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Monday, 10 February 2014

Setting the Stage at Stages Kitchen & Bar

Hotel restaurants can be tricky territory, for a steady supply of sleepy travelers and harried businessfolk ensure - for better or for worse - hungry mouths that demand sustenance. Case in point: I once traveled to a conference in North Carolina and arrived, exhausted and ravenous. Once deposited at the hotel, I slunk into the inn's restaurant and, hoping for heaps of Carolina Barbecue, found the most appetizing item on the menu to be a grilled cheese sandwich. Not an artisan grilled cheese sandwich with fontina and multigrain baguette either. A pair of sad-looking wonderbread slices slathered in margarine, sent for a trip to purgatory in a frying pan, and left seething processed cheese onto a melamine plate, under glaring lights that would better befit a prison cafeteria.


Fortunately, this tale of woe could not be further from the truth at Stages Kitchen & Bar, which has just opened shop at the Doubletree Inn by Hilton - the former Mayfield Inn digs. At a recent media preview, I was duly impressed by the level of organization and professionality at such an unveiling (and though I could go on about that, I will defer to Marlow Moo, who captures the entire evening bang-on). Pizza provides an overture of elk sausage and bocconcini; the cervid's playful gaminess is a welcome counterpoint to the cheese's relaxed creaminess. Jerk shrimp and pineapple pizza, though I could handle a few Scoville Units more of spice, is a tropical breeze on a frigid winter's night.


A Five Fork Banger, though it sounds like a particular variety of fireworks, is a quintet of sausage slices, all paired with different accoutrements. Pictured here are bison and bocconcini (foreground), recapitulating that game meat and mild cheeses comprise a culinary dream team. Elk and pickle (background) play with the veg's piquant nature, offsetting the wapiti's dreamy, spicy, honey-like essence.


Tuna Tataki exists only long enough to be photographed before being inhaled. Here, a serene triangle of albacore relaxes under a calligraphic scribble of creme fraiche and over a shatteringly crunchy wonton chip. Little hints of wasabi make their presence known without being bombastic.


Samples of Stages' various mains include Arctic Char with tomato, fennel and ginger chutney, Chicken Breast with field mushroom sauce, and Bison Meatloaf with tomato glaze. The lively char - somewhere between salmon and trout in terms of flavour - steals the spotlight with its summery-licorice-laced crown. My piece of chicken was a wee bit dry, but compensated with a rich and savoury infusion of wild mushrooms. The meatloaf, though dense in texture due to a deliberate absence of bread crumbs, pleased with its balance of meaty gravity and fruity overtones.


Dessert, presented here in miniature versions (from back to front) includes Warm Chocolate Lava Cake with Cappuccino Ice Cream, Creme Brulée, and Vanilla Bourbon Cheesecake with Berry Compote. The chocolate cake is a royal flush in the poker game that is dessert: seductive, gooey chocolate lava was barely contained by its lavish cake exoskeleton. Though I am not normally a devotee to creme brulée, Stages' transposition of this classic dessert is refreshingly light. The same manifesto applied to the cheesecake, which was not at all leaden, and happily lounged in its lagoon of blueberries and raspberries.

Kudos to the kitchen and hospitality staff at Stages for a superbly enjoyable dining experience. The hotel I was stuck at in North Carolina could learn a thing or two from you...


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