Consider Sage, which opened in late July at the corner of Lynch and Eleventh streets, just outside the Anheuser-Busch campus at the southern edge of Soulard. True, the place is barely three months old, with the curious crowds and occasionally overwhelmed staff you'd expect to find at a new restaurant in one of the city's most beloved neighborhoods. Yet even before you step inside Sage, you might think it has been a St. Louis fixture for years, if not decades.
It might be the location: a handsome old brick building on a tree-shaded street, the air thick with the damp, sour smell of beer brewing. It might be the fact that the spot was home to another restaurant, Lynch Street Bistro, not long ago though I never visited Lynch Street Bistro, and the first time I came to Sage, the feeling I'd been here before, many times, was strong. A friend and I sat on the expansive patio and ordered beer and hot soft pretzels with mustard dip as though it had been our after-work ritual for years. The place exudes comfort, like a favorite sweater you can find by touch in the dark.
This feeling of familiarity persisted throughout three visits to Sage. But by the time I ordered dinner that first evening, I'd pinpointed the real reason: The menu could have been lifted from any number of restaurants around town. There are tweaks here and there a strip steak rubbed with espresso; long squiggles of calamari rather than the normal heap of rings and tentacles but no sensible restaurateur would argue with the decisions executive chef Jack MacMurray (formerly of Chesterfield's Wild Horse Grill) made in building Sage's menu (with consulting help from Chris LaRocca, best known for Chesterfield's Crazy Fish) and the average diner will find more than one dish he or she is certain to enjoy.
My favorite was the "Tuscan" pork chop, a thick, bone-in hunk o' pig topped by a romesco sauce made with Spanish port. The sauce's savory and piquant notes provided both a complement and a contrast to the juicy meat. Of course, there's nothing Tuscan about romesco sauce, a specialty of Spain's Catalonia region and, as far as I can tell, this is the only dish at Sage to employ (or at least advertise the presence of) its namesake herb, but the pork entrée was straightforward and good.
Straightforward appetizers were good, too. The pretzels are doughy gems from Benton Park institution Gus' Pretzels. A cold beer is mandatory. (It didn't surprise me to see that Sage's selection of draft beers features many A-B products. And a thin but zippy "Anheuser mustard dip" was served with the pretzels.) Crab cakes are mostly lump and claw meat, bulked up unobtrusively with panko breadcrumbs, with a roasted-pepper cream sauce drizzled over the plate for a touch of heat. And who can quibble with fried shrimp encrusted with almonds and macadamia nuts? A fine snack, its innocuous "Thai" dipping sauce notwithstanding.
"Crispy Cha-Cha Calamari" were very tender, but not at all crisp. The breading was on the mushy side, though whether as a result of being undercooked or being tossed in an "Asian cream" sauce, I couldn't say. The sauce tasted as vague as it sounds. Potstickers, meanwhile, had none of the porky pleasure of the genuine article. Instead, their mixture of pork and vegetables offered a generic salty-soy flavor reminiscent of a cheap egg roll.
Speaking of authenticity, I don't consider myself a connoisseur of meat loaf, so I'm not the right guy to ask whether Sage's "Real Deal" meat loaf is, in fact, the real deal. But the dense loaf didn't strike me as especially meaty, and the dominant flavor was provided by a thick tomato glaze. The espresso-rubbed strip steak was another disappointment, not so much on account of the rub (though that didn't add much to the flavor), but because a fat streak of gristle ran through one side of the meat. I found myself eating more of the sweet potato-andouille hash on which the steak was served.
St. Louis-cut "15 spice" ribs with a mango-bourbon barbecue glaze didn't offer half as much complexity as their description might suggest. The sauce was sweet with a mildly peppery finish and obscured whatever flavor the dry rub had given the meat, which was falling off the bone. Capellini with blue crab, shrimp (some deveined, some not) and clams was served in a bland white wine-garlic broth. Penne with steak, shrimp, andouille, bacon and asparagus was swamped by a "Cajun" (read: peppery) Asiago cream sauce that did the meats no favor.
Red cedar-planked salmon, a tender fillet glazed with balsamic vinegar and topped with chopped bacon, proved the best of Sage's seafood options. Like the pork chop, this was straightforward and good. It came with rice and a vegetable medley, sides that were remarkable only because they weren't mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley. The pork chop, meat loaf and ribs all came with mashed potatoes very good mashed potatoes, yes, intensely buttery, but I couldn't help wondering if their ubiquity was more about making life easier on the kitchen than about sending out the best plates possible.
Desserts are striking, owing to their size: very, very small. Your server will bring a tray with six shot glasses, each filled with a different dessert. You choose however many you like at $1.95 each, and the server takes each dessert (about "four adult bites," one server said) off the tray for you. The selection changes daily. I tried pecan pie, peach cobbler, key lime pie and bread pudding. I liked the key lime pie best, because it seemed most representative of a real slice of key lime pie: tart and sweet and custardy. The pecan pie, on the other hand, made me wish for more pecans than this format can offer.
Table service was good one server impressed me by asking how I wanted my salmon done, not a common question at casual restaurants but the kitchen seemed to struggle with crowds. The first time I ordered the ribs, they were served barely warm. On a Saturday evening, we were told our wait would be 45 minutes. No big deal. But when I checked in with the hostess 45 minutes later, she told me our wait would now be two hours. I didn't believe this. I asked another staffer for an explanation. Turns out the kitchen had asked the hostess to stop seating people because they couldn't keep up. We wound up eating at the bar.
The fact that Sage has such crowds to handle suggests it has bright future. And I have no doubt it will overcome many of these initial problems. When you aim for what people already know and love, you don't have that much ground to make up.