Sage Taste and Test Redux

3 Apr

I loved Sage Dining Rooms’ Taste and Test last year. It’s a clever concept: offer five experimental dishes at a reduced price and, over the course of a few weeks, get a sense of what the Canberra dining public’s taste really is to help form the menu. But the last Taste and Test was only held in September – is Sage lacking some confidence in its future menus? Does it need to check with the public before it brings out each new season’s menu?

The short answer? No, and no.

The long answer? It becomes apparent to me over the course of the evening. Sage’s kitchen has had a bit of a shake up, and within that room is a powerhouse of talent: a chef who’s worked with Ferran Adria of El Bulli, a former chef from Attica, and US West Coast’s winner of the ‘people’s choice’ pastry chef – as well as a former chef at Eighty-six. And that’s not all! Phew!

To me, that seems a lot of different backgrounds to get on a plate, less a three or five course meal, so it makes sense for what the chefs to test what Canberra likes, as well as what it might be ready for. And! Everyone loves being a critic. (Hey, some of us love it so much that we have blogs! :)) Jest aside, I genuinely think Canberrans enjoy knowing their opinions are valued and taken into account. There’s a lot of evidence of this: last time, Taste & Testers comprised just a handful of tables in the Sage Dining Room while they ran the full menu concurrently; this time, the restaurant’s packed out – with multiple sittings – with keen reviewers.

Ready for reviewing!

Ready for reviewing!

We arrive and are greeted warmly; are seated quickly and our napkins lifted from the table to reveal the same stamp as our last experience: with pencils, we’re asked to score each dish and remark on the positives and negatives. There’s no menu, but we’re asked twice if we have any allergies. If any dish gets below an average of 6/10 on the night, it gets scrapped – we’re told one dish last week earned that fate – but also that some people who love the dishes can score 6s and 7s.

I go into the night expecting to hate some of the dishes – and for good reason, given they’re experimental, and it’s a new kitchen (and the price is discounted as a result!). Still, I’m pleasantly surprised… and I unashamedly peek at the scores given by the diners to the left and right of me.

The kitchen has definitely changed hands. The dollops and foams of sauces seem to be replaced with smears and bases, and the dishes of a thousand ingredients are a touch more streamlined, with proteins allowed to star against a backdrop of vegies.

We start with a smoked ocean trout with salmon roe, topped with a smattering of olives and sesame and ceviche dressing (on an avocado base?). We’re opted for the matched wines this evening. It’s matched with a Dominique Portet (father and son vineyard in the Yarra Valley) 2013 Sauv Blanc; a textured, creamy wine. It all works.

Ocean trout with olives and sesame seed and ceviche dressing

Ocean trout with olives and sesame seed and ceviche dressing on an avocado base

It’s hard to know what to rate this dish as the first one. Is it only the beginning of a spectacular night? Poor first dish – I think it gets a bit hard done by thanks to its positioning (but maybe it could be thought of as a handicap?). I give it an 8/10. The flavours can’t hold their own, but work brilliantly together. It’s a real marriage on the plate.

Next up is a local Canberra wine – but it’s not particularly well known. It’s the Kerralee vineyard (which, as I understand, doesn’t have a cellar door) 2006 Pinot Noir.

Kerralee Pinot Noir

Kerralee 2006 Pinot Noir

While Kerralee’s hard to come by, I’ve come across it before. The Pinot works with our upcoming dish – what I’ll inelegantly describe as ‘elegant KFC’.

Savoy cabbage, spicy eggplant salsa, black vinegar and deboned chicken winglets

Savoy cabbage, spicy eggplant salsa, black vinegar and deboned chicken winglets

The first clue that I liked this dish is that I forgot to take a photo before tucking into it (Boyfriend is quite helpful when he asks, rather politely, and during my third mouthful, if I’ve remembered to take a photo). My description that it’s an elegant KFC isn’t cruel, either; rather, it’s a compliment. I love KFC but can’t stand the idea of what I’m doing to my body when I eat it (I know, there are plenty of other things I eat that are just as bad; it’s a psychological thing!). But this dish tastes and feels healthy. I love the crunch and tang of the cabbage against the very slightly fatty chicken, and the black vinegar brings it all together. The eggplant salsa is damn spicy and a great ‘dipping sauce’.

Almond crusted swordfish, almond cream, hummus and paprika gyoza and cured tuna (?)

Almond crusted swordfish, almond cream, hummus and paprika gyoza and cured tuna (?)

