Last week, at the Atlantic City Restaurant Week media kickoff, John and I were having a pleasant chat with a new acquaintance, when the inevitable question came up:”So, you food bloggers, where are YOU going to eat?” When we disclosed our preferences, I could tell that this area local was disappointed: we had chosen a few long-established “big players,” since we had yet to try them. The next day, as I thought more about this, I realized that although our means limited us to only two places this week, where was it that we truly wanted to spend our money and efforts? As I studied the 80 available establishments, I came to these conclusions: 1) We always make it a point to lean towards championing the independent establishments; 2) we like to report on the not-so-obvious when we can; 3) Although the regular menu was what made our original choices appealing, I was starting to look at that week’s special menus in detail, and getting less excited.
So where did we go to dinner on Sunday night? Sage.
Yes, yes, I know- we just finished posting an interview with Chef/Owner Lisa Savage. And no, she is not compensating us in any way- either with food, money, or even sweet-talking compliments- to get us to eat there. We just could no longer ignore the interesting menu and the ongoing buzz about the place. Located 5 minutes from Atlantic City on Atlantic Avenue (“Downbeach”) , it’s a quick jaunt, but a world away from the casinos. As you walk in, you are confronted by a relaxed, but upscale decor: tans and blacks, with splashes of colorful abstract artwork on the walls. Initially we were impressed by the Restaurant Week menu they had posted, but even more so when we noticed that several of those choices also appeared on the regular menu (always a good sign). Speaking of which, the Thai Clams and Mussels in Lemongrass Broth on the regular menu caught our eye immediately, and we felt we had to add that to our meal. We regret nothing…the pile of shellfish that arrived was artfully topped with colorful julienned scallion, red pepper, and carrot; a few of the clams were on the tough side, but the mussels were simply perfect (sand-free, tender, and spanking fresh). But, oh-the aromatic broth! A touch of coconut milk mixed with the musky perfume of the shellfish and the clean lemongrass- so very good. A breadbasket was brought out with some beautiful focaccia. The obligatory olive oil was poured onto plates by the server, but we ended up conveniently using the bread to sop up the heavenly shellfish broth. The shrimp and lobster cakes were also a no-brainer from the starter menu- they reminded me of the crisp, tasty morsels I am crazy for at a North Jersey dim sum house, which contain almost nothing but a seafood interior. The accompanying sambal aoli was a welcome spicy addition, and the cucumber salsa had a crisp, sweet pickle-like flavor, really refreshing alongside the fried texture. We also ordered the Sage salad: a nice mix of fresh greens, pine nuts and balsamic vinaigrette. Nothing you couldn’t put together at home, but it was delicious just the same.
Next came the entrees. I had the pan-seared scallops, which were right on target- perfectly seasoned and caramelized on the outside, delicate and clean on the inside. The basil mayo was a nice extra, like icing on the cake, though the scallops really could stand alone. They were served atop a mixture of corn, peppers, grape tomatoes, and scallions, which was tasty, but I couldn’t detect any of the applewood smoked bacon it was claimed to be cooked with. The interesting surprise on the plate were the shoestring zucchini fries; honestly, I could have downed 10 baskets of them with a Trappist ale and been happy as a pig in-well, you get the idea. Strangely enough, the simplicity of the breaded vegetable brought me back to when my grandmother would fry up eggplant for Parmesan, and I would continuously steal and munch the crisp slices while they were draining on paper towels. The only real disappointment of the evening was the Seven Hour Lamb. The braising liquid was rich and delicious, the caramelized onions were luscious…but the lamb itself was under-seasoned and a bit dry. The polenta that came on the side did help to make up for it-it was creamy and satisfying, and a great way to absorb the flavor of the braising liquid.
The great advantage of the Restaurant Week menu is that dessert comes with your meal, so you’re forced to indulge. I was intrigued by the homemade gelato, but I always end up choosing chocolate over vanilla. I had the flourless chocolate torte. It was a well-executed, typical torte- which made it no less amazing. An interesting touch was the somewhat salty chocolate buttercream it was decorated with- it was like having a dark chocolate fix accompanied by a milk chocolate salted pretzel. No complaints here. John had the Key Lime pie; first, let us say it was one big freakin’ piece of pie. Second, it was different than the typical super sour/super sweet custards you find in restaurants- it was not particularly tart , but had a wonderful fragrant quality, a reminder that limes are actually a fruit. It was not overly sweet, and John was able to eat the whole thing in spite of himself.
I will say that the service was somewhat attentive, well-paced, and not rushed. But although we had no major complaints and it seemed friendly, it was oddly distant- as if the minimum expectations of “upscale service” would be performed, but no one was really going to go out of their way, either. While not completely flawless, Sage is definitely deserving of the buzz it’s been creating for the past 3 years. It’s not only worthy of a night away from the casino scene, but of a whole trip down to Ventnor.
Sage Restaurant – 5206 Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor. (609) 823-2117. BYO, cash only (no credit cards).