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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Stage Left Restaurant
5 Livingston Avenue
New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey
(732) 828-4444

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

There's a lot to like about Stage Left: The upscale bistro decor is cozy and intimate; the customer-friendly service is smooth and unobtrusive; the wine list is exceptional; and last, but certainly not least, Chef Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome's creative American fare with French flair is utterly superb. However, let's have no misunderstandings here. This worthy establishment is not for the faint of pocketbook. Stage Left is a restaurant for diners who know and appreciate fine food and wine... and who recognize that the cost of such incomparable gastronomic indulgences is apt to be dear.

Those who frequented the late, great Yves, where Mr. Pierre-Jerome formerly held culinary court, recall fondly the astounding intensity of the flavorful dishes for which he was so justly famous. The chef has a talent for taking his ingredients to the max; and, during the past two years, since he assumed the reins at Stage Left, his loyal fans have demonstrated their appreciation by turning out in droves.

Begin with the escargot ($10.95). Plump and earthly, they are served out of the shell, swimming in a magnificently rich garlic broth awash with fava beans, zucchini blossoms, and garlic mustard greens. The grilled rabbit with oyster mushrooms and sage ($12.95) is also a fabulous starter. Morsels of rabbit, sautéed mushrooms & herbs are artistically conjoined at the plate's epicenter, topped with diminutive potato crisps and encircled with a ring of pungently potent white balsamic vinaigrette.

Saladwise, nothing beats the honey-roasted pear ($9.95). Delicate, delectable slices take their ease on a soft pillow of mesclun greens. The coup de grace, however, is delivered by an extraordinary Stilton walnut vinaigrette, which provdes just the right touch to totally beguile the palate.

The only disappointment among the appetizers was the white and green asparagus with morels ($12.95). The spears were properly firm and not the least bit stringy but, for some reason, completely tasteless... and the fungi were a bit on the gritty side. The accompanying truffle vinaigrette, on the other hand, was nothing short of breathtaking; it very nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Entrées continue the inspired interplay of incomparably distinctive colors, tastes and textures. The sautéed tilapia ($26.95), for instance, normally the bland leading the bland at best, is spruced up with salty black olives, grape tomatoes, and set atop a luscious mound of pesto mashed potatoes. Absolutely first-class! Equally so is the sautéed halibut ($27.95) adorned with Parisienne carrots, English peas, and finished with a savory ginger, lemon and saffron sauce. And if you're in the mood for bivalves, the scallops ($27.95) are not to be missed. They are pan seared to perfection, garnished with a creamy truffle polenta, and turn to pure velvet on the tongue. An exotic mushroom soy broth, which proves the flawless counterpoint to the richness of the other components, consummates this outstanding presentation.

As you have undoubtedly noticed, Chef Pierre-Jerome is quite adept at matters piscatorial... and two additional offerings deserve mention. The first is the salmon ($26.95). The filet is, of course, impeccably grilled and then set atop a scrumptious black bean cake. But what propels this dish into another dimension is the exotic citrus mango vinaigrette; it provides just the right amount of acidity and sweetness to gently contrast with the salmon's unique flavor and consistency. Were I to choose a fave, however, the nod would almost certainly go to the tuna ($32.95). It is grilled (very) rare, placed on a bed of racy wasabi mashed potatoes, and finished with an exhilarating mirin vinaigrette. Sushi fans will be smacking their lips.

The chef may have a penchant for seafood, but he is equally talented in other areas as well. His dry aged filet mignon ($32.95), for example, is juicy and tender, dressed up with wood grilled veggies, and finished with a zesty chipolte butter. The Long Island duckling ($29.95) is served up with heavenly foie gras dumplings and consummated with a savory sweet and sour pear sauce.

Even if you are not an avowed vegetarian, I would heartily recommend the wild mushroom en croute. Priced at $19.95, it is the least expensive entrée on the menu, but I guarantee that you will not feel short changed. An assortment of sautéed wild mushrooms are lovingly embraced in a lighter-than-air puff pastry and placed upon a bed of delicate fresh vegetables. The crowning touch is the extraordinarily intense truffled mushroom reduction.

As Mr. Pierre-Jerome also served a stint providing the delectable denouements at The Ryland Inn, dessert should be considered the sine qua non of your dining experience at Stage left. The luscious filling of a lemon berry Napoleon is sandwiched between three spectacular layers of crunchy shortbread ($8.95), and a light yet savory cheesecake is enhanced with balsamic strawberries and brought to the peak of flavorful perfection with the addition of a provocative spiced hibiscus sauce ($8.95). For chocoholics, however, nothing beats the molten Valrhona chocolate cake garnished with Tahitian vanilla ice cream ($11.95).

If you're not in the mood to indulge your sweet tooth, you would do well to consider the course fromage ($12.00 for one, $6.00 each additional person). Choose from an excellent selection of cheeses from small independent farmers; a most civilized and satisfying conclusion to your evening at table.

The wine list, as noted above, is quite impressive -- as are the tariffs. On the other hand, you wouldn't want to wash down such exquisite cuisine with a $5.00 bottle of Algerian bilge. Fortunately, you don't have to shell out hundreds of dollars for a rare Burgundy or Bordeaux; there are several excellent choices that, while still slightly elevated in price, won't break the bank. Didier Dagueneau, a young lion from France's Loire Valley, is known for his outstanding Pouilly Fume; and his 1999 "En Chailloux" ($52.00) certainly confirms his illustrious reputation. If you would prefer red wine, a silky Pinot Noir from Oregon's Hamacher Vineyard ($72.00) is a most exciting choice. There are also several very nice wines available by the glass in the $6.00 - $12.00 range.

Just how expensive a proposition is it to throw on the feedbag at Stage Left? Well... in our various sojourns to this establishment, my wife and I have yet to escape for under $200.00 (including tax and gratuity). And, no matter how you slice it, for most of us, that's moving into the high rent district.

But an even more basic question remains -- Is it worth it? My response: Indeed, every penny. The atmosphere is charmingly sophisticated, the service impeccable and, as long as Chef Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome is in the kitchen... all's right with the world.

Cuisine: American fare with a French accent
Hours: Lunch: Friday only, Noon - 2:00 p.m. ; Dinner: Mon - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Jackets suggested for gentlemen
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Parking: Valet and nearby parking lots and garages
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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