Just a few years ago, I made my first visit to New York City. I was invited there to receive a writing award for British Columbia Magazine, where I worked as an editor for 15 years. Honey came along, and though we had just three nights in Manhattan, we made the most of it, walking and dining our way through as many neighbourhoods as we could during our short stay.
Though I am barely christened as a New York visitor, I have to say that dining at Victoria’s Stage Small Plates Wine Bar this weekend was like a glorious return to the Big Apple—without the expensive flight.
Stage’s generous front windows, exposed interior brick, wood-plank flooring, and prominent sit-up bar have the big city/cozy neighbourhood feel I associate with the Greenwich Village eateries I visited. The room is lively when filled with chattering patrons, yet intimate for individual diners.
The stylish yet unpretentious ambience is a credit to new owner Graham Meckling, who acquired the Fernwood restaurant this past summer. It was his idea to bring the formality of service down a notch at this popular pre- and post-show eatery just down the block from the Belfry Theatre, and the result is entirely inviting.
Working with talented Stage chef James Major, Meckling has also invigorated the menu with a dozen new small plates (while wisely retaining many favourites). It was to introduce us to these new dishes that he invited Honey and me to Stage on Friday evening. We put ourselves completely in his hands, opting for a night off from our usual pescatarian regime.
Meckling started us off with two well-chosen items from Stage’s varied cheese and charcuterie menus ($5.50 per item). Warm wedges of bread and gourmet crackers were the perfect vehicle for sampling a brie-blue cheese and a silky-sweet chicken-liver paté made with brandy and cream. Indulgence, indeed.
For a second course, Meckling paired the edamame beans ($8) and grilled albacore tuna ($14). Familiar offerings on many local menus, these dishes are creatively transformed by Chef Major.
The edamame pods (a huge bowlful) were not merely salted but richly flavoured with chilli, lime, garlic and shallots. The result is like a creative twist on the spicy green beans served at the best Szechuan restaurants—a completely addictive delight.
The tuna presentation was also very inventive. The simply grilled fish was served atop a chorizo-and-pepper stew with bites of fingerling potato for soaking up the zesty sauce. The contrast of fish and sausage flavours added considerable interest to this dish.
Meckling saved the best for last: the pork cheeks ($14). The sherry-braised nuggets of pork were fall-apart tender and accented with a tangy, chutney-like apple relish. A bed of creamy, fennel-and-potato gratin rounded out this truly outstanding dish.
Honey chose a dessert for us to share, the chocolate and hazelnut torte ($8). Served with a dollop of coffee mascarpone cream and a schmear of toffee sauce, the chocolate slice was as velvety smooth and dense as the centre of a fine chocolate truffle.
Throughout our meal, the servers were attentive and engaging, readily answering our questions about ingredients, refilling our glasses, and practically bounding over to replace a fork Honey inadvertently flipped onto the floor. Even I might have suggested that we received superior service and food as guests of the owner, except that I’ve had outstanding experiences at Stage before.
(Note that I pay for 99% of the restaurant meals I write about on Scrimp or Splurge. Be assured that any time I am treated, I let my readers know.)
As I’ve said before, my personal philosophy is to scrimp on everyday things so that I can afford to splurge on special occasions. When you’re ready for your next culinary splurge, remember Stage for an exceptional outing. When you compare the cost of a dinner out to the price of a trip to New York, heck, it’s really a scrimp.
- Stage Small Plates Wine Bar (250-388-4222; www.stagewinebar.com), 1307 Gladstone Avenue, Victoria, B.C.