Tasting Las Vegas

Sage Saves City Center–Michael Manley’s first taste

January 22, 2010 · 2 Comments

The bad news: City Center is neither.  More on that soon–I want to talk about Sage right now and will save my (voluminous, frustrated, ranting) comments on ‘City Center’ proper for another day.

The good news: Chef Shawn McClain’s Sage at Aria is everything I hoped it would be–serious, imaginative and impeccably prepared food, well priced, in an atmosphere which manages to be at once elegant, welcoming, and friendly.  A special shout-out to bartender Aaron, who makes the best Manhattan I’ve ever had:

Notice that a lemon twist substitutes for the customary Marischino cherry.  This, along with thoughtful choices of boutique bitters, vermouth and bourbon, results in a much drier, more complex Manhattan.  I’ve already been back for seconds.

I ventured to City Center for the first time on New Year’s Eve–a masochistic exercise akin to a New Yorker saying “wouldn’t it be nice to take a stroll down 42nd Street?” around 8pm on December 31st.  But this was a special night–I was meeting my close high school friend John Hancock (his real name), who was staying at Aria and whom  I had not seen in 20-plus years.  John and I found each other on Facebook, naturally, and I was glad to find out he was a fellow foodie.  Unable to score a reservation at Sage,  I booked us into Julian Serrano.  But we had time to kill, and the warmly lit, old-school bar of Sage was next door, and proved irresistible for a pre-dinner cocktail.  Our skilled barkeep Aaron made the helpful suggestion that we could have dinner at the bar, since we couldn’t score a table.  John and I were game; the vibe was great at the bar, and a multi-course gourmet experience was what we were in the mood for (I do loo forward to sampling Julian Serrano soon).

I’m relying on my memory to recount the highlights, as I was unable to find an online menu for Sage on the City Center/Aria website (nor are online menus available for any of the other Aria restaurants).  Memo to Sage: if your contract with Aria  allows, please build your own dedicated website soon–City Center’s is not doing you any favors at all.

I’ll stick with the meal highlights:

–an impeccable foie gras creme brulee, which struck the right sweet/savory chord that was echoed in other dishes in the meal (such as a suprising and clever amuse which featured artichoke bathed in, of all things, grape foam).

–a hearty Wagyu beef tartare, that was enlivened with a crisp bitter chocolate tuile that brought a hint of mole to the otherwise standard tartare flavor profile (anchored by mustard, capers, and egg yolk).

–luxurious and fluffy tortellini, the rare vegetarian dish that steals the show, completely blew me away.   My memory is recalling chestnut, vanilla, orange zest, and date–not sure if those are literal ingredients or what the dish evoked for me, but I’ll be back soon to find out.

–an ethereal slow-poached egg that was a study in earthy restraint.  At first I wondered if the egg, potato and truffle trio would be too limiting (where are the herbs/green notes, I thought), but I soon realized that this dish was, conceptually, about maximizing the minimal–like late Mark Rothko, or Philip Glass.  Except for your mouth.

–salt.  That would be the salt served with our bread.  I asked our bartender Aaron about it, and was amazed that he gave a Nat-Geo worthy discourse on its origins (an Australian river,  I think) and flavor profile (mineral-y and, well that’s all I can recall).  It was tasty to boot.  When the bartender of a restaurant can give you a dissertation on the salt, you know you’ve found the real deal.

Desserts were a bit of a let down; they weren’t bad just a kind of routine given the level of the rest of the meal.  I attributed that to the fact that we were dining on a holiday (not the fairest time to judge a kitchen), and therefore being limited to the prix fixe menu’s limited and rather safe dessert selections. I didn’t taste John’s milk chocolate dome so I can’t comment there, he found it good if a bit one-note.  My beignet style doughnuts, with an apple compote, were decent, and came with a sweet-and-sour apple cider tea on the side, a nice touch.  I thought the batter lacked salt, leaving nothing to balance out the sweetness.  Again I forgave this since it was a holiday menu, but I’d advise the pastry chef to stay away from doughnuts anyway–they are way, way overexposed here in Vegas, and at Sage they don’t strike the same level of maturity and sophistication as the rest of the menu.  But my quibbles are just those, and overall I was thrilled with my first dining experience at Sage.

I really, really really want Sage to do well here–this town needs risk takers who won’t slap their name on a steakhouse and phone it in (fyi, chef Shawn McClain is in residence at Sage for a few months at least).  But I think Sage will need some loyal locals to support it, in order to avoid having to dumb-down their menu to placate the mercilessly conservative palate of a tourist-only demographic.  This won’t be easy; City Center seems to have been planned to actively piss off locals (note there is no entrance to parking from Frank Sinatra–a huge middle finger to Las Vegas natives).  But trust me, the welcoming bar and friendly, attitude-free staff are worth the trip.  So get over to Sage, Las Vegans–those Manhattans aren’t going to drink themselves.

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Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.

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