinal European cheeses (9 cheeses $13.00; 5 cheeses $9.00) served with pear compote and slices of densely textured whole grain bread.

Oenophiles, of course, will not be disappointed, as there is a world-class (and rather pricey) wine list from which to choose. Given the establishment's emphasis upon the tasting, grand degustation, and prix fixe menus, however, this treasure trove seems almost superfluous. It makes infinitely more sense, in my opinion, to either take your gastronomic journey to the summit by going with the sommelier's wine pairings, or, should you be on a tight budget, to save a significant amount of long green by mixing and matching from the excellent selection of vintages available by the glass -- the 2001 Petit Chablis from J.M. Brocard ($9.00), 1999 Milz Riesling "Laurentiushof" ($9.00), and 2000 Jean-Marc Boillot Bourgogne Rouge ($11.00) being the most noteworthy and sporting extremely reasonable tariffs.

Service, as one would naturally expect in such a superb culinary environment, is polished and professional without a hint of condescension or obsequiousness. Yes, items are transported to table sequestered under gleaming silver domes. And, yes, said domes are removed in unison by two servers... But the act is so effortless, so utterly understated that one is not even tempted to say "Tah-Dah!"

Superlative in every respect, the Stage House Inn is a dining experience that is not to be missed.

Cuisine: Modern French
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar/lounge area only.
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: http://www.stagehouseinn.com

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