It's not easy to find a restaurant with character in the chain-linked suburbs, much less a spot as charming as Sage Southwestern Grill.
Sage occupies a cottage that was formerly the home of Geppetto's, an Italian eatery that was also quite charming. But when Rich and Cheryl Brown took over the space two years ago, they realized the metro area already had more than its fair share of Italian restaurants. "We thought, 'Do we want to compete with the other 200 Italian places, or do we want to compete with the other 200 Mexican places?'" Rich remembers. "In the end, we realized we would be serving the area and ourselves better if we went with something more unique."
The Browns had fallen in love with Southwestern food during a three-year stint in Albuquerque, after they'd already fallen in love with each other at college in Boston. "Albuquerque was a very nice city," says Rich, who managed a family-owned Italian eatery called Trombino's while Cheryl worked at the Albuquerque Hilton. "But after a while, it became too small. We wanted some of the things we missed from Boston, like nightlife and culture." Rich's sister was living in Denver and spoke highly of it, so the couple headed north.
Once in Denver, Rich worked as a server at Strings, then helped Blair Taylor open Barolo Grill, where he eventually wound up doing some management work. He left Barolo for the Westin, running the Augusta Grill there. When that elegant restaurant was stripped down to a breakfast-only place, Rich moved on to Bella Ristorante, where he worked his way up to regional management. Cheryl, meanwhile, took jobs at several hotels, doing everything from cooking to running the food-and-beverage department.
"I'd say between my experience at Trombino's, which was small and intimate and Mrs. T. came in every day and made the sauces and fresh bread and homemade sausage, and the Bella experience, I was starting to feel like maybe we should be running our own place," Rich says. "Before that, I'd been educationally rich -- I have a master's degree in business -- but experientially poor. After Bella, I started to think I was okay being in control. And with Cheryl as such an experienced food person, I knew we'd be okay."
Most of Sage's recipes came from Cheryl, although some started with former Sage chef Brad Harris, who moved on six months after the restaurant opened (he has since rejoined the Browns at their second location, a concession at the new stadium). And current chef Kirk Bliss, a graduate of Johnson & Wales's Rhode Island campus, just added four of his own items to the menu. "Cheryl had really gotten some things down pat when we lived in Abuquerque," Rich says. "She'd make her green chile every Sunday night, and then we'd live on that for three or four days. Thank heavens I have her, 'cause unless you want Buffalo wings, you do not want me cooking for you."
Cheryl also has an eye for decor, as evidenced by Sage's attractive -- and tiny -- interior. The cottage houses two dining rooms with a total of thirteen tables and a kitchen that can't be bigger than the average walk-in closet; an outdoor patio relieves some of the pressure on busy weekend nights. "If we had it to do over again, I think we'd get smaller tables and chairs, but we're kind of stuck with them now," Rich says. "Seven or eight months of the year, we're a very small restaurant and always have to turn people away on Friday and Saturday nights. We'd hate to take out a table or two and turn even more away. Plus, I have to admit, we also have to make money in the winter."
Besides, smaller chairs wouldn't be nearly as much fun as these capacious models, with comfy Southwestern cowhide seats (which are probably hell to take care of). Tin mirrors and other New Mexican items that came from the Browns' house hang on the walls. One dining room is painted a bluish-green and the other squash; both have faux finishes that combine with low lighting to make the restaurant seem dark and intimate no matter what time of day you're there.
Lunch at Sage was a great getaway, a relaxed time to savor Southwestern-style comfort food. Cheryl's Sunday dish, her green chile stew, featured roasted green chiles that had mellowed into a soft mixture of ground beef, potatoes, onions and tomatoes; small blobs of sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese just beginning to melt into the chile added richness. One bite made me long for a howling blizzard, a roaring fire and many more bites, please.
Although I usually go for lighter lunches, we couldn't resist ordering the sage-dusted stuffed pork loin and Southwestern penne Alfredo. The moist pork medallion had been stuffed with whole cranberries and walnuts and came with an apple-sweetened, slightly sour cranberry chutney, as well as just-mashed skin-on potatoes and a gravy studded with enough chorizo to make it the Southwestern version of the country goo that usually comes with biscuits. For the penne, strips of chicken had been grilled until they were just charred but still tender; chiles in the cheese sauce gave the penne a Southwest kick that was innovative without being too cutesy. (We tried it spicy instead of mild and couldn't imagine wanting to go any other way.) A fresh, jalapeño-heavy pico de gallo added crunch and a bit of extra zing.
Southwestern cuisine works well for snacking -- that's the Spanish influence -- so we started dinner at Sage with a variety of well-priced appetizers. Roasted-pepper pinwheels married red peppers, garlic and cilantro to cream cheese, which blends so nicely with the flavors of the region, particularly when they're wrapped up in a sun-dried-tomato tortilla and served with that zippy pico de gallo. The chile relleno stuffed pepper-Jack cheese and bits of grilled chicken into a big, fat poblano (the best are found in Central America, but the ones grown in the Southwest are fairly good imitations, and it's peak season right now), then coated the chile with a thin, crispy batter and blanketed the entire package with a tart, roasted tomato coulis that cut through the richness. The most unusual appetizer combined sautéed shrimp and polenta cakes. The shrimp were overcooked and rubbery, the only misstep we encountered during our meals at Sage; the underlying blue-corn cakes, however, were an inspired match-up with freshly sautéed spinach, the dense, earthy taste of portobellos and the sweetness of roasted red peppers. A roasted-corn-and-black-bean salsa provided a sweet counterpoint.
While the starters had been reasonably sized, the entrees were big in both portion and flavor. A splayed-open, pan-seared trout topped a mountain of sautéed corn and excellent green beans (why are great-tasting fresh green beans so hard to come by in this town, anyway?); a delectable corn-sugary, jalapeño-spicy cream sauce smothered the trout and the vegetables, with plenty left over to smear into a side of flawlessly cooked rice studded with pieces of mild green chile. Our second dish should have been titled The Flintstones Go to Santa Fe, since the baby-back pork ribs coated with a sticky-sweet, chipotle-fired barbecue sauce were stacked a half-foot high. The plate also included a huge serving of garlicky mashed potatoes and a creamy, crunchy Southwestern-style coleslaw of red and green cabbages with a hint of pepper. (The slaw would have worked better with a sweet element, such as vanilla, tying the components together.)
Even after all that, we couldn't pass up dessert -- not when one of the offerings was something called Native American bread pudding. The dense, heavy treat was actually a variation on capirotada, the classic Mexican dish served at Lent, although Rich says they decided to drop the traditional ingredient of cheese because "people just didn't get it." But even without the cheese, the filling dessert was a delight: vanilla-soaked bread mixed with apples, raisins, pine nuts and cinnamon, served tummy-soothingly warm and topped with more vanilla in a creamy sauce. A wedge of margarita cheesecake was much lighter, with a good lime flavor and a tart citrus glaze.
We toasted our excellent dinner with one of my all-time favorite champagnes, Gruet, a well-priced bubbly that's made in New Mexico. We'd been pleasantly surprised to find it on the small but nicely picked wine list, which also included another welcome surprise: a thank you to all of the vendors Sage deals with, everyone from the produce guys to the bakers.
But in the end, we were the ones who had reason to be thankful. A restaurant as charming and soul-satisfying as Sage is a rare find in the suburban wilderness.
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