I really wish that my father had never moved to NJ, because then I wouldn't have to visit the Garden State for his birthday dinners. Another year, another bad meal at a restaurant that -- apparently -- passes itself off as great to people who don't know any better. In 2008, it was The Raven and the Peach (awful). The 2009 culprit: Stage Left.
Let's start with the good: the staff. I liked them for some reason that I can't really put my finger on, since they didn't do a particularly good job. But, they were cute and they seemed like nice folks. And they tried. Which is why I found it more funny than anything else when my mezcal was brought to another table, one that had just been seated. It stood there, getting in 10 last minutes of aging while the befuddled table pondered its existence -- ultimately informing their server that they hadn't actually asked for a smelly glass of "whatever that is". At that point, my server scooped it up, snuck out the back, and then magically appeared from the opposite direction to deliver my drink. I let it slide, but made a joke about the situation 15 minutes later, clearly catching the waitress off guard. She was sweet, though, and brought me a complimentary second round -- before I had finished half of my first. It was cute.
Additionally: an extra salad was brought out and dropped in place of a salad that had actually been ordered, while the ordered salad was taken away; at each course, several plates were placed in front of the wrong person; and I'm pretty sure that the wine drinkers were all enjoying each other's selections (my family wouldn't really notice).
Then there was the food. My starter was seared foie gras with anise-marinated nectarines and cinnamon-raisin french toast. Those poor nectarines. They had been sitting in an anise concoction for so long that they tasted more like my grandma's nasty old licorice candies than anything that had ever once resembled a fruit. They could not possibly have been tasted by a chef, because nobody in their right mind would willingly try to convince a paying customer that those things were edible. And that poor french toast. I'm not quite sure how it was prepared, but "soak in oil for 10 minutes" was clearly a part of the recipe. There's less grease in my car. And the poor -- you know what, I don't even want to talk about the foie. It seemed like a nice-enough piece, but it wasn't "seared", it was "well done". I wanted to cry.
My main dish was the night's special: duck with a cherry reduction, garlic spaetzle, and broccoli rabe. There was a lot of duck on the plate, which meant that I needed a lot of salt to coax out some flavor. It wasn't offensive, but imagine the most plain duck you could possibly be served. This was it. The cherry sauce wasn't bad, but it wasn't enough, and the spaetzle had the consistency of foam packing peanuts (with a flavor to match). There was one piece of dried-out broccoli rabe on the plate.
Get the dead horse ready: my girl was more than happy to share her meal with me, a fact which ultimately garnered her a fair amount of my sympathy. I don't recall the description on the menu, but it could very well have been: "The driest piece of fresh fish you'll ever be served, with a side of tasteless 'saffron' lentils served in a rock-hard bread bowl." Yum.
I enjoyed my dessert, at least. It wasn't necessarily worth $12 for two toasted marshmallows, a tuile, and a smear of chocolate, but the flavors were nice. I also liked the "teapuccino", which I almost couldn't bring myself to order out loud.
I had pre-gamed by looking up "Stage Left" on Chowhound, and so I went in with my hopes slightly raised (I should have known better, as several Hounds talked-up Raven/Peach as well). Ultimately, this was just another in a long, long line of Jersey restaurants that shouldn't be allowed to operate under the guise of high-end dining. At some point, someone involved with Stage Left must have paid a visit to the real deal and thought, "Hell, I can do that."
They were wrong.