Creatively Ambitious to a Fault
There is no plant on earth that promises a broader plethora of purportedly restorative properties than sage, which comes from the Latin "salvia," meaning "to cure." As far back as Greek and Roman times this pebbled, silvery green leaf has been used to treat snake bites, sweating, anxiety, infections, epilepsy, poor eyesight, sore throat, and all manner of intestinal, circulatory, and menopausal problems. It may not all be hooey, either. Herbalist John Gerard's claim, made in 1597, that sage is "singularly good for the head and quickeneth the nerves and memory" is being borne out by the Medicinal Plant Research Centre at the universities of Newcastle and Northumbria. Subjects given a sage-oil tablet performed much better in a word-recall test than those who took a placebo pill.
Wait, I know I brought up all this for a reason....
Oh, right, a new restaurant, Sage on Fifth, opened about a month and a half ago on South Beach. Unfortunately for the proprietors, no herb possesses enough potency to ward off contractor problems, lawyers, and a minor heart attack -- all of which figured prominently in Sage's six-month opening delay. Owner Gustavo Sanjurjo's heart is fine now, though when we dined there it was his partners, daughter Maria (who manages) and Frank Lania (the chef), who were working the room, along with Tony, the dining room captain, who was the most effusive in traveling from table to table to chat it up. They all recently moved here after having plied the restaurant trade in Short Hills, New Jersey.
The 60-seat dining room is as simple as can be; refreshing, really, to dine at a South Beach restaurant where the bar area alone isn't worth more than your home. The square space is taken up with linen-topped tables, upholstered wooden chairs, and banquette seating along the back wall. Murano glass chandeliers hang from a blood-red ceiling above a gray marblesque floor, two of the walls are cream-colored, the other two glass and opening up to the intersection of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street; with the iridescent tower over China Grill and two new office structures relentlessly flashing their own decidedly tackier lights, this corner is becoming something of a poor man's Piccadilly Circus.
Sage's eclectic fare is the culinary equivalent of those strobing bulbs, as myriad showy ingredients present a dazzling façade that often obscures otherwise well-cooked food. Chef Lania is a graduate of the Cordon Bleu in London, and could formerly be found behind the South Beach stoves at Casa Tua, Blue Door, and Escopazzo. You can't blame him for wanting to strut his stuff and showcase the glittery affectations of "New American" cuisine that have catapulted to stardom other chefs before him. Yet while fashionable offerings such as a nightly special of cold rhubarb soup with tomatoes and cucumbers may quicken the pulse of easily excited foodies, one imagines that a bowl of minestrone (or to keep the cool theme, vichyssoise) would soothe in a manner that better matches the informality of the restaurant.
The New American cuisine here has little to do with America. Appetizers, notwithstanding detours into Russia and the Caribbean, meander mostly around the Mediterranean -- calamari "Moroccan style," shellfish in an "Israeli couscous broth," and foie gras accompanied by "Turkish citrus salad" to name a few. Sage's fare, though, is far fussier than anything this region is known to produce. Pan roasted quail, for example, was plump, prepared with aplomb, and appropriately paired with clusters of red-cabbage confit. But a pasty prune, orange, and nut stuffing didn't add much, and a potato nest filled with four vinegary pearl onions contributed even less. A dash of deep, shiny demi-glace was not so much scented with the woodsy, slightly minty flavor of sage (as the menu suggests), but merely garnished with the leaves. Flair over flavor is always a poor choice.
A simpler, more gratifying starter came by way of three juicy, sevruga-caviar-capped scallops with quenelles of truffle-infused mashed potatoes and thin, vodka-spiked beet sauce. Also pleasing in an uncomplicated manner was a salad composed of squeaky clean tofu slices splashed with truffle-soy vinaigrette and a smattering of button mushroom slices, haricot verts, and sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes, though the nutty, white-fleshed root vegetable is from the sunflower family and has nothing to do with either Jerusalem or artichokes).
Pastas are mainly Mediterranean too, like a linguine dish of fresh fava beans, black trumpet mushrooms, beautifully chewy lobster mushrooms, and a claw of steamed Maine lobster. The noodles turned out to be spaghetti-like strands of chittara, not linguine, but they were freshly made, properly cooked, and dressed in an oil infused with saffron and lobster roe that would have been perfect had there been less of it -- an oily pool at the bottom of the plate rendered much of the pasta inedibly greasy, unfortunate proof that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Thick-noodled rounds of mascarpone-and-beet-filled ravioli with Riesling potato sauce, conceptual sister to borscht with sour cream and potatoes, turned out tasty.
The four seafood entrées exhibited a decidedly Caribbean accent -- sumac-crusted wahoo with tropical fruits; arctic char with a conch fritter; crisply seared fillets of red snapper with sourdough onion rings and a lime-juiced medley of red peppers, mangos, and black beans; and moistly sautéed pompano fillets, the mild, delicate, finely textured fish accompanied by one jumbo coconut-crusted shrimp, a diced hash of potato and crab meat with scallions, tomatoes, red peppers, and a piddly pool of champagne-Pommery mustard sauce. There are places in Italy where serving a lemon wedge with fish is considered unnecessarily extravagant.
Meat and poultry main courses are also flecked with fruit, though not necessarily in an island context. Date compote, for instance, accompanies rack of lamb; roasted chicken gets stuffed with banana and wild rice; veal cutlets are sautéed in curry pineapple sauce; and our order of slightly overcooked duck breast came glazed in orange and honey, along with sautéed spinach, a soggy wild-rice griddle cake, a panko-less piece of "panko-crusted" foie gras, and duck jus infused with chocolate and vanilla bean. Lots of taste notes in the mouth at once, but surprisingly, they played cohesively upon the palate.
Filet mignon was a calmer composition, the chubby stub of meat cooked to a proper medium-rare and served with mashed potatoes, smooth beef demi-glace, a fried won ton filled with goat cheese (a modern twist on Yorkshire pudding), and two discs of fried green tomato whose cornmeal crusts lost all semblance of crunchiness while steamily nestled between beef and mash. Just wondering: Do won ton skins and cornmeal crusts belong on the same plate?
Sage's main course prices are reasonable (at $24 the filet is the most expensive item), but appetizers are no bargain (most are $12 to $14), and desserts even less so. Had our "jumbo" chocolate-dipped strawberries been jumbo, or for that matter ripe, and taking into consideration the small scoop of mango-coriander sorbet on the side, this dessert would still not be worth seven dollars. And while a lemon custard tarte with caramelized topping was decent, the lemon-butter cookie, piped rosette of macadamia whipped cream, and scoop of coconut sorbet on the plate only made sense as add-ons to justify charging eight dollars for a four-dollar dessert. Actually my feelings about the lemon tarte pretty much encapsulated my qualms about the rest of Sage's cuisine: I would have traded the brùlée top and all those other sweet doodads for one heart-warming wedge of fresh, homemade pie.
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