Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sage on the Coast: Lovely for ladies who lunch

In the weeks leading up to my mother's birthday earlier this month, I made a big to-do about taking her out for a fabulous lunch to celebrate her special day. It's always "her treat" when we typically go out to dine, and I wanted to return the favor by taking her some place with clothe napkins, wine glasses that double as water glasses and really really good food. This would be no ordinary lunch. It would be grand -- spectacular even!

Except I had no idea where to go.

Unlike Los Angeles, where there is a cute girly lunch place on virtually every Westside street corner (and every few streets or blocks in the Valley or Silverlake), Orange County is disturbingly devoid of locales for the ladies who lunch set. My mom and I used to frequent Tommy Bahama's Cafe for their Fandango Mango salad, but when they took it off the menu and did other ghastly things to the eatery's offerings, we stopped going.

Another of our favorite lunch spots was Zov's Bistro in Newport Coast. We craved their chicken tahini pita like nobody's business, and for a two-month period, we binged on Zov's interpretation of "Greek" food. Until they hired a new chef who didn't know how to make it the same way. Note to chef: The pita should be served warm, the chicken should be diced (not sliced in thick unwieldy pieces), and there needs to be ample amounts of tomato cilantro relish, shredded cabbage, and tahini sauce. Skimpy portions cannot be disguised by finger-sized strips of grilled chicken!

After such lackluster experiences at the eateries across town, I struggled to find a restaurant suitable for my mother's special day. I didn't want to experiment or try someplace new -- I wanted reliably good food in a pretty setting. I wanted... Sage on the Coast.

While we haven't always enjoyed Sage's outpost down south for dinner, and prefer dining at the original Sage in Eastbluff, I was confident that the eatery would shine during the daylight hours. As soon as we walked into the calming space of the patio, I knew that my confidence was not ill conceived. It was lovely. I couldn't help but think, "So this is where the ladies who lunch go." It was as though my mother and I had been let in on a special secret -- ours to keep for good (or until someone in the kitchen screws it up).

The bread basket is a revelation -- chock full of cheese crisps, nutty brown bread and warm sourdough. Served with a craveably good hummus spread, the basket is practically a meal in itself. (If, according to my dairy-loving mother, they brought cheese with it as well.) Entrees and small plates are equally appealing and make it hard for the indecisive orderer (me) to make a selection. Chinese chicken salad, a fig and prosciutto pizza, the infamous Gorgonzala & granny smith apple salad -- everything sounds like (and is) a winner.

In the mood for something warm, I selected the Chopped grilled vegetable salad ($15) with chopped greens, balsamic grilled vegetables, feta, avocado, basil, red wine dijon vinaigrette. With the addition of grilled DICED chicken ($5) it is the perfect mid-day meal. Light, yet hearty with chunks of flavorful vegetables like corn, zucchini, red pepper, and mushrooms, the salad is so good that I insist my mother and I return when I'm in town a few weekends later.

Note to chef: The salad tastes even better when someone else is paying. (Just go easy on the mushrooms next time.)

Until further notice (or mushroom and chicken slicing transgressions), Sage on the Coast is the new Zov's/Tommy Bahama's.

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