With our second course’s Pinot Noir, I figured we’d passed the white wines, but they’re reintroduced again with the Marcarina Roero Arneis wine from Piedmont in Italy; it’s a wine varietal that I understand (from my helpful research assistant, Google) struggled for a long time, but this wine which straddles the divide between a sauv blanc and chardonnay is back.

Deconstructed dish

Deconstructed dish

It’s matched with a big dish. There’s the swordfish with almond crust and almond cream. I love it. The gyoza filled with hummus and paprika? To die for. I could eat a bowl of them. The cured (tuna?)… distracting. Two of the three elements are fabulous, but the dish has too much that doesn’t work hand in hand for me to highly rate it overall a dish. Rose petals litter the dish, adding little.

Next is a South American Cab Sauv; the name which I can’t get right. It’s to head up a venison and cauliflower cream dish, met with a smatter of marsala and petals of pickled onion, and… the eggplant salsa is back again.

Beautifully cooked and arranged venison

Beautifully cooked and arranged venison

The venison is gorgeous, cooked beautifully. It’s tender but flavoursome, and the cauliflower cream gives it some balance; I’m a little unsure what the marsala adds. I don’t eat onion, so even though I take a bite of it I’m biased towards hating it. The eggplant salsa is a mistake. Don’t get me wrong – I rather like that it’s tested with different proteins, and perhaps my opinion is the anomaly – but the spicy, creamy flavours overwhelm the beautiful venison, when they’d been equally matched with the chicken.

Venison with South American cab sauv

Venison with South American cab sauv

We’re now onto the dessert. In addition to staring at other peoples’ scores, I’d also been looking at the future dishes, and felt sure the dessert was going to be my undoing. There’s something about a whole lot of creamy things in glass jars that gets me worried. I needn’t have been concerned, but I love that I was surprised, and my low expectations quashed.

With a French fortified wine which almost held its own, the dish of the night arrives. It doesn’t look much, but within the steamy glass some boundaries are broken. There’s a parmesan custard. A sourdough icecream. And figs poached and glazed in Pedro Ximinez.

Dessert. Oh yes.

Dessert. Oh yes.

The crostini gives a visual element, and I’m told the intention is for it to scoop up any of the melting custard or ice cream, but it frustrates me more than it serves as a tool. I eat it on its own, I eat it dipped in (not quite easy with the relative sizes), but it distracts me. I’d love for the figs to be a touch more caramelised, but who I am kidding? This is a smashing dish. It’s exciting and inventive. I wonder about its life on a menu, but if people know there’s a parmesan element, surely they can self-restrict if they think it might not be their thing? Boyfriend – desserts and sweets are his thing – is a very happy man.

I think the dish might work with some crushed pistachios or some honey-roasted nuts, but without the crostini it’s a bit of an empty looking dish. What would you fill the void with?

Not very pretty writing

Not very pretty writing

With the final scrape from the glass, we’re done. I’ve attacked my scoring sheet so it’s probably illegible and hard to follow. That aside, we’re still asked to give an ‘overall’ score. While my scores for the dishes have ranged from 6.5 to 8.5 for the night, it’s an overall 8 for me. Some of the dishes didn’t get high marks because not everything worked together on the plate, but the elements considered altogether were winners in my eyes.

The end!

The end!

Date: Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Cost: $75 per person for five course tasting menu + $45 for matching wines ($240 for two). This is a little more expensive than last time ($60 for food and $30 for wine).

Food creativity: 9 (of a possible 10)

Waitstaff pretentiousness: Low – they were welcoming, polite, helpful and engaging throughout. If there’s scope, I’d love a bit more personalised service (eg one or two waiters throughout, rather than many).

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile

Want more? Sage is taking bookings from Tuesday-Thursday until 30 April for its Taste and Test Menu. You can check out my last experience here. I also understand Sage has a few new things planned… keep an eye out!

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4 Responses to “Sage Taste and Test Redux”

  1. veronicashortandsweet April 3, 2014 at 10:46 pm #

    I love Sage. They do quite inspirational dishes. I’m still dreaming of their chocolate avocado dessert. Can’t wait for their new menu to come out!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] From 9 September to 9 October on every Tuesday-Thursday is Sage Restaurant’s Taste and Test – for $75 you get five courses and be a food critic – let them know exactly what you think by writing scores and comments on the paper tablecloths. I think this is great value for money and I’m looking forward to going again in a few weeks’ time. Read my latest review here. […]

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