Have you had enough of seasonal, local, sustainable? We hear this so much that it’s easy to forget such simple dining concepts once were exotic in these parts. I’ll go so far as to name the time they first appeared in earnest on our restaurant scene: late 1997. It was the moment chef-owner Rich Mead opened Sage.
After cutting his teeth on this enlightened approach to American cuisine in L.A., during the rise of rock-star chefs Wolfgang Puck, Mark Peel, and John Sedlar, Mead introduced it to the suburban terrain of inland Newport Beach. It seduced and surprised us then, leaving the timid a little spooked by the fusion of flavors and such fresh adaptations of traditional dishes. Mead was hardly a provocateur; most of us were simply new to the ways of L.A. chefs. Over the years, Sage built a loyal fan base that spread the word—all without the help of Twitter or Facebook.
Today, Sage is more confident and mature—12 years will do that. Mead masterfully applies ethnic components such as saffron, curry, and guajillo chilies to such American plates as short ribs or the catch of the day. And his menu is even more fluid now, reflecting both the expansion of the artisan-grower marketplace, and the will of his muse: the seasons.
Autumn’s bounty is featured on my visits for this review: squash, chanterelles, duck, pears, beets, and Brussels sprouts. Persimmons make two star turns: once in an exquisite salad with sweet onions and dark arugula, strewn with sparkling pomegranate seeds, and again in a moist, spicy pudding cake baked in a miniature bundt mold. By now, Mead is looking to early spring ingredients such as English peas, asparagus, green garlic, morels, and strawberries.
His allegiance to the notably voluminous Santa Monica farmers market is impressive. Any chef can pay someone to forage the stalls that attract L.A.’s star chefs, but I don’t know another O.C. chef who makes the trek so frequently or maintains connections with so many sources on such a grassroots level. Clearly, Mead works hard to shorten the journey from farm to table. The result is novel fare that shines with freshness and relevance.
Seasonal creations crowd the menu’s one side under the heading “Today.” Next to it, under “Every Day,” are the favorites—dishes regular diners demand. These include a juicy roast Shelton Farms chicken with crispy herbed skin and pan gravy. Or grilled pork tenderloin with applejack brandy sauce, braised sweet-and-sour cabbage nicely balanced by Parmesan potato cakes, or meaty Asian barbecue-beef short ribs with an irresistible sweet-spicy sauce for dunking.
The pepper-seared ahi stack left me wanting more ahi and less potato—the slender slice of fish doesn’t stand a chance sandwiched between mashed potatoes and crispy potato cakes. Those pancakes fare much better against chubby, fresh-tasting crab cakes with a crunchy side of grilled corn.
Occasionally Mead tweaks an “Every Day” dish with a seasonal twist that nudges it to the “Today” side, such as grilled hanger steak with sizzled spinach and garlic, and tantalizing french fries dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano. And I must confess a crush on the sea salt-and-rosemary cracker bread that appeared in the autumn bread basket—impossibly thin, crisp, and imbued with the richness of olive oil. Steal your share on the first pass or wish you did.
On the seasonal side, some dishes disappear and then reappear throughout the year, providing Mead can score a supply of a widely cultivated item with a longish growing season. His thick-cut, fried green tomatoes are among the best around, their cornmeal jackets supplying the perfect texture for sliding a forkful through a smear of silky Gorgonzola dressing. Roasted beets, still warm, are divine against dabs of goat cheese and toasted walnuts, drizzled with horseradish vinaigrette. Oven-browned cauliflower topped with crispy, spiced panko crumbs is a soulful side that shares easily or complements a seasonal salad for a light meal.
But some produce is stubbornly calendar sensitive. Don’t expect to see sweet butternut squash soup anytime soon. Or beer-braised Kurobuta short ribs with beet greens and tangerine-guajillo sauce. Cranberry and fresh quince cobbler? You’ll have to wait for the holidays; instead, set your mouth for Key lime pie.
I like that Mead’s portions satisfy but don’t stupefy. Hearty eaters might disagree, but sagging doggy bags add little charm to dining out. In fact, many dishes come in two sizes, with smaller versions having lighter prices as well. My vote for best value is a weekly four-course tasting menu for $35 that always showcases nature’s best. It usually offers a choice of two entrees and a delicious house-made dessert, such as the white-chocolate peppermint tart available during the winter holidays.
Sage gained a chic new sibling with the opening of Sage on the Coast in the Crystal Cove Promenade back in 2004. It’s a gorgeous property and the cuisine shows Mead’s deft touch and passion for diligently sourced ingredients.
But the at-ease neighborhood vibe of the original Sage, seasoned and secure in an obscure crook of a neighborhood shopping center, beckons powerfully. Going straight to the source has its rewards. Rich Mead teaches us that.
Seasonal salads, vegetable sides, roast chicken, hanger steak, daily desserts, cracker bread. $35 dinner tasting menu, Monday through Saturday (changes weekly).
Small plates, $6 to $17; entrees, $13 to $29; desserts, $5 to $8.
Monday, 20 percent off dinner; Wednesday, discounted wines and free corkage; nightly happy hour with $5 drinks and $5 appetizers (bar only).
Sage’s mouthwatering monthly e-newsletters are insightful and a delight to read. See the Web site to join the mailing list.
2531 Eastbluff drive
Photograph by Jessica Boone
Published March 2010