Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Sage Restaurant: My Trusty Orange County Slipper
Orange County isn't known for its eats. Los Angeles foodies love to look down at the community behind the Orange Curtain with bold pontifications that the local cuisine is as void of inspiration as it is void of ugly people. While the jury is still out about the latter point, I can make an authoritative case against the former misconception. Though it is hidden in the corner of a strip mall, Sage Restaurant in the Eastbluff Shopping Center in Newport Beach does not hide the flavor in the eclectic California dishes it sends out from the always bustling kitchen.
Over the years, Sage has become a home away from home for my family and me. The food is reliably good; the service is reliably pleasant and unobtrusive; and the slightly retiree-friendly ambiance is suitable for relaxed conversation and wine sippage. The Sage dining experience is remarkable not just because head chef Richard Mead bases his extensive specials menu on his finds at the Farmer's Market and Santa Monica Seafood, but because it is comfortable, like a pair of worn bedroom slippers that refuse to wear out.
I love the warm rosemary bread served with hummus rather than butter. I love the simple, yet refined wine list that always offers a bright Sauvignon Blanc or balanced white wine to compliment my entree. I love stealing bites of my dad's crab cakes that he sometimes orders as a starter. And I love Greg, the personable server who tells it to me how it is -- never steering me in the wrong direction when I am fretting over my order.
While the regular menu has its memorable items, specifically the Seared Dry Packed Scallops served with green beans, kabocha squash, cippolini onions, spinach, shitake mushrooms, israeli cous cous, mango chutney vinaigrette, sweet and spicy thai sauce, and crispy prosciutto -- a dish that Greg likens to "candy," my eyes always wander over to the specials menu first. The fish dishes are almost always winners, in particular the regularly appearing Panko-Crusted Halibut with soy-wasabi sauce and Asian vegetables. The few misses I have encountered were mostly the result of my own folly -- channeling Sally from When Harry Met Sally and messing with the ingredients. Note to readers: Richard's dishes are a vision -- don't cloud it up with ill-conceived specifications.
Prices are high for a strip mall in "the OC," but nothing out-of-the-ordinary for a restaurant of its caliber. It's worth it for a dining experience that will, for the non-Sally types, be really good. Especially if there's an affirmative roll call for the bread pudding dessert at the end of the evening.