Shawn McClain’s Sage may be the most significant restaurant to open in Las Vegas in the past three years. As good as Twist by Pierre Gagnaire is, it is, in the end, a restaurant that challenges the diner. Sage serves up cuisine that is every bit as hyper-delicious and creative, but with a Midwestern sensibility that makes it more approachable for non-foodies as well as curious and demanding gourmands.
McClain made his mark in Chicago with Spring and Green Zebra, where he proved himself an innovative master of mixing culinary metaphors. We don’t know the politics (yet) behind his move to Vegas, but we do know he’s committed himself to being in the restaurant and our humble burg for the next six months, to ensure Sage will continue to burnish his considerable culinary chops.
The significance of Sage is what it might mean for our culinary future. As much as we love the contribution such heavyweights as Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Mario Batali, Joel Robuchon, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Guy Savoy have made to our culinary scene, their presence here has never been, and will never be, anything more than ephemeral.
McClain’s (hoped for) success represents something much more important — creating an environment for creative chefs who aren’t Food Network or Michelin stars to come here and ply their trade to an appreciative audience. Like Julian Serrano, Alex Stratta, Paul Bartolotta and Rick Moonen before him, he is helping to break the strangle hold absentee “celebrity” chefs have on Las Vegas. All of them have sustained and enhanced their fame for being part of our gastronomic fabric — not just fly boys who drop in whenever their management contract tells them to.
Obviously, we at ELV wouldn’t be so hopeful if Sage’s food wasn’t drop dead delicious. And so it is.
You enter the over-sized bar with the super-high ceilings and immediately notice how generous the space is. No overcrowded tables here — no matter where you sit, you have a sense of privacy. And the acoustics are wonderful — all conversation is soft and muted, much like the flattering lighting.
The first issue you’ll have will be to resist the impulse to just hang out at the bar. So spacious is it, and so interesting the bar food and beer list, that you might find yourself nibbling away for hours at such menu gems as Vancouver Island kusshi oysters dotted with a piquillo pepper/tabasco sorbet, sharply seasoned wagyu beef tartare, sinfully rich oxtail and beef marrow crostini, or (our favorite) sweet and sour sweetbreads.
Called “crispy sweetbreads” on the menu, they arrive looking like bumpy mcnuggets of any old white meat, if that meat was succulent and sweet and melted in your mouth. Coated with a Banyuls/vinegar sauce, you won’t be able to stop eating them. If you told Aunt Edna they were chicken, she’d be fighting you for the last morsel.
Standing toe to toe with all of these is solid charcuterie (don’t miss the La Querica speck), and what is sure become McClain’s signature dish: foie gras custard brulee. Combine the silkiest dessert on the planet with the creamy, umami overtones of good foie, sprinkle with cocoa nibs, and serve with a heavenly salted brioche, and voila! — you have another menu item Aunt Edna will love as long as you don’t tell her what’s in it.
Each of these will tempt you before you get close to the main dining room, as will uber-beer guy (and sommelier) Mike Shetler’s assortment of craft brews on tap and in bottles. Shetler spent ten years as GM at Rosemary’s, and as much as we hate to see him leave the neighborhood, his upmarket move bodes well for him and Sage. He is a master at matching beers and ales with food, and one of the great experiences here is tucking yourself into the bar and letting him do just that.
If you can resist the gauntlet of fine food and drink at the bar, the equally dramatic main room awaits, where some of those same dishes are available as starters.
We could wax poetic for days over McClain’s yellowtail crudo with pine nut foam in black truffle jus — an odd combination of earth, sea, and tree that haunts you with its interplay of flavors — as well as his sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi that almost disappear in your mouth before you bite into them. We’re not sure gnocchi can get any lighter than these without becoming a foam. McClain brings all this puffy fluffiness back to earth by accenting the weightless dumplings with spaghetti squash, a riesling reduction and bits of preserved lemon. A simply spectacular display of vegetarian inventiveness.
Less successful are two items that may not be long for this menu: smoked Columbia River sturgeon and escargot and pork belly agnolotti. The agnolotti can only be called a noble failure — a combination that just doesn’t work — sorta like Jay Leno at 10:00 o’clock, or Jodie Foster and Mathew McConaughey in “Contact.” Escargot are like Jodie — they need to left alone — at least by something as masculine as pork bellies.
As for the sturgeon, chefs are always trying to get us to like it, but this bottom feeder needs to be smoked more and sliced thinner before that happens.
You are better off dabbling in some thin-sliced wild mushrooms laid atop warm Robiolo cheese and dressed with an aged sherry vinaigrette, or a runny, organic poached egg begging to be violated by a piece of toasted bread.
The Food Gal® consistently says that apps are invariably more interesting than main courses in most restaurants, and by and large we agree with her. But it’s pretty obvious McClain lavishes the love on Spanish Iberico pork loin “garnished” with pork shoulder cannelloni and braised romaine, and roasted turbot with clam and lemon risotto.
We’re not fans of baby food, so the butter-soft veal cheeks aren’t something that had us swooning, but that being said, both times we’ve tried them they were packed with a beefiness veal usually doesn’t achieve without superior braising.
Something we are fans of is dessert. One of many smart moves made by McClain was in bringing pastry chef Lura Poland over from Restaurant Charlie. Poland worked under 2008 Pastry Chef Of The Year Vannessa Garcia at RC, and while her desserts here aren’t as free-form and avant-garde, they are every bit as lip-smacking. As taken as we were with her Valrhona malted milk chocolate dome (tasting like a soda fountain drink with a higher education), and her roasted pear tarte tatin (with a surprising, sharp, tangy and sweet blue cheese ice cream), it was her very un-American canelles (sic) de Bordeaux that truly captivated the table.
These difficult-to-make tiny cakes appear almost burnt on the outside and are soft and custard-y within. We fell in love with caneles de Bordeaux on la Rive Droite de Paris a decade ago when we stumbled upon a patisserie that specialized in dozens of variations of them. Poland tops hers with a nice white chocolate sorbet and a rum sabayon, and the only fault we could find was that she didn’t put three or four more of the little buggers on the plate.
In the Aria Hotel and Casino
3730 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109