I admit it. I love good food and truly admire those with the talent to prepare it. David Drake, the skilled young chef/proprietor at the Stage House Inn, certainly fits that description. Drake was chef at the Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick before he worked with Craig Shelton at the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse. Since taking over the kitchen at the Stage House Inn six years ago, Drake's ability to produce good food has not faltered and, perhaps, has been even more finely honed.
The service at this restaurant has gone up and down, but thanks to a couple of new faces, the problems seem to be under control. Six months ago, Belgian-born Pascal Lemare, previously of the Ryland Inn and Le Petit Châin Bernardsville, was brought in as general manager and maîd'. He has made a world of difference, rendering the service almost as good as the food.
The attractive old inn, which dates from 1737, has several simply decorated dining rooms with unpolished, wide-plank floors and large fireplaces. A scenic mural covers the walls in the entrance hall. But the food, of course, is the reason I love to visit the Stage House Inn.
Who wouldn't, when Drake offers delights such as a disk of crabmeat wrapped in paper-thin slices of zucchini.....or a perfect circle of delicious smoked salmon edged with black caviar and garnished with a shaved-fennel salad? The presentations are as exciting as the food. I would travel a long way to taste the wild-mushroom tart with a creamy Parmesan base, or the wonderful special of seared foie gras served with apple puree, roasted figs, and a touch of ginger. Equally delicious is the individual tart of phyllo pastry, cipollini onions, black truffles, and sliced potatoes. The wild-mushroom soup is good, but the thick, very strongly flavored fish soup with greasy croutons should be removed from the menu.
I have many favorite main courses at the Stage House Inn, as much because of the imaginative accompaniments as for the perfection of flavor and preparation: roasted sweetbreads on a bed of diced root vegetables with a warm black-truffle vinaigrette; pepper-crusted tuna with a dark and slightly sweet red-wine sauce served with green lentils; cod with chanterelles, white asparagus, leeks, and mashed potatoes; sautßskate wing with pea shoots and chopped vegetables in a light carrot reduction; and sweet Chatham sea scallops with diced roasted butternut squash and pumpkin seeds. One is more enjoyable than the next.
When rack of lamb is available, order it--particularly if it is offered with a butternut-squash custard, cranberries, and chopped vegetables cooked to the point where they almost melt together. Roasted loin of veal on a bed of mashed celery root with smoky bacon, Granny Smith apples, honey cider, and honeyed walnuts is mouthwatering. A loin of red Denver venison with parsnip puré and black-currant sauce--a special--is delicious, although at first I have trouble cutting it; an observant waiter sees my struggle and brings me a sharp knife, which slices the tender meat as if it were butter.
The Stage House Inn offers an excellent variety of desserts in decent portions, not tiny slivers, and I like them all. The Valrhona hot chocolate cake with a liquid chocolate center is decadent, and the warm pear puff-pastry tart with pear sorbet and prune-Armagnac ice cream is great. A wonderful confit of pineapple tarte Tatin comes with vanilla ice cream and pineapple sorbet; the crèbrûlé is simple but delicious; and the soufflé of brioche with apples, bananas, and currants is heavy but homey. But my favorite ending here is the wonderful cheese platter. If you chose a good red wine from the comprehensive list, save some to go with the cheese and enjoy. --V. S.
366 Park Avenue, Scotch Plains (908-322-4224). Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 pm; Sunday 4 to 8 pm. Wheelchair access easy. All major credit cards. Dinner for two without wine averages $100.