On my first visit to New York City in 1993, I had an experience that changed my life, for better and for worse.
A young swain then, I was visiting a love interest who showed me the best the city had to offer. We went to magnificent galleries and the hippest shows, and wined and dined in some of the finest eateries on the planet.
Suffice it to say, the bar was set impossibly high at an early age.
Such is the curse of foodies and oenophiles: Once you experience the spectacular, it's hard to climb down to the merely good. This, in part, explains why so many of us make for unbearable company. (My own mother calls me a "wine jerk.")
The flipside of high expectations is optimism. Those who appreciate exceptional food and wine are forever seeking moments of fleeting "Zen-sory" enlightenment.
Despite its size, Victoria punches well above its weight class, with a handful of exceptional eateries and lounges.
One upscale establishment that made a splash when it first opened in 2007 is Stage Wine Bar, just a stone's throw from the Belfry Theatre in Fernwood.
Stage initially drew rave reviews, but lately seemed to be resting on its laurels.
Now that it's under new ownership, I decided to revisit it with my wife Heather on our regular Thursday date night.
Arriving at Stage, we found it busy but not overcrowded. The atmosphere is intimate and urbane, with the kind of hole-in-the-wall chic you'd expect to find in a cosmopolitan city.
We were quickly greeted and seated on arrival, and our server, Rylie, exhibited the confidence, attentiveness and affable professionalism one hopes for and expects.
We started with something light, Heather indulging in the braised mushroom salad with garlic crouton and pancetta crisp, topped with a sunny-side egg ($12), while I opted for a salad of greens, crispy goat cheese, beets and grapefruit, drizzled with cumin vinaigrette ($11).
Looking for something to pair with our salads, I was disappointed to see Stage's wine list mostly sells by the bottle, thus limiting the flexibility to pair with the wide range of small tasting plates on the menu. That said, a chalkboard at the back of the restaurant lists a cross-section of wines available by the glass, but the selection pales when compared to the actual wine menu.
More vexing is that not one Vancouver Island wine appears on the menu.
Granted, a couple of Island dessert and port-style wines are on the cocktail list, but it's hard to believe a Victoria wine bar would not carry anything from local vineyards, especially when names like Alderlea, Averill Creek, Blue Grouse, Zanatta and Venturi-Schulze all leap to mind.
No excuse, really. Fortunately, Stage has plenty of good B.C. wines to choose from. I ordered a glass of Road 13 Old Vines Chenin Blanc 2011 ($9), while Heather went out of country with a glass of Valdo Prosecco ($9). Full of intense green apple flavour and a viscous mouthfeel, the Chenin Blanc has nice acidity and weight that doesn't overpower salad. As to the dry Italian Prosecco, well, Heather likes to freestyle when it comes to pairings, and she does love her bubbly.
Nevertheless, the citrus flavours and acidity of this sparkling white were not at odds with the savoury influences of the mushroom and fried egg.
Transitioning to greater substance, Heather ordered duck confit with roast celeriac, brown butter walnuts and black plum chutney ($14), while I steered toward the lamb merguez with Moroccan chickpea ragout ($12).
Heather paired hers with a glass of Stoneboat Chorus 2011 ($8.50). This blended aromatic B.C. white had intense fruit flavours that complemented the plum chutney, with sufficient fresh acidity to cut through fatty fowl.
Our server suggested I pair the zingy lamb and chickpea ragout with a glass of Mourchon CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne 2008 ($9.75), a classic blend of Grenache and Syrah that had enough fruit flavour, spice and grippy tannins to make it an ideal match. Good call.
We polished off the evening with espressos ($4) and a couple of unspectacular desserts - crème brÃ»lÃ©e ($8) and chocolate torte ($8) - but when the bill arrived, it was hard to feel the overall experience justified the considerable expense.
Without question, the atmosphere, dÃ©cor and service at Stage are all first rate, but the limited by-the-glass selection, absence of local wines, mediocre fare and uninspired presentation all seem disappointing for a place with so much promise.
Hopefully, the new owner will revamp the wine menu, while inspiring the kitchen to new heights.
Otherwise, those prepared to pay a premium will move on in their quest for the extraordinary.
© Copyright 2013