Tasting Las Vegas

Sage Two–A not quite corrective of Mike D.’s review

February 9, 2010 · 6 Comments

After Mike Dobranski’s glowing yet glowering Sage Review, in which he vented no small amount of Sage Rage–owing mainly to bad service and, in his view, pedestrian desserts–I feel the need to stick my fork into that bit of metaphorical Kobe beef, as it were, and offer a slightly different take, or counter-myth, as fatuous, politically noxious director Oliver Stone might put it.

As it happened, I had my second meal at Shawn McClain’s Sage at Aria on  January 31, the same night that Mike and his lovely wife Kerry also dined there.   In another odd coincidence, it was exactly one month from my first visit, which had been on New Year’s Eve.  On my first visit I had eaten at the bar, which is spacious and, oddly, more intimate that the dining room.  This time I had a table reservation.

My dining companion had just flown in from San Francisco, and after a quick stop at my place to change, we headed straight to Sage.  We arrived at 8:50 for an 8:45 reservation, and the host mentioned that our table was not ready.  This was not a problem for me, as I had been looking forward to another sublime Manhattan from bartender Aaron, which I raved about in my first Sage post. Dining partner Josh, however, was not drinking that night, and was starving after his travels.  It is never a good idea to keep a bearish guy waiting in the food dept, and when 15 minutes crawled toward 20 he got very grumpy very quickly.

Here is where Mike D. and I agree–the expectation level for service increases exponentially when the bill goes into the “above $200″ stratosphere.  Unlike Mike, we had an amazing waitress (can we still say waitress? Or must we say wait person of the female persuasion now?).  We did experience the same marble-mouthed food descriptions from the runners, but aside from that minor drawback the service during the meal was exactly what I had expected, and immediately mollified grumpy Josh.

However, let’s rewind to “we arrived at 8:50 for an 8:45 reservation, and our hostess mentioned our table was not ready.”  I imagine that reservation/table management is second only to Air Traffic Control in terms of complexity and stress, and some guests are bound to be kept waiting.  That in itself is not the problem, it’s how an establishment reacts to this that sets the stage for the guest.  The snafu I experienced was more bizarre since I had emailed the assistant GM, who had given me his card on another recent visit, and told him I’d be in the next night (I was occupied with hungry/grumpy Josh, or I’d have re-introduced myself and said hello to said GM; in any case he didn’t recognize me or say hello, or answer my email.  Not a huge deal but a detail slip I wouldn’t expect in a place of Sage’s caliber).

One of my earliest “over $200″ meals was at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago in the late 90’s.  I remember exactly two things from this meal: First, that my friend and I had arrived on time for our reservation and had to wait for our table to be ready.  All the seats were taken in the bar;  all the seats occupied in the foyer.  That’s right–anal retentive perfectionist Charlie Trotter kept two guests waiting, standing up no less, with no apology or offer of champagne or a cocktail.  For more than 10 minutes.  The second thing I remember?  That our waitress neglected to mention that we could substitute courses from the all-vegetarian tasting menu after my friend and I had both ordered the regular tasting menu (I had asked about an interesting veggie item, and it would have been the perfect opportunity to mention this).  I found out this was possible when the same waitress eagerly accommodated this request of a guest one table over.  I’ve been back to Chicago a dozen times since and have never returned to Trotter’s (when I go to the windy city to break the bank,  it’s usually at Moto or Alinea).  The food at Trotter’s was exceptional, but not enough to make up for the poor treatment and ‘aren’t you lucky to be eating here’ smugness of the wait staff.

So Sage, I know you just opened, are in probably a too-large space (inevitable, being you’re in the monstrously over-scaled CityCenter), and that the staff is still new.  But when a table isn’t ready, remember that you can buy loads of good will (and, more important for you, time) if you acknowledge and take care of the guests with a welcome cocktail or app if there’s going to be a wait of 15 minutes or more.

Alright, so service pet peeves out of the way, how was the food?

I began with the same stellar amuse that Mike raved about, an aromatic explosion of acidic sweetness, and porky saltiness.  An entirely different amuse from my first visit, it showcased the same sweet/savory contrast that is a strong theme of chef McClain.

Astute readers may recall me railing about the absence of offal and other exotic oddities on Las Vegas menus in my first post. I am happy to report that Sage proudly showcases these, indeed they even offer their sweetbread app on the bar menu.  I am a confirmed Sweetbread Nut, so as tempted as I was by an escargot/beef cheek pasta, I had to go with the sweetbreads:

A more handsome, or heartier dish I have not found.  Notice the prominent slab of bacon, which added crunch and salt to the delicate, perfectly cooked sweetbreads.  These sat on a bed of polenta, which added the right note of creamy richness to bring the dish together.  Worth a trip back, and one of my top two sweetbread dishes of all time (the other being chef Akhtar Nawab’s version, at the now sadly shuttered Elettaria in NYC).

Josh started with a beet salad:

What is not to love about a perfectly cooked beet?  My bite was quite tasty, and the substitution of bleu cheese for the usual goat cheese was a nice change.

