Restaurant Review

Playing to Their Strength: Stage Left Steak in New Brunswick

On its silver anniversary, Stage Left’s founders rebranded their iconic restaurant as a steak house. Good move.

The big filet mignon, served (as few are)on the bone, with Brussels sprouts in the background.
The big filet mignon, served (as few are)on the bone, with Brussels sprouts in the background.
Photo by Matt Rainey

Along with remodeling and redecorating for its 25th anniversary last May, Stage Left in New Brunswick renamed itself Stage Left Steak. “The rebranding was an evolution, not a revolution,” says cofounder and co-owner Mark Pascal. “Over the years, we had found what we consider amazing beef from exceptional meat purveyors, and our diners loved the steaks.”

Two other affinities figured in the decision. Call them wood and wine. As Pascal relates, “We wanted to take full advantage of our wood-burning grill, which we’d installed back in ’92.” (That was the year Pascal and his old Rutgers buddy, Francis Schott, both class of ’88, opened Stage Left.) Burning applewood from an orchard in East Brunswick, the grill imbues the meat—mostly dry-aged USDA Prime Angus beef, plus domestic and Japanese Wagyu, lamb and Berkshire pork—with a seductive smokiness and an atavistic char.

You can still find one or both of the co-owners in the restaurant on most nights. Schott is also the wine director, overseeing a distinguished wine list, with more than 800 labels—a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence honoree.

“With a great steak, it’s a natural connection to have a great bottle of wine,” says Pascal, “and people are buying better wines since we changed to Stage Left Steak.”

If you haven’t tried prime Wagyu beef, renowned for its marbling and tenderness, this is the place to splurge. The menu offers an 8-ounce flatiron steak from Nebraska-raised Wagyu cattle ($49) as well as an $89 Wagyu trio, divided between Nebraska flatiron, Texas filet mignon, and supremely marbled strip steak from famed Miyazaki prefecture in Japan. The three cuts add up to only 8 ounces, but the meat is so rich that a little goes a long way. Both Wagyu items are arrestingly presented on a hot, 3-pound brick of Himalayan salt. To complete the experience, whisk each delicate forkful over the brick to pick up a distinctive lick of salt.

You needn’t break the bank. An un-aged, 8-ounce Angus flatiron steak is $25; an un-aged 8-ounce filet mignon, $45. Both are good. Moving up a tier, the 12-ounce New York strip, dry aged 28 days, is delicately marbled and blissfully beefy at $38. For the brawniest filet mignon around in heft and flavor, spring for the 16-ounce specimen, dry aged 28 days and served on the bone, for $69.

“It’s a total chef’s fantasy to cook on wood,” says chef Ricky Stevens, 33, a Woodbridge native who joined Stage Left in 2008. Moving wood around, he creates hotter and cooler zones. “For a petite filet, you want more of a direct sear,” he says. “For bigger cuts, I want to slowly render the fat out and let it absorb more smoke.”

“Ricky has really added some energy to the restaurant,” says Pascal, while noting that he, Schott, Stevens, and J.R. Belt, chef of Catherine Lombardi, Pascal and Schott’s Italian restaurant on the second floor, “are all involved in every single menu decision for both restaurants.”
In my visits, steaks emerged from the grill cooked precisely as ordered under the hearty ebony char. Still, the $125 tomahawk ribeye for two—36 to 42 ounces of prime beef on a spearlike bone—was surprisingly muted in umami, given its 45 days of dry aging. A thick wild-boar chop ($45) was curiously bland.

Lamb chops, though, were remarkable. This wasn’t spring lamb, but darker, richer meat from a 2-year-old sheep, old enough to be considered mutton. The dish was inspired by a visit the brain trust made to Keen’s Steakhouse in Manhattan last year. Carved, as at Keen’s, in the seldom-seen double-English cut, the two chops ($59) arrived butterflied—a single unit joined at the backbone, looking like a titanic, long-clawed crab made of meat.

The revelation, though, was the mint jelly. Not the usual green glop, it’s a translucent gelée that opens up and enhances the lamb. Inspired by the version served at Keen’s, Belt makes it from coarsely chopped organic mint leaves, a bit of simple syrup, salt and gelatin. “It has an herbal, not candy, taste,” he explains. “After blanching the leaves, I shock them with ice water, which seals the fresh mint taste. I think that’s the essential step.”

I’d be remiss not to mention the signature burger. It delivers a bulging 11 ounces of a proprietary beef blend, cooked on the wood grill, topped with three-year-aged cheddar, lettuce and tomato on a brioche bun. It hasn’t changed in years because, even at $17, it doesn’t disappoint.
If you’re not up for red meat, the kitchen deftly roasts organic chicken and Long Island duckling and pan sears Scottish salmon and whole brook trout, each with seasonal accoutrements. The meaty crab cake, available as a $17 starter or a $32 entrée, comes with a zippy aioli made from spring ramps, which Stevens pickles.

Of course, at least half the fun of a steak house revel is indulging in starters and sides. Stevens offers 14 of the latter, from virtuous, grilled, organic asparagus to virile, thick-cut Amish bacon. The $19 steak salad—seared, sliced flatiron steak over a mesclun mix with blue cheese, toasted pecans and pickled shallots—was the best salad I’ve had in quite a while.

Wheel-sized onion rings were crunchy; sweet potato fries, lightly crisp, with enjoyably pudding-like interiors. Stevens charges $12 for whole carrots piled on a plate with bits of green top still attached. Don’t be outraged. These primo specimens are roasted in luxurious Iberian ham fat. They only look virtuous.

Desserts, a collaboration between Stevens and Belt, are uniformly pleasing. The molten Valrhona chocolate cake, served at both restaurants, combines densely creamy texture with dark chocolate of mesmerizing intensity. Another classic, sticky toffee pudding, studded with walnuts and dates, comes with enlivening scoops of house-made ice cream.

Back in 1992, the two partners named their restaurant as a wink to the theater virtually next door. From the street, the restaurant is just to the right of the theater. From the perspective of an actor onstage, the direction would be stage left. All these years later, Pascal and Schott are still raising the curtain seven nights a week on a satisfying show.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - Seafood - Steaks
  • Price Range:
    Expensive
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, salads, charcuterie, $10-$39; entrées, $17-$89; sides, $6-$19; desserts, $11
  • Ambience:
    Elegant, upscale, yet relaxed
  • Service:
    Informed and gracious
  • Wine list:
    Deep, award-winning wine list, full bar
  • Stage Left
    5 Livingston Ave
    New Brunswick, NJ 08901
  • Reservations:
    not needed
  • Hours:
    open seven days a week:

    Dinner:
    at 5:30 p.m. from Monday through Saturday;
    at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday;

    Seating for regular menu is available:
    until 9 p.m. on Sunday and Monday;
    until 10 p.m. from Tuesday through Thursday;
    until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday;

    Seating for lunch menu is available:
    from 12 noon to 2:30 p.m. on Friday only

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