While I cannot be certain of it I’m willing to wager that when Aria was conceptualizing their restaurant collection it was not Shawn McClain that they expected to steal the spotlight – a Beard Award winner in his own right, McClain’s fame has largely been limited to the windy city and Sage would be matched up against culinary giants such as Masa, Serrano, Mina, and Vongerichten. Flash forward one year, thousands of diners, multiple awards, and myriad local and national publications naming Sage “best new restaurant” – obviously the midwest has been hiding a secret. With Spring soon to close (rumor has it McClain will be expanding his Vegas foothold) and Green Zebra and Custom House still functioning at a very high level I felt somewhat untrue to my roots choosing Sage as my first McClain experience, but at the same time I’d heard the meal was one that shouldn’t be missed.
Having done my research and scouted the menus I called in advance to find out if a tailored tasting menu could be arranged – not a problem at all I was informed by assistant general manager Elaine Hartline. Wanting to experience as great a variety as possible during my visit I suggested nine courses and was quoted a price of $130 plus tax and gratuity – a veritable bargain by Vegas fine dining standards. Arriving early for my 7pm reservation I located Sage easily upon exiting Crystals and wandered the Aria property, perhaps my favorite in Vegas, before checking in at the hostess stand where I was greeted by two lovely young ladies and subsequently by Elaine herself, with a copy of the tailored menu printed out and presented to me on arrival to the table.
Having already walked past the expansive bar and through the well adorned lounge I must say that the dining room at Sage is amongst the most dramatic in Vegas. High ceilings, excellent spacing, minimalist art on the walls, plenty of dark tones and piano finish, plus ample lighting at each seat without being too bright between tables – the word “sexy” comes to mind immediately. With ambient forgettable music playing overhead the location and setting does not hide the fact that you are in Vegas, but at the same time you feel miles away from a “casino restaurant.” Not as secluded as Savoy, Robuchon, Twist, or Alex, but a different experience entirely – Sage feels accessible, a place where a drink and appetizers, a course or two a la carte, or a tasting menu are equally valued and nice jeans and a button down shirt look just as appropriate as the Tom Ford suit you could buy next door.
Greeted promptly by the captain of my service team, a friendly yet somewhat smug fellow named Jason, I was offered a drink which I declined after a day that had begun at 4:30am Eastern time – water was ordered as my sole beverage and remained greater than 3/4 full by the exemplary ancillary staff throughout the meal. Affirming that there were no dietary restrictions the next person I would meet was the bread man who also kept me quite full throughout the meal. With two options including bacon brioche and a crunchy salted baguette the breads both featured a nice crumb and were nicely complimented house-whipped Midwestern cows butter and
Starting the meal, the amuse of the night would prove a subtle opening volley on an otherwise heavy menu. Described as Dungeness crab salad with Picholine Olive and Sutsuma Orange the crab itself was sweet and flavorful – accented only mildly by a light vinaigrette. With the olives lending their characteristic bitter flavor and the orange proving an ample foil, the serving size was also quite impressive for an amuse.
Beginning the menu proper (I’d told the chefs to send out my courses in whatever order they felt ideal) my first course would be perhaps Sage’s most famous dish – the Foie Gras Creme Brulee with Blood Orange, Gran Marnier Glaze, Cocoa Nibs, and Salted Brioche. Cracking the crisp crust and taking a bite the custard was ethereal – light yet harboring the very essence of liver with notes of egg, orange, and cocoa largely detectable on the palate more so than the tongue. Eating slowly each bite was as good as the last and pairing the custard with the crunchy and buttery brioche was every bit on par with the best torchon I’ve ever had – at The French Laundry – and if possible Sage’s version was even lighter and more flavorful.
Already abuzz with anticipation of what could follow such an incredible opening act my second course would prove equally competent. Titled Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi with Smoked Ricotta Cream Sauce, Truffle Puree, and Parsnips the pasta was absolutely flawless – pillows of potato accented air that dissolved on the tongue. Utilizing crispy parsnips and fresh spinach for textural variation while liberally topping the plate with fresh shaved truffles and a pleasantly subtle cream sauce with hits of parsley and chive the entirety of the amalgam tasted something akin to a baked potato with the aroma of truffles.
For my third course I received the only dish that did not wow me in every regard. Described as Main Lobster Agnolotti with Lemon Olive Oil, Mascarpone, Haricots Verts, and Mustard I was hesitant the moment I heard the word mustard and while the flavor was understated, it still overwhelmed the sweet and understated lobster. Again using incredibly fresh vegetables, this time haricot verts, to add texture to the creamy pasta I will note that the Agnolotti themselves were exquisite, but as usual I simply find mustard too pungent a spice for ingredients as pleasantly nuanced as mascarpone and lobster.