For our second course we split the vegetarian tortellini, which the kitchen helpfully plated individually for us:

I tasted this on my first visit, and in my first review noted that it was the rare veggie entree worth a trip back for.  The perfectly cooked pasta encased a sweet/rich filling featuring salsify and sunchoke.  Given Chef McClain’s commitment to serious vegetarian cuisine at his Green Zebra in Chicago, it would be a crime to visit Sage and not order something from the vegetarian options, and on second tasting I highly recommend this dish as an appetizer or main course.

After being seriously tempted by the turbot on a bed of risotto, I opted for scallops as a main course:

Chef McClain takes his in an earthy/hearty direction by pairing them with wild mushrooms and braised oxtail.  I loved this dish, but it was almost too much of a good thing–the unctuous sweetness of scallops can go from rich to cloying for me quickly, and I realize I prefer them as an appetizer rather than a main course.  If I had not been with culinarily non-adventurous SF bear Josh, I would have ordered the multi-course tasting menu over a la carte ordering–its really where chefs of McClain’s caliber shine, and the best way to experience the breadth of a chef’s skill and imagination.  Sigh.  Next time.

Josh had the loin of Iberico pork that Mike D. found to have committed unforgivable crimes against pasta:

A play on the traditional German pork/cabbage pairing, this dish substitutes romaine as the green.  Mike and I have very different tastes, which makes our blog interesting and lively.  I don’t know what his problem was with the pork confit-stuffed canelloni pasta; the bite I had was sublime and cooked perfectly.  I take issue with Mike’s assertion that pasta can’t play a mainly textural role, and with the richness of this dish I thought it was a perfectly prepared and logical choice on the chef’s part.

Josh loved this, proclaiming it possibly the best pork dish he’d ever eaten.  Coming from a bear, that is saying something.

For dessert, Josh got the toffee pudding, and I sampled a pear tart tatin.  I wish I could disagree with Mike more vigorously on the desserts–they’re good, but they aren’t conceptually on the level of the other dishes.   On my first visit I had lackluster beignets, which I attributed to the seeming city ordinance that all high-end strip restaurants must offer designer doughnuts.  My pear tart tatin, however, confirmed some of my initial dessert concerns–the fruit was poached perfectly in a red wine caramel, and the side of bleu cheese ice cream was delicious (sorry Mike, I love me some weird ice cream).  But the disk of pastry it came on was routine, and not integrated into the dish (the pears were served over it, and were not baked into the pastry).  The toffee pudding, on the other hand, was a wonderful comfort food book-end to the rustic sweetbreads that began my meal:

Now I don’t expect Sage to be the next Moto, where one might find Chef Homaru Cantu making cereal with liquid nitrogen, but there is a difference between minimal and unsophisticated, and the desserts at Sage don’t quite meet the level set by the rest of the meal.  It may be that the desserts are taking a conservative turn to satisfy the mostly-tourist base of Aria/CityCenter–it wouldn’t be the first time a strip restaurant has had to dumb down its menu (memo to First Food and Bar–where did the Escargot profiteroles go?  Was I the only person to have ever ordered them?).   So Sage I say damn the tourists, and bring on the beet cake and truffle ice cream–cause if I see another chocolate bombe, designer cotton candy, or fancy doughnut on a Las Vegas menu, I think I will have to put my eyes out with a fork.

Dessert qualms aside, I still recommend Sage highly to anyone looking for truly sophisticated and exciting cuisine; Las Vegas is better for having the skill and vision of Chef Shawn McClain. I do hope Sage gets its own site soon (though I’m glad that a sample menu is finally online, though buried, on the Aria website).

A final plea to Sage–how about keeping the bar open til midnight to let those of us who work in entertainment hang for a drink?  I’m eager to bring over an after-work crowd for some stellar Manhattans and help build a local following…

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

Categories: Uncategorized

6 responses so far ↓

  • Mike // February 10, 2010 at 12:04 am | Reply

    1.) About the Pork Cannelloni – I don’t like good food wrapped in boredom, which is what it was. Why should pasta play only a textural role when ultimately you have to taste the whole thing as an entity? The pork was delicious and was served a great disservice by the bland (mine was overcooked) noodle.

    2.) My pet peeve with Weird Ice Cream comes more with chefs not having the balls to actually make what they say they make. If Browned Butter Ice Cream accentuates the dish nicely, then so be it, but if you are going to call it Browned Butter Ice Cream, it should taste like Browned Butter, and not Sweet Cream Ice Cream with the essence of Browned Butter in the finish.

    Weird Ice Cream for me dangerously treads the line of a restaurant trying to be hip for the sake of being hip rather than use it to make a successful dish. The two individual instances I had did not make a successful dish, it just made for an intriguing item on the menu.

    In full disclosure, I didn’t have the Bleu Cheese Ice Cream that you had.

