Food & Drink

DIGinto New Brunswick: Stage Left Steak Stakes Its Claim—In More Ways Than One

Stage Left Steak's Ibérico de Bellota Ribs with jalapeño cheddar cornbread Credits: Devin Healey
The outdoor dining area at Stage Left Steak and Catherine Lombardi Credits: Devin Healey
The bar Credits: Devin Healey

Note: This column is the first in a monthly series called DIGinto New Brunswick. The Hub City has a rich and diverse culinary scene, its menus constantly changing. I’ll be doing the leg work at your favorite spots and some hidden gems, sampling various dishes at one New Brunswick restaurant every month and reporting back on which food is worth your taste buds’ time. So sit back, relax, pour a glass of wine, and DIGinto New Brunswick.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — There is a moment in an individual’s life—a mid-life crisis, if you will—when one stops to contemplate whether it’s time for a reinvention. After 25 years as one of New Jersey’s premier restaurants, New Brunswick’s Stage Left faced a similar dilemma.

Nestled in the heart of the Hub City’s vibrant theater district, across from Monument Square and The Heldrich, Stage Left and its owners Francis Schott and Mark Pascal (also known as The Restaurant Guys) are surrounded by change. Their neighbors, the George Street Playhouse and the Crossroads Theatre, are preparing for demolition, making way for the long-awaited New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. The 22-story tower will house the two theater companies, Rutgers University’s Mason Gross, and many other performers, in a testament to the city’s long relationship with the arts. But it also means a long demolition and construction process—right on Stage Left’s doorstep.

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So now seemed a perfect time for the restaurant to shake things up. To Schott and Pascal, Stage Left had begun to feel stagnant. After months of renovations and menu alterations, they introduced Stage Left Steak and ushered in a new era of fine dining on the restaurant’s 25th anniversary. And what a reawakening it was.

Credit: Devin Healey

The updated interior is brighter and more open than before, with breathtaking art pieces hanging on the walls—all of which are available for purchase—and intimate tables both inside and out. The menu at Stage Left Steak is the epitome of everything fun and exciting happening with the food industry. A combination of small plates, creative spins, and classic steak and meat cuts, the new menu is sure to please any discerning carnivore. And don’t worry, the famous Stage Left Burger, as well as many familiar plates, like the decadent Ricotta Gnocchi, didn’t go anywhere.

The Meal

Seated at a comfy corner table with plenty of room to take #foodporn pics, fellow TAPinto writer Jack Murtha and I had a hard time deciding on which plates to sample, so we perused the extensive wine list (shared by sister restaurant Catherine Lombardi) and decided on a smooth 2007 Macchiona Barbera Bonarda La Stoppa that would pair well with pretty much anything on the menu. Our waiter approved. Plus, you simply can’t go wrong with a Northern Italian varietal.

After much deliberation and a little input from our gracious host, Schott, we decided to share three appetizers and one massive cut of meat. We started with the Escargot with bone marrow, garlic, and brioche, Ibérico de Bellota Ribs with jalapeño cheddar cornbread, and sort of a deconstructed pork roll (not Taylor Ham), egg, and cheese with “Stage Left Pork Roll,” whatever that may be.

Credit: Devin Healey

I’ll be honest: It was tough to pass up the Seared Foie Gras with Texas toast and strawberries, but life is filled with little concessions. With Francis’ suggestion, we opted to split the Double English-Cut Lamb Chops with mint jelly, which, to our surprise (and delight), also came with a Himalayan hot salt block “fat tasting,” to sear in the flavor of various fats. The pinnacle of decadence.

You may be wondering: You went to a steakhouse and didn’t order steak? Stage Left Steak has it covered. It’s their namesake. You will not be let down by any cut of steak on the menu. Order any filet or strip with complete confidence, and it will be cooked to juicy, bloody perfection...but please don’t order it well-done with ketchup. Besides, I was here for the new and interesting.

The first thing we noticed about the escargot was that it did not come in a typical ceramic escargot plate, but instead in a small ramekin. This was the first time either of us had ever seen escargot presented this way, and it definitely made a difference.

