Bistro on the verge of greatness
Rating: 3.0 stars
August 8, 2007 3:44:52 PM
SOUTHERN COMFORT: Now in its new South End digs, Sage has delicious things in store, such as
this pan-roasted veal loin with prune purée.

Sage | 1395 Washington Street, Boston | Open daily, 5:30–10 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking, $16 | Sidewalk-level access | 617.248.8814

Sage used to be a North End bistro with South End cheffery by Anthony Susi. Now it’s a South End bistro, which means it’s bigger, more expensive, and features more cheffery. This is mostly a good thing, though there is some inflexibility here.

For instance, if you want the tasting menu, the whole table must have it. If you order any of the pasta-tasting platters ($14), at least two people have to have that. It’s possible — but not easy — for a kosher person to arrange an alternate garnish for a fish dish, even though that same fish is served with a kosher garnish on the tasting menu. In short, some dishes are superb, a few are perfunctory. So it’s not hard to see why foodies love the new Sage, nor why bloggers’ opinions have run the gamut, depending on what they ordered and how sensitive to prices they are.

My usual advice with such a restaurant is to tuck a copy of this what-to-order review in your pocket. But Sage has displayed a saving grace: response to criticism. An early review knocked the pasta; on my visit, two of three pastas were super. So perhaps by the time you arrive, the kinks will have been smoothed out. That said, let’s see if the Phoenix can fix the breadbasket, which for my meal was grilled focaccia. It was too heavy and tasted a bit burnt, though it was served with a loose Romesco sauce that I enjoyed.

Of the appetizers, the hamachi sashimi ($11) had seasonally terrific slices of whitefish in a lemony sauce with frisée and grapefruit — a terrific combination. (The Italian for sashimi is crudo, a category in itself on Sage’s menu.) And a special appetizer of heirloom tomatoes and blue cheese ($12) — also in season — was outstanding, with just enough basil oil to make four types of ripe tomatoes sing. But a crispy salmon cake ($14) was blah, as was the avocado salsa it was served with, and corn arrabiata (meaning “angry,” i.e. peppery) had no spice. An arugula-and-beet salad ($10) promised an unusual accompaniment of goat-cheese panna cotta, but had a smear of not-very-goaty cheese without the lightness or definition of real panna cotta. What was good about this dish were the French-fried onions served on top.

Since the appetizers are something of a gamble, you might want to get a couple (or all) of the three pasta-tasting platters to serve as either an appetizer or an in-between course. Each is served on a fashionable rectangle platter: small heaps of gnocchi ($20/à la carte) are light, but served with an ordinary red sauce; fazzoletti ($23), crisped triangles with peas and wild mushrooms, are phenomenal; and fettuccine with lobster ($24), the real Italian al dente, is almost as spectacular.

Entrées may not require one to be so picky. The rice-smoked duck breast ($26) is one of the most remarkable foods I’ve tasted this year. The Asian-style smoke process leaves slices of medium-rare meat with just a hint of spice and smoke, evoking memories of a barbecue. And the stick of fennel-custard garnish is firm, rich, very slightly herbal and green, and truly memorable. Only a salty sauté of chard was ordinary. (This is a common problem; I’m thinking of arranging a chard seminar to prepare chefs for next summer.)

Seared tuna ($30) was seasonally excellent, and even when ordered medium had fresh flavor both in the raw and cooked parts. It came with a fun heap of fingerling potatoes and artichoke hearts. Seared sea scallops ($27) were large and flavorful, with fine asparagus in a puréed-cauliflower sauce. (Spa-food alarm: puréed cauliflower is tasteless.) And striped bass ($28) — just coming into season — was as buttery as codfish, served with green peas, pea tendrils, and fresh watermelon.

The wine list features both Italian and other international bottles, and is expensive all around. No need to worry; Sage also offers a dozen or so wines by the glass, half carafe, or bottle. The half carafes in the $20 range let a table order both red and white without breaking the bank. We went with a single winery near Naples, Feudi di San Gregorio. Their white is the 2005 falanghina ($10/glass; $21/half carafe; $40/bottle), which has a fresh, green-apple nose, and lemony-mineral flavors on the palate, rather like a steel-tank chardonnay. The current red is the 2004 Rubrato ($10/$21/$40), which has a fruity nose, but this vintage was stringent, even after shaking the carafe. Check back when another is available. Coffee ($4) is made with a French press — hooray! — so even the decaf was fresh, strong, and bitter. Tea ($4) is likewise correctly made in a china pot with loose-leaf tea.

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