  • Michael Manley // February 10, 2010 at 10:10 am | Reply

    I only had a bite of the pork dish and wasn’t offended by the pasta (which was cooked well at our table), but maybe if I’d had the whole dish I’d share your concern. Maybe not…

    I agree that if you are going in the savory/weird direction with ice cream you shouldn’t be tentative, and you can argue that the Sage ice creams are understated or too tentative (the blue cheese ice cream rode that line but worked for me)…

    • Mike // February 10, 2010 at 11:00 am | Reply

      What they should have done with the pasta (forgetting about texture for just a second) is they should have cooked the pasta 3/4 or 4/5 of the way and then finish the pasta in a pork jus / stock reduction of some sort. That way the pasta would have sucked in some of the good pork flavor, then of course you have to re-season the pasta. My main gripe with the pasta isn’t really a textural thing, it was the bland taste of it, which in turn caused for a significant drag on the agreed upon delicious pork filling. It would have also helped if it was sauced at least a little bit. It rested upon saucing, but it wasn’t enough to make a dent.

  • john // February 10, 2010 at 11:03 pm | Reply

    ewww, you ate sweetbread. Was that the thymus or the pancreas?

  • Josh, aka 'grumpy bear' // February 11, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Reply

    As the aforementioned “dining companion from SF”, I feel the need (well, not the “need” so much as just the “desire”) to append this excellent post, and add to the discussion.

    Indeed, as MM so pointedly (and frequently) pointed out, I was grumpy after waiting on our table. I generally get grumpy when made to wait on anything, hunger notwithstanding. Just try driving slow in front of me in the left lane. But, what made me grumpier in this instance is that there seemed no reason for said wait. There were plenty of available tables. So, it was one (or more) of three things: (1) the hosting staff is less-than-competent, (2) they want to encourage patronage of the bar, or (3) they want you to think you should have to wait for the goodness that is Sage (said with jazz-hands a la Just Jack). In any case, not acceptable. At least, if it was #2, once you recognize that one person of the two person party is not interested in patronizing the bar, seat them quickly. Potent potables are portable.

    For me, however, that was where the disappointment ended.

    First, I don’t think MM gave sufficient props to our server (see, that’s better than “waitress” or “wpotfp”), especially given that MD seemingly had much worse service. Our server was attentive, knowledgeable, fun, and, above all, good. Many people do not realize that it is as much on the shoulders of the server as it is on the kitchen to ensure a multi-course meal flows well. In my opinion, our server ensured there was just the right amount of time between every course. That is, just long enough to adequately digest the previous course (both physically and mentally), but not so long as to lose the momentum or make for an all-night affair.

    Now, it is true that I am not nearly as adventurous as MM (at least when it comes to eating). I like to think of it as “more discriminating”. But, regardless of what you call it, I think it’s good to represent that segment of the eating population. And, I don’t believe that “less adventurous” translates to having a less refined palate. So, with that said, I will offer my comments on the pasta and dessert debates.

    Regarding pasta, I am more in the “pasta is usually just a vehicle for other goodness” camp. Not to say that you cannot make an excellent pasta or that pasta, even as a vehicle, should garner less preparation attention than the goodness it is intended to transport. And, certainly, poorly prepared pasta can ruin an otherwise great dish, especially if it plays a major role. But, I just don’t give much attention to pasta, myself. It’s just not that important to me. In the case of the pork dish, the pasta was not supposed to be the star. It wasn’t even supposed to be a band member. It was really just a costume. It should get a little attention, yes. But, it’s not why you come to the show. And, in that context, it was adequate and has garnered way too much press here. Even if you feel it was a wardrobe malfunction, it’s just a tiny one. There have been much bigger (albeit more palatable) wardrobe malfunctions perpetrated on the world.

    That said, I did not agree with MM with regard to the tortellini pasta. I felt it was too bland for this dish. Here, the pasta, itself, is expected to play a larger role. It should live up to that. Unfortunately, it fell a little short for me.

    Finally, I have to agree with a lot that has been said about the desserts. They were definitely not as unique or interesting as the rest of the menu. In high-end restaurants, I commonly see a multitude of main menu fare that I would never try. (Having an allergy to mushrooms doesn’t help.) I would just once love to see something on a dessert menu that would give me pause. I might not order it. But, I would be impressed.

    With regard to unconventional ice creams, I think we’re all in the “if you’re going to do it, do it” camp. My toffee pudding was supposed to be accompanied by a white pepper (if I recall correctly) ice cream. The fact that the accuracy of my recollection is in question here is evidence enough that it was not sufficiently white peppery. Believe me, I love white pepper enough that, had it been, I would have been raving about it.

    -Josh

  • Michael Manley // February 12, 2010 at 1:14 am | Reply

    Props to Josh –hey Josh ;]–for weighing in and offering further insights/corrections. And most of for taking the time and interest to read our little blog thing…

    I think it is fair to say first that we have all set a collective record for most words ever devoted to a single sheet of pasta (well, technically two sheets), on the internet. But our goal with this blog has always been to start dialogues and not just wax poetic into a vacuum. So I’m glad that’s happening…

    Josh brings up something I only alluded to–that there indeed seemed no reason for our wait (a sea of empty tables in room). This is why I wondered if the real estate were simply too big; the restaurant would be better served with a dining room half the size. And maybe the service would be more focused too. I still love Sage faults and all and want it to succeed, but faults become more magnified the higher a place aims, and Sage does indeed aim high.

    Thanks again Josh for a great night and I look forward to another dinner with you soon!

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