Clever, clever, clever is what runs through my mind during our two hour dinner at Sage Dining Rooms. Sage is one of the best restaurants in Canberra (I have been known to wax lyrical about it here, and here, and elsewhere!) and in August they announced a ‘taste and test’ month – essentially, for three nights a week over the month, the restaurant would become an experiment as they test dishes for their new menu, and the diners become reviewers. The price is marked down: five dishes for $60. I book us in immediately and look forward to it for weeks.
We arrive a few minutes after 6.30 and we’re ushered in to where our table is set (next to the cashier; normally I’d be annoyed to be sitting here, but it doesn’t detract from the experience at all). The restaurant is packed with groups (including a few familiar faces!) – notwithstanding Sage’s reputation, the concept and the $60 price tag must surely be a drawcard.
Immediately we’re asked for something to start: wine, beer, bubbles, something else? We agree bubbles might be nice, and two are on offer. This is probably a silly thing to others, but being given a selection and told the price assists. It’s not about being a cheapskate (well, not all the time!), but about making an informed decision. (I am constantly reminded of our experience at Est in Sydney where the ‘champagne cart’ was wheeled towards us and we had to make some difficult and expensive decisions!) Between a glass of Australian sparkling for $15 and French champagne for $20, we opt for the former (Katter would be proud?), and it arrives quickly. Around the same time, our table is stamped on each side with five blank marks out of 10. (Sadly, this is not a night for left-handers because it’s stamped to the right… I find myself leaning across my empty dishes a little too often!)
Our first dish and our first matching wine (extra – but, unlike our opening drink, I’m not sure how much) also arrive quickly: fried broccoli, blue cheese and rice crispies. Say what? Even stranger: we’re not starting with a sparkling in our matching wines, but a dessert sauvignon blanc from the Yarra Valley. Really?
But it’s true. This is our dish. As you may have noticed over the last two years (happy birthday, inthetaratory.wordpress.com!), I’m not the biggest vegetable fan. But I can handle broccoli. And I can definitely handle it if there is blue cheese involved. And rice bubbles? Well. Let’s give it a go.
And it’s great! The broccoli isn’t overcooked – which would destroy the destroy the dish – and the blue cheese isn’t over the top, either. In fact, I think just a touch more blue cheese (I had to go digging for it in the first instance!) is what’s needed to make sure every mouthful has the same impact. The rice bubbles could be weird, but they’re not. It’s not like a breakfast bowl of rice bubbles (!); just a smattering. Without them, the dish would have been leaning towards too soft; their presence affirms and highlights the crunch of the perfectly cooked broccoli. Boyfriend is enthusiastic about the dish, and gives it a high mark, while I grade a 7. The dessert sauvignon blanc cuts through the blue cheese neatly; we’ve had dessert food as part of our entree and it works.
The bread and homemade butter (topped with charcoal) in between dishes is tasty, but nothing like the bread and (sage) butter I’ve had at Sage before; in fact, its quality distracts me from the main courses (though, okay, I still get a second helping of the bread because it’s still more than passable!).
Dish two also comes out soon after our first dishes are cleared away. I’ve barely had a sip of my sparkling. I’m happy I ordered it because it’s lovely (and, I suspect, where the restaurant might have a better margin tonight than the rest of the dishes), but it’s completely unnecessary. In fact, my sparkling is a sorry mistress as it sees me through four of the five dishes.
The second dish is a confit of tuna with wasabi, avocado salsa and a crispy something – radish? Potato? Not sure (and resist asking the waiter again). It’s matched with chardonnay. The tuna is extraordinary – really. It’s melt in your mouth stuff, and I savour every mouthful. I notice Boyfriend eating slower than me and hope that means he might share, but, alas, it’s not to be. The spicyness of the wasabi seems a little too obvious, but the avocado salsa is a fresh complement to what’s also fresh tuna. Yum. It’s a 9 from me. Neither Boyfriend nor I is a chardonnay fan (by any means), but the fact that neither of us mentions it must also mean that it must have been pretty good.
Our third dish (still steadfastly also accompanied by my increasingly less fizzy sparkling!) is ham hock and pork belly ravioli, with a red wine jus, some strange looking crackling, and pinot noir from Kerralee winery in Murrumbateman. (Kerralee isn’t open to the public, but if you headed along to the wine and chocolate festival at the Hellenic Club earlier this year, you might recall it as a stallholder.)
It’s good. Really good. I can’t fault the texture of any part of the dish, and I love the flavours.
