Michael Fadel and Nick DeCocco, owner-chefs at Sage Bistro in Tremont, are so serious about bringing the best of each season to their creations that they tend to change the menu every six weeks or so. That's a daunting prospect for a food writer: Because of deadlines and production schedules, the dishes so memorable on our visit may have disappeared from the menu by the time the magazine gets into readers' hands. Luckily, Fadel and DeCocco have a knack for inventive combinations that can surprise and delight no matter what time of year you're lucky enough to visit.
The two strive to avoid the culinary clichés that abound on local menus. Everyone has fresh tuna now, but who else serves it with a sambuca cream? You may find rabbit loin on a local menu, but who seasons it with vanilla?
Fadel says, "We try not to get too far out with dishes that our customers can't understand and that just combine weird ingredients because they sound interesting even if they don't really work. If we try something unusual like the rabbit with vanilla, say it's been carefully planned, thoroughly tested and perfected before it goes on the menu."
Sage occupies a pair of buildings that have been facing Lincoln Park on West 11th Street for more than 100 years. The interior, though, is pure 21st century: relaxed and sophisticated with comfortable seating and well-spaced tables. The eye is soothed by the deep lavender walls and golden oak floor in the bar area, soft carpet and sage-green walls in the dining room.
The tabletop is extraordinarily well designed: colorful glass dishes in geometric shapes show off appetizers; oversized white plates frame entrees beautifully; eggshell-thin stemware makes sipping a pleasure; and a flawlessly pressed white tablecloth forms a perfect backdrop for the sparkling setting. The menu politely requests that cell phones be turned off. This is a place where your attention is always focused on the food, never distracted by gaudy or noisy surroundings.
Though a number of restaurants Miracles, Donna Chriszt's Oz have come and gone at this location, Fadel doesn't believe the spot is jinxed. "Tremont is changing," he says. "There's more housing going up in the neighborhood and that helps us build a strong base of local clientele. The park's been cleaned up and the area is safe. I'm confident our business will continue to grow here."
Fadel trained in Pennsylvania, DeCocco in Arizona and Colorado. Both worked for a time at the former Ciao! in Playhouse Square before tackling their own place. According to Fadel, Sage Bistro, open for about a year, "is right on target in terms of growing our business."
Sage's staff is personable, well trained and extraordinarily stable most have been here since the restaurant opened. Even with the dining room packed and things going wrong (the heater under the coffeepot had been inadvertently turned off and tournedos at a nearby table were returned for more grill time) servers remained pleasant and unruffled.
Appetizers, like entrees, change with the seasons, but a handful are so popular you're likely to find them on the menu at any time of year. The aforementioned rabbit loin in vanilla ($9), crab cakes ($8), ravioli ($6) and goat cheese salad ($8) are among the long-running staples.
The rabbit is marinated for a day in brine seasoned with black pepper, sugar and vanilla beans, then pan-seared to succulent perfection. The crab cakes are served on a bed of cucumber slaw scented with basil, scallions and garlic, the cool cucumber offering a welcome contrast to the cayenne of the crab cakes. The ravioli (to be painfully precise, we should say raviolo since there's only one) is a generous envelope of tissue-thin, meltingly tender pasta stuffed with creamy fontina and crunchy broccoli, afloat in a puddle of smoked tomato broth. Goat cheese is served warm on a bed of bibb lettuce, crusted with crushed macadamias and drizzled with a dressing of honey and sherry vinegar.
Òther starters worthy of consideration include Brie baked in a golden purse of phyllo pastry and sprinkled with macadamia-nut brittle ($7), and foie gras served with pear marmalade and a toasted brioche ($12).
Creating a composition
Entree plates are beautifully composed, and most include a starch and seasonal vegetable (or salad) carefully selected to complement the center-of-the-plate protein. On one visit we suggested to a dining companion that since so many of the vital food groups were represented on each plate, we should return to Sage often for the sake of our health. She suggested we'd never make it as a nutritionist.
Boneless beef short ribs are among Sage's most popular and long-running entrees ($24). The dish is a generous serving of short ribs slowly braised to fall-apart tenderness and finished with a glaze flavored with port wine. A hash of sweet potatoes laced with bits of prosciutto and slices of full-flavored tomatoes (where do they get them in midwinter?) round out the dish. Prosciutto turns up again as a surprise coating for pan-seared grouper ($25). The prosciutto crisps in cooking to provide an interesting textural contrast to the velvety succulence of the fish, its salty and porky flavors surprising and delighting the palate. "Planks" of roasted potatoes and a salad of field greens dressed with white-truffle oil complete the presentation.
Rack of lamb (five chops) is roasted with a crust of chestnuts and fennel. The lamb, cooked precisely as ordered, was tender and juicy, the chestnut crust offering a touch of crispness and the fennel providing a grace note of licorice. Add the accompaniments pleasantly bitter wilted chard and a comforting tart of potatoes and onions and you have a near-perfect dish ($27). Tournedos of beef (two respectable filets) are also cooked to beefy perfection, served with dauphine potatoes and a heap of barely sautéed arugula with a mushroom demiglaze ($26).
Desserts are housemade by sous chef Jason Vincent. All are priced at $6 and some of them are show-stoppers. Try the apple trifle for a fruity, creamy, cakey treat. It's a blend of baked apples, expertly spiced, lusciously suspended in a mix of ladyfingers and cream. A scoop of Woo City superpremium ice cream tops the dish. Crepe delicado is a light, thin pancake rolled around a filling of homemade chocolate pudding. Those who are not chocoholics like us might be tempted to leave the crepe and eat the garnish: a crunchy, pecan-flavored tuille cookie carrying a scoop of Woo City's sarsaparilla ice cream. Those of the chocoholic persuasion will enjoy Vincent's hickory-smoked chocolate mousse yet another of Sage's many surprises.
Sage Bistro, 2391 W. 11th St. on the corner of Kenilworth Avenue, Tremont, (216) 861-3734. Hours: Tue-Thu 5 - 11 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 p.m. - midnight. There is one step from street level into the restaurant, another from the bar into the dining room.