As good as the foie gras and gnocchi were, my favorite savory of the meal would turn out to be the fourth course – Slow-poached Organic Farm Egg, Smoked Potato, Shaved Winter Truffle, Toasted Country Bread. Always one to favor egg dishes, everything from the presentation to the flavor of this course was immaculate. Served in a bowl at least 1 foot in diameter with a creamy foam of creme fraiche topped with shaved truffles as the only visual stimulus on arrival, the smell of the dish was that of truffle and smokiness. Plunging my spoon deep and piercing the creamy egg I mixed slowly while enjoying the aroma before taking a bite – smooth potato gratin, creamy egg, the mild tang of the creme fraiche, and the aroma of truffle rising to the palate. Again eating slowly and using the bread to soak up every last drop there is no doubt that this dish falls on my year’s top ten flavors.
Moving on to heavier courses, dish five featured Roasted Sweetbreads with glazed pork belly, creamy white polenta, crispy spinach, and trumpet mushrooms. Served still sizzling in the roasting pan this dish would prove to be the smallest serving of the night – thankfully so considering how rich it all was. With a base of white polenta made with cream and mascarpone the next layer featured crispy spinach leafs and atop this was a fricasse of two pan seared and creamy sweetbreads, two chunks of pork belly, and a handful of fibrous mushrooms. Cheese, pork belly, sweetbreads – really, the flavors had no chance to fail – but what made the dish truly lovely were the mushrooms and crispy spinach which served to balance the hefty proteins.
My sixth plate would prove to be another stunner – and the best duck I’ve yet to experience in
My final savory found me getting full – something that doesn’t often happen with a simple 9-courses, but I’m rather certain Sage was serving me “full portions,” despite the low price and extended menu. Arriving hot and smelling of sweetness and smoke, Iberico Pork Loin with Brussels Sprouts, Crispy Confit Shoulder, and Smoked Dates was nicely done and surprisingly light for a pork dish. Featuring two thin slices of loin crusted with brown sugar the pork itself was easily cut with the edge of a fork and its succulent flavor was well met by the vegetal components of Brussels Sprout Leafs and the smoky cut dates. Tucked beneath the loin, the “crispy confit shoulder” was actually something like an egg roll made with phyllo dough and porchetta with a puree of dates mixed in.
Impressed and full I can honestly say that Sage was the first time in a while that two desserts seemed like perhaps “too much,” but with a pastry kitchen like that at Sage I would have been a fool to cut myself off. Taking a small break while I enjoyed a French press of Avanti coffee, I chatted with my server a bit and was once again visited by Ms. Hartline who wanted to make sure everything was going well. Asked if I was ready to proceed with desserts, I agreed.
Arriving first, Winter Spice Cake Doughnut Holes with Malted Milkshake and Fresh Cranberry Sauce featured half a dozen golf-ball sized doughnuts piping hot and coated in cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. “Made for dipping” according to my server, the paired sauce was more cranberry puree than sauce and much sweeter than any traditional cranberry sauce I’ve ever tasted. Intensely sweet, the doughnut and sauce combination was nicely balanced by the creamy and mild vanilla tones of the milkshake.
Following the doughnuts, a much more dense dessert, but the obvious “must order” for myself. Indeed served as a full portion as I’d seen others receive this dish a la carte, Warm Brioche Bread Pudding with Roasted Pecans, Myer’s Rum Sauce, and Brown Butter Ice Cream was absolutely the best non-chocolate bread pudding I’ve ever tasted. Soaked through yet delicately crisp on the exterior the buttery brioche was spongy without being wet or heavy. Topped with a thick and boozy sauce and then with a quenelle of rich and buttery ice cream the dish found contrast in temperature while crunchy pecans proved a crunchy foil to the otherwise soft and intensely sweet dish.
Completely and utterly satisfied, my final taste of Sage would be delivered with the modest tab – a small glass of Orange Caramel Infused Hot Chocolate. Tasty and rich I do wonder whether this dish pays homage to the time McClain spent at Trio (and its disciple TRU) where Tramonto and Gand are known to complete meals with a similar citrus infused cocoa.
Settling the tab with a sizable tip I collected my menu and made my way for the doors. Despite being nearly 10:15pm, the restaurant remained at least 1/2 full while the lounge area and bar were seated at approximately 75% capacity. Bid farewell by my server and breadman, bartenders and Ms. Hartline everything about the visit felt very friendly and inviting, much like the cuisine. The first dinner in a truly over-the-top week of eating, I still look back fondly on my experience at Sage. Call it Midwestern sensibility if you like, but there is simply something to be said for the elegant yet accessible nature of what McClain and team are doing at Sage – the space, service, and prices are nothing like the top tier of Vegas dining – but the experience and food every bit as impressive.