I mark it a 7 because the flavours are probably a little too consistent for me, and that ‘umami’ taste I’ve got begins to hit ‘overload’. It just needs something perhaps fresh or tangy to lift the dish and then it would enter into moreish for me. The current combo of flavours means the one piece of ravioli more than satisfies me.
Our waiter asks if our dishes are coming out too fast or too slow, and to just advise if the tempo should be changed. My sparkling pleads with me, but if I hadn’t ordered it, I’d be very satisfied with the speed with which the dishes appear. Our fourth dish is a hash brown with duck rillet and cheese on top, a good helping of red cabbage and a dash of dijon mustard. It’s matched with a grenache shiraz from Valhalla Wines; our waiter flags that he hopes the wine isn’t as strong as the duck.
This dish is as good, if not better, than the tuna. It’s presented beautifully; there’s enough sauce to enhance the flavours of the dish while still allowing them to speak for themselves. Boyfriend hates duck, but he loves this dish: that’s really saying something. The potato/hash brown wins me over (okay, I have McDonald’s hash brown expectations), and it is a lovely background flavour and texture to make the duck stand out. It’s another 9 from me.
Somehow we arrive at our final dish (and I’m finally finished with my sparkling). It’s matched with a Griffith Park sparkling rose – unusually, we started with a dessert wine, and end with a rose. It’s simple but it’s bold and it works. The dish itself is zabaglione flavoured with masala, surrounded by fresh raspberries and blueberries, and a raspberry glace. I’m not sure what the macaron is, and even after tasting it, I’m still not sure. Whatever’s the flavour in the macaron (caramel?) is smeared on the plate. It tastes great.
The presentation in front of me reminds me of a playground: there’s so much fun and colour, but it’s all presented with a purpose. It’s a lovely dessert to just pick at different pieces. My feedback is simply that blueberries should be halved. It works for strawberries, but I think once blueberries are halved, they lose their identity. The raspberries are plump but still a little sour (but what else do you expect in Canberra?). The macaron is divine – even though I can’t pick the flavours. It’s better than the macarons at The Flute Bakery – this is a huge deal for me: I have staunchly defended Flute’s macarons as the best in the world. It getes a 9 from me (and would have been a 10 if the blueberries were still whole!).
And that’s it. We spend a bit more time filling out our scores and the owner spends more time than he has to spare chatting to us. It’s a remarkable concept, and left me wanting to come back tomorrow, and all next week, and all the week after. Impossible, though: the restaurant is almost entirely booked out until the end of this concept season (second last week of September). I’m jealous for future diners in September. Sage has more than achieved its goals: it’s got people talking, it’s brought people in with a concept and price who might not have otherwise come, those who do come want to re-book (what an endorsement!) and the concept means they’ve been given instant and thoughtful feedback. Sage didn’t get a hat in the Good Food Guide awards for 2014 which, in my (and others’) opinion, is a travesty. Sage pushes the boundaries in its creativity; I particularly appreciate how it tirelessly tries to make exciting and good quality food accessible in terms of price and dining experience. The restaurant always feels inviting, and there’s certainly no champagne trolley to make you feel awkward! However, while many staff makes the restaurant feel warm and inviting, the number of staff who might visit one table makes the experience a little impersonal. I had many lovely conversations with polite and engaging staff over the course of the night, but I think being able to be consistently served by one or two staff members would have elevated the experience.
Date: Wednesday, 11 September 2013
Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile
Cost: $60 per person for 5 dishes each; another $30 each for matching wines; $15 each for a glass of sparkling wine ($210)
Food creativity: 9 (out of a possible 10) (see my review of The Artisan for a comparison)
Ability to take photos in the restaurant without a flash: 3 (out of 10) – it was a well lit restaurant compared to others, but still dark enough to have to up the ISO and strategically position the candle (did you notice?).
Canberra region wines on wine list: Unsure, because this was a ‘taste and test’ experience and we chose matching wines. However, the inclusion of Kerralee Wines (a Murrumbateman winery) as a matching wine to the dishes was welcome
Want more? The lovely Rachi reviewed Sage last night (with very similar/same dishes) to give you a great comparison (and her own scores!); try the website to learn more or book in (or get on the waiting list for the ‘taste and test’ experience!)
I first reviewed Sage back in early 2012.
- Truffle Degustation at Benchmark Wine Bar (inthetaratory.wordpress.com)
- Two Ss this week for dinner | Sanur’s Balinese | Sage Dining Rooms (yummylummy.com)