The Well-Seasoned Bistro

While others get the attention, Sage is in glorious bloom.

Sage 2391 West 11th Street 216-861-3734; 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, till midnight Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday
Just luscious: Scallops done the Sage way. - Walter  Novak
Just luscious: Scallops done the Sage way.
Sooner or later, all but the most superficial suitors come to realize that potential paramours exist in at least a few different flavors. And while the stunning hunk with the brilliant smile may hog the attention, his quiet, spotlight-shunning cousin can be a wellspring of sweet surprises.

Sometimes it's like that with restaurants too. There are those buzzworthy wonders besieged by smartly dressed admirers battling over a handful of hard-to-snare reservations. Yet right around the corner, there's an overlooked salon -- perhaps less recognized, but every bit as capable of dishing out the gustatory lovin'.

Fans of Sage, Michael Fadel and Nick DeCocco's top-notch dining room on the edge of Tremont, know what we're getting at here. While neighborhood hot spots like Lolita, Fahrenheit, and Parallax get all the props, Fadel and DeCocco's kitchen (with the help of Chef de Cuisine Edd Lewis) just keeps serving up the goods, with talent, charm, and probably less widespread glory than it deserves.

Of course, today's Sage seems a little less determined to kick up dust than when it first opened, late in 2001, with a menu of head-turners such as quail confit and shrimp-stuffed pork chops, and entrée prices that generally topped the $25 mark. In contrast, today's focus seems more on substance than on stylish strivings, and even $18 will snag you a profoundly satisfying, perfectly recognizable main course, composed of just the right blend of comfort and panache.

In this specific case, we're referring to a plump organic chicken breast, cosseted in a manchego-and-herb-piqued breading and pan-roasted to voluptuous perfection. Beneath it, a homey bed of nutty black-and-white barley provided an earthy tether; over it, a gloss of buttery pan juices urged it to soar. The result was a dish as unpresumptuous as Sunday dinner, yet as sharp as a brand-new Henckels.

But if the concise little menu -- 10 starters, 10 entrées -- mostly eschews exotica, that doesn't mean preparations are boring or bland. Quite the contrary. From the very first taste of each evening's complimentary amuse-bouche (one time, a demitasse of chilled cantaloupe and rosewater soup; another, a dab of roasted red-pepper hummus, on a freshly made potato "chip" ) to the final droplets of the kitchen's vast repertoire of made-from-scratch sauces, glazes, creams, remoulades, chutneys, and reductions, flavors are focused, intense, and tightly orchestrated, designed to thrill the taste buds, but never overwhelm the senses.

Take the Indian-influenced appetizer of chicken tikka masala, for instance: buttery medallions of boneless breast meat, marinated in yogurt and seasoned with a chorus of citrus, ginger, and a garam masala spice blend, served on a flounce of grilled romaine with a roasted-garlic vinaigrette. Artful, surprising, yet utterly harmonious, the flavors sang out like a band of little divas. Better yet, shared with an agreeable companion, the tikka masala provided a rousing prelude to one of the kitchen's impeccable salads, goosed with goodies like warm, macadamia-crusted chèvre (the goat-cheese salad); seedless cucumbers, Roma tomatoes, and gorgonzola (the house salad); or jicama, oranges, toasted almonds, and hard-boiled egg (the vineyard salad). And not only was each of the salads large enough to share, the kitchen graciously split ours onto two plates, each arranged as prettily as the whole one would have been.

In fact, add some slices of the chefs' seriously tempting bread du jour, and diners risk filling up before the main events ever reach the table. Not that we're criticizing. With small, local bakeries increasingly able to supply restaurants with excellent artisanal loaves -- and given the lingering effects of the recent low-carb craze -- we've been seeing fewer and fewer baskets of homemade breads on tabletops these days, so we are thrilled that Sage remains a stalwart. On one of our visits, the breadbasket held warm, dense slabs of caraway-scented loaves; on another, it was thick, crusty slices of poppyseed-flecked bread. Tender and aromatic, both seemed to burst with yeasty wholesomeness; and as a slather, fat florets of sweet butter made the perfect go-with.

The bread proved to be an especially satisfying accompaniment to the charcuterie platter, a rustic first course that, this night, combined fresh raspberries and strawberries with sturdy lengths of spicy homemade chorizo; slices of light-textured chicken terrine; an array of tiny black and green picholine olives; and an assortment of cheeses, including a massive triangle of warm, pastry-wrapped brie, a dab of creamy Boursin, and a bite-sized wedge of smoked Gouda. Add a bottle of something from the small international wine list, and an entrée could start to seem superfluous.

But throwing in the towel prior to the main events would be a grave miscalculation, for it's here that diners will find that delectable paneed chicken breast, as well as grilled pork tenderloin, pan-roasted rib-eye, and a meltingly tender long-boned veal chop, resting on a white-cheddar-enriched potato croquette and served with fresh, garlicky spinach and a sleek caramelized onion demiglace -- although like us, some diners may find this dish a little on the salty side.

There seem no grounds for grumbling over the entrée of pan-seared scallops, however. Huge, lush, and almost ridiculously tender, the half-dozen preservative-free scallops had an extraordinarily robust savor that -- wow! -- wasn't far removed from grilled beef; served with a delicate risotto seasoned with lemongrass and spinach, on a plate ribboned with a sprightly saffron-horseradish remoulade, the dish was a perfect example of how commonplace ingredients can be made improbably delightful.

That theme played out in a portion of boneless, braised short ribs too. Yes, you've tried them everywhere over the past few years, since they became more ubiquitous than Quarter Pounders. But we'll wager you've never had any more luxurious than these, practically evaporating on their bed of caramel-scented diced-sweet-potato-and-prosciutto "hash." And while the sweet-tart tang of tomatoes is a natural foil for braised beef, most chefs incorporate it through the use of stewed tomatoes in the braising liquid. Not at Sage, where an underpinning of fresh, thickly sliced Ohio tomatoes turns this essential cold-weather dish into a celebration of late summer.

After dinner, expect a server to present a small menu of ports, malts, and dessert martinis, along with a short list of cakes, cobblers, mousses, gelatos, and crème brûlée. Neither the somewhat dry pineapple upside-down cake -- like a large muffin topped with bits of caramelized fruit -- nor the average chocolate layer cake, served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, impressed us as much as the dishes that had come before. Instead, for a final taste of something sweet, smart diners might be just as content with a small cup of frothy-headed cappuccino, sided with a crunchy chocolate biscotti.

The fact that all this goodness takes place in a spare, sophisticated space and is served up by staffers who, by and large, seem attentive and alert, is worth rejoicing over. And on a Saturday night, the diverse crowd -- everyone from bands of roving bachelorettes to middle-aged guys in shorts and couples in evening attire -- seemed intent on doing just that.

So it's harder to understand why, on a warm Thursday evening when other neighborhood hot spots were bustling, Sage's vibe was considerably more sedate, with only a scattering of diners on hand to put the kitchen through its well-practiced paces.

Sure, those other joints may have the name recognition and the hipper-than-thou personas, but they don't have a lock on love. If you haven't checked out Sage for a while, what are you waiting for? Fadel, DeCocco, and their crew may not get as much publicity as the competition, but when it comes to great food, they've got it goin' on.

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