Parking in the Crystal Cove shopping center on the weekends can be a daunting prospect, but if you’re headed for Sage on the Coast, fear not: They have their own designated parking area in front of the restaurant, cordoned off from the chaos at Javier’s.
We reviewed Sage when they first opened and again when they introduced their weeknight pre-fixe menu. But that was a while back, and we wanted to see what was new and whether it was still as good as it used to be. We tried to focus on menu items that were new to us, and we came away pleased.
With Richard Mead as executive chef and Kris Kirk as the chef de cuisine, the menu has retained some of their most popular dishes while adding seasonal flourishes to keep things fresh and new.
The starter basket of breads had changed from our last visit. This time the excellent crispy flat bread was studded with herbs and seeds and a light sprinkle of cheese; the nice sourdough had a flavorful salty cheese crust but the pretzel bread was a dud "” squishy, not chewy and without any salt "” pretzels without salt? We had been looking forward to dipping the flatbread in their garlicky hummus but the little crock that night had never met up with the “stinking rose""¦ hummus without garlic?
But it was probably for the best since our appetizer was the evil and irresistible sweet potato fries. Perfectly cooked, without any greasiness, there was not a single one that wasn’t crispy. The yummy dipping sauce, an inventive mustard-papaya concoction, added insult to injury and we devoured the lot.
From the small-plate menu, we shared the wasabi crusted Alaskan halibut. New to us, this preparation featured a thin wasabi crust on a delicious moist piece of fish that was floating in a mildly spiced broth with lightly cooked radicchio, carrots, lettuce, cabbage and a few udon noodles. An excellent dish, though Terry thought the wasabi masked the flavor of the delicate fish, while Elle felt it provided a nice contrast. We both agreed that the broth was complex and delectable.
We shared all the dishes we ordered and our very considerate waiter, without being asked, had everything split and plated in the kitchen (with no additional charge) "” a very classy touch.
A refreshing summer offering was the scallops with a duet of cold melon soups. The yin-yang shape of the presentation had a lovely orange cantaloupe puree on one side and a pale green honeydew on the other. The buttery browned scallops on top were impeccably cooked and thin slices of Persian cucumber provided a hint of crunch while a sprinkling of fresh mint added the final touch. The dish contrasted hot with cold, savory with sweet, smooth with chewy. The two soups were perfectly calibrated for a warm evening of open air dining.
When there is a vegetable entrÃ©e, we like to give it a try, and Sage prepares eggplant stuffed with curried couscous and grilled vegetables. The dish featured Israeli couscous, larger pasta than regular couscous and we much prefer it. The advertised curry provided more color than flavor.
Strewn around the plate were green beans, slightly bitter zucchini, nice yellow squash, exceptionally tasty caramelized baby carrots and a leaf or two of wilted spinach. What really made the dish was the warm “tomato vinaigrette" "” a cross between sauce and soup. What detracted from the dish was the tough skin on the eggplant.
If you have room or are willing to forgo dessert (a big mistake here), they offer a nice selection of cheese.
Happy news for dessert lovers: Sage actually has a pastry chef, Robert LeSage, who is turning out some scrumptious desserts. If you can’t make up your mind, there is also a dessert tasting menu with four mini desserts to choose from.
You can order a trio or just one. Of course, we ordered the trio and were surprised that they weren’t mini but actually small desserts, big enough to share without fighting. Finally, a restaurant featuring fruit desserts in the summer.
Our favorite was the plum frangipane tart. A thin tart crust was covered with a layer of frangipane (ground almonds, sugar and egg) topped with sliced plums in balsamic syrup and garnished with a dollop of mascarpone ice cream. It was a gorgeous combination of flavors and the sauce was just out of this world.
Sitting beside it was a peach tarte tatin on a puff pastry crust, replacing the traditional apple with a halved peach. This dessert is eminently lovable because of the buttery caramel sauce, which of course, would make shoe leather lovable. Another dollop of ice cream, this time vanilla bean, completed the treat. We only wish they had a made a real tart pastry instead of the packaged puff stuff.
No trio of desserts would be complete without something chocolate and in this case it was called a chocolate apricot crunchy. It was not quite like anything we had eaten before. It was a surprising combination of familiar elements in a new presentation: a thin layer of dark chocolate cake topped with a crunchy bits of feuilletine (sort of like corn flakes) then a thick layer of chocolate mousse, macerated apricots, decorative chocolate and meringue logs, all lounging in a pool of bittersweet chocolate sauce. Yum!
Sage continues to offer consistently good food with seasonal variations to keep things lively in an atmosphere that makes dining a pleasure.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.