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Stage Left – New Brunswick - A Horrible Evening

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It pains me to write a negative review of Stage Left as I have the utmost respect for its owners Mark and Francis. I had lived in the New Brunswick when the restaurant first opened and had some truly memorable meals there with my wife. Having moved out of the area some 15 years ago, I have not had the opportunity to revisit Stage Left as often as I would like. Notwithstanding the fact that I had not eaten there in years, it never stopped me from recommending the restaurant both to friends and on this board.

Fast forward to this evening. My wife and I choose Stage Left to celebrate her birthday. We arrived on time for our 8:45 PM reservation and were immediately seated in the beautifully decorated main dining room. The table we were given however was the worst in the house. It was long and thin and placed next to the hallway for the kitchen and restrooms such that people were constantly walking past the table. I would not have made an issue with it but for the fact that I was afraid of knocking over my wine glass as well as not being able to hear my wife across the table. Having asked to be moved, I was advised that no other tables were available. While this would not normally have bothered me (as it was what it was), however a mere moments after speaking with the hostess, an adjacent two-top paid their check and left. Instead of offering us this table, I had to specifically request same. This request was honored and we were moved.

Francis came over to present and discuss their wine list. I was struck by the breadth of reasonably priced bottles available. As we usually do, we zeroed in on a few of the German Rieslings. While Francis made an excellent suggestion of a Christofel Auslese, I was disappointed that it was an up sell (actually double in price from the wines I was looking at). I decided to go with his suggestion and was very happy with the wine.

We were then presented with the menus. The next problem was with the fact that the menu online differed with that offered this evening. When you have a picky eater like my wife, this can cause a problem. This issue was further compounded by the fact that the one and only other entrée my wife would eat was no longer available. While not happy, we decided to push on and order the following: for appetizers – day boat scallops with cauliflower and sunchoke puree and a special of soft shell crab tempura; a beet and goat cheese salad to split; for entrees – Japanese red snapper with crab roll and asparagus and an olive poached Turbot special.

Now the fun stuff began. About 15 minutes after placing the order, Mark and the Hostess came over to our table with pained looks in their faces. They now advised that they no longer had the soft shell crab, the red snapper nor the turbot stating that they oversold all these items and it was a mistake for us to have been given the evening’s menu and special list. Instead we were presented with an abbreviate menu and advised that they would do there best to accommodate us. I felt very uncomfortable at that point. I’ve known both Mark and Francis for years and was starting to feel embarrassed for them. We should have left at that point but as we had already started drinking our $100 bottle of wine, we decided to try to make the best of it. At Mark’s suggestion we started to move proteins around. Trust me, we weren’t happy about this. Who wants to settle when you are spending several hundred dollars on a meal?

For appetizers we ordered the tempura special using the prawns already on the menu as well as the steak tartare. We kept the beet salad for the mid-course and chose the Hawaiian Wahoo (a special from Catherine Lombardi’s upstairs) using the Halibut preparation (fingerling potatoes, lobster and mint foam) as well as the scallop appetizer made into an entrée.

After all this, we did not see our first morsel of food until 10 PM (some 1 hour and 15 minutes after arriving). This food item was an amuse bouche consisting of an interesting duck confit atop a prepackaged toast square (how hard is it to toast your own bread?). Seconds after the amuse we got our first coarse. My steak tartare appetizer wasn’t bad – well seasoned beef topped with a raw egg accompanied by rectangular toast (again prepackaged?) which made it nearly impossible to place the tartare on. Another quibble with this dish was that half of the plate was crowded with a leafy green of some sort which did not add anything to the dish (except maybe as a garnish). My wife’s tempura prawns were good (nicely crispy head on prawns with thick cut bacon). Next came the salad. While decent (heirloom beets of different colors layered with goat cheese along with greens in a lemony vinaigrette), the portion was too small (barely a few bites).

In an effort to make it up to us, the management sent us an additional course on the house. While we appreciated the thought, we had already ordered more than enough food and this dish put us over the top. Furthermore, they sent us a dish we would never have ordered (in fact my wife and I joked while reviewing the menu that this dish didn’t sound appetizing at all). This item was the yellow-tail sashimi laced with a grapefruit/chocolate (yes that right - chocolate sauce). This dish description reminded me of an episode of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares were a chef was chided for making grilled shrimp with chocolate sauce. The dish was worse then I could ever thought and was probably the worst thing I’ve eaten all year. Instead of being cold, the sashimi was warm and clammy and the grapefruit/chocolate sauce was vile. At this point we didn’t really want our entrees and instead wanted to leave. Regret started setting in for wasting: several hundred dollars on a horrid meal, thousands of calories on bad food and a perfectly nice Saturday evening.

If the above wasn’t bad enough, the entrees were worse. Both entrees weren’t properly cooked. My wife’s scallops while nicely seared were cold in their center while my Wahoo was served with a large cold rare center. Don’t get me wrong, I love raw fish but this was a first for me. Confirming that this was prepared to the chef’s directive, I decide to eat the fish as cooked. To say I didn’t enjoy it was an understatement. The mint foam detracted from the fish and the fingerling potatoes with grilled onions were a step above diner hash browns. My wife on the other hand sent her dish back to be cooked longer. While good, my wife lost her appetite when the scallops were returned and decided to have it bagged to take home. For me, I left most of my entrée on the plate. At about 11PM we decided to forgo dessert, cut our losses, pay the check and leave.