Credit: Jack Murtha

When served in the traditional plate, the snails are searing hot and drenched in butter and garlic. Stage Left’s presentation preserved so much more of the subtle, salty flavor, and the bone marrow added a slight nuttiness that made every forkful a unique experience. The brioche, at the bottom of the ramekin, was a welcome, buttery surprise after we demolished every single bite.

Before heading over for dinner, we grabbed a drink at nearby INC Restaurant and asked general manager Danny McGill if he had any suggestions from the new menu. Without hesitation, he suggested the Pork Roll, Egg, and Cheese.

Credit: Devin Healey

As lifetime New Jersey residents, we couldn’t pass up Stage Left Steak’s take on everyone’s favorite hungover breakfast order. The PEC also came in a ramekin, with a thick(er than a bowl of oatmeal) slice of pork roll, sharp, melty cheese, and what appeared to be a biscuit. Every bite required all three components and I would no doubt order this PEC on any hazy, dehydrated Sunday morning.

And now to the real meat of the matter. The weekend before this dinner I was in Wildwood, at the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship, where I sampled the best pork ribs in the state, from Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ. Stage Left’s Ibérico de bellota ribs, made from the same pata negra (black-footed) pigs used to make jamón Ibérico, arguably the best ham in the world, could have and should have been pitted against the state champs.

Credit: Devin Healey

From protected oak forests in Spain, the meat is one of a kind and produced some of the most tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs we had ever eaten. Served with a generous portion of jalapeño cheddar cornbread, a side of Stage Left Steak’s homemade barbecue sauce, and pickled red onions for crunch and acidity, the ribs were so perfectly succulent, we could have easily polished off a full rack and called it a day. I will put it as straightforward as I can: Do not come to Stage Left Steak without ordering the Ibérico de bellota ribs.

Finally, we were presented with a hulking testament to obscene decadence. The double English-cut lamb chops were as thick as our arms and the size and shape of a boomerang. Our waiter brought out an equally opulent fat tasting and Himalayan hot salt block to pair with the chops. Used to sear additional fat into any cut of meat on the menu, the tasting included lamb marrow fat, duck fat, and fat from the same jamón Ibérico in our ribs. As with the ribs, the Jamón fat was our favorite and seared in a terrific nuttiness.

Credit: Devin Healey

The lamb chops themselves were really two different experiences and included both extremely fatty lamb belly and a tenderloin closer to the center bone. Unfortunately, while quite a culinary experience (especially paired with the fat tasting and a few crispy onion rings), the lamb was our least favorite dish of the night. While the loin was perfectly rare and very flavorful, the belly portion was extremely fatty, almost gamy, and difficult to eat. The mint jelly, made in house, was a great accompaniment and helped to cut through the intense fatty flavors.

Credit: Jack Murtha

The sheer opulent, almost sinful nature of ordering this cut for two people almost made us feel guilty. That being said, it’s still a delicious and a fun experience for a larger party.

The Verdict

The meal as a whole was so thoughtful and well-constructed that the fact the lamb chops were not one of our favorite samplings is not a knock on the menu or the experience. Quite the opposite, as the service, attentiveness, knowledge of the waiters and sommelier, and welcoming nature of Schott and his staff made our dining experience extremely memorable. Executive Chef JR Belt and Chef de Cuisine Ricky Stevens did not disappoint.

But the point of this article is to tell you which dish you should dig into. It wasn’t easy for us to choose between the escargot, pork roll, egg, and cheese, and Ibérico de bellota ribs. But the ribs were so flavorful, so reminiscent of a plate of thinly sliced jamón Ibérico, that they prevailed as the must-order. Not to mention the cornbread, a personal favorite of mine.

Stage Left may have been an acclaimed New Brunswick staple for 25 years, but from the look of it, Stage Left Steak is already blazing its own trail and looks to have another 25 years ahead of it. Watch your back Steakhouse 85; Stage Left Steak just threw down the gauntlet.

Devin Healey knows food and drink. His newest column for TAPinto New Brunswick is called DIGinto New Brunswick. He also runs a blog network called CougEats. You can find more of his work on Facebook and Instagram.

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