Aside from the food, the service was atrocious. If I’m spending a decent amount of money on wine, I expect the glasses to be refilled without asking. On several occasions, both my water and wine glasses were empty and but for my request, both would have remained that way. Also, plates remained on the table far too long before being cleared. Lastly, the wait staff made us feel uncomfortable by staring at us as we were eating. I don’t mind attentive service as long as it is unobtrusive (think Nicholas).

But for the wine, the meal was a miserable failure. Management completely dropped the ball and could’ve done a better job in “saving” this evening. Notwithstanding my long history with this restaurant, I doubt I will ever return. Good Luck.

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  1. All I can say is WOW, it is painful to read your post but it is a reminder that the best of restaurants can screw up big time.

    Happy birthday to your wife and hopefully you can celebrate with a nice meal and wine elsewhere.

    1. I am sooooo sorry you had a bad night. It really stinks when a special night turns out badly.

      I was considering taking a nice lunch there one day, but not now.

      1 Reply
      1. re: seal

        Bgut's experience reminds me of my one and only dinner at Stage Left a couple of years ago. Give me the Frog and the Peach any day if I am in New Brunswick. Even though its further for me I'd rather drive to Rahway and go to David Drake or Middletown and go to Nicholas.

      2. I have always found Stage Left to have uneven food and service. Six months ago, I found the food to be mediocre and the service to be good. Two weeks ago, I found the service to be poor and the food excellent. The wine glasses were not filled, the bread was stale ( when we complained no further bread was brought out) . the staff was running around in circles. What is a constant is the arrogance of the wait staff. I am glad that you know Mark and Francis, because I do not and always get treated like a farmer from Iowa. I also, am especially annoyed by the staff tasting my wine before it is served. If I am spending 100-200 dollars for the bottle, I want every drop. If the wine is bad, I will tell them.

        1 Reply
        1. re: BigGeorge

          RPMcMurphy - Sorry I don't recall the waiter's name.
          Big George - Funny you bring up the bread and the wine service. Although I didn't mention it in the review, I did think the bread was a bit stale and my wife commented the same thing about the server tasting the wine.
          Bossa Nova - I agree that both David Drake and Nicholas are in a completely different league from Stage Left.

        2. My husband and I had a terrible experience there early this year. It started by walking through the bar, in which 5 people were at the bar, and refused to get out of the way for the maitre'd to seat us. We had to shimmy our way to the dining area around these fancy aristocrats who kept their fur coats on the chairs and stood while they drank their cocktails.

          So there we are, getting ready for a wonderful meal to celebrate my raise at work. With an impressive wine selection, I choose one in the middle priced area. Without asking, they refilled my glass to which I find out at the end of the night was charged for both.

          With 7pm reservations, between the 20 minute wait for drinks, followed by 25 minutes for amuse, and our meals another 40 minutes later - first course, I was ready to go home. The place was not even half full, and the timing between everything was unbearable. I did hear great things about their assorted cheeses for dessert and that tacked on at least another 30 mintues after the main course. The staff was rude - rude meaning they treated us as if we were paupers sneaking into a rich man's home. Do me a favor, Stage left, dont judge a book by its cover. You had no problem being kind to someone else dining with what appeared to be call girls but you automatically judged a young couple dining at your restaurant assuming we wouldnt have enough money for the tip.

          advice - go to the Frog and Peach. I have never been dissatisfied there, continuously receive excellent food, proper portions, and wonderful service.

          1 Reply
          1. re: chefty

            Have to agree.. Been there 3 times... I hate restaurants that make you feel bad for not spending alot of money,and they take the cake. If you order a bottle of wine under $100, your looked upon like a peasant. Last time I was there, my husband (a burger aficionado) read up on their "world famous" burger and talked about it all week, we get there sit down, order wine (over $100), and then hes told that we have to move to the bar if we want their self proclaimed best burger in the world!!!!!!!!! Guess its only famous at the bar

          2. My fiance and I ate there last Friday. Overall, our experience was very good and we will definitely be back.

            We started out with drinks upstairs at Catherine Lombardi bar....cozy, great atmosphere, quiet.

            Downstairs, (8pm reservation) service for our table was excellent, and food was very good. I had the Foie dish for starters that I would have to say, was one of the best Foie dishes I've had, (and that counts numerous at Nicholas!) My duck dish for main, was really good as well, if I had to change 1 thing it would have been the duck breast a little less done, but still delicious. Fiance had the mushroom-and almost like yorkshire pudding(pastry) dish for starters which, when I just asked was [gasp] amazing and a flat iron steak with asparagus for main. She felt her asparagus side was very wimpy for the price.....I agree...nothing to write mom or chowhound about. However, her steak, was great. really really good. (I had quite a few bites). Our wine pairings with each dish were spot on, recommendations were great and my cheese plate was great as well.

            Overall, solid, good enjoyable experience, great service, and really good food.

            I have to admit, after reading some reviews here, I was shy about it, but I plan on going back very soon, and to Catherine Lombardi's even sooner.

            p.s. not that it is a big deal, but another reviewer mentioned she felt like she was discriminated on for being young. We are 25 and look younger, and while we sometimes feel like this dining at some other places around, we felt the opposite at stage left, especially the assistance with the wine pairings.