I dined at Sage a few weekends ago to celebrate both my sister’s birthday and mine with my family, and it turned out to be an amazing experience. I’ve been to the fine-dining restaurant on various other occasions, but this time the food felt simpler with less frills and there wasn’t that pretentious vibe you often feel at higher end restaurants.
As soon as you walk through the Mint garden bar (the bar attached to Sage which re-opened last Friday) to get to the restaurant, you can feel the relaxed vibe with round wooden tables and stools made of recycled beer kegs. The restaurant itself has an intimate yet open feel as we sat by the windows overlooking the bar. One of the reasons why I wanted to go for lunch was because I knew it would be less busy than if we went for dinner. I’m so glad we did because that only added to our amazing experience—it was as though we had the whole restaurant to ourselves considering there was only one other table occupied. There’s this weird expectation that dinners are reserved for special occasions, but my favourite meal to celebrate is lunch especially with this nicer weather. We also had an extremely attentive and informative waiter who very patiently answered all my questions.
As we were on our way out, I was lucky enough to be approached by the executive chef, Johnon MacDonald, to come back to Sage to talk about their produce, farm, food and restaurant. Obviously I couldn’t turn down this opportunity, so we met the following Saturday for a casual chat at the restaurant.
If I had to describe Johnon in three words, I would say he is passionate, unpretentious and genuine. With extensive experience from some of the best restaurants in Australia (Rockpool, Gingerboy, Nobu and Attica to name a few), he brings a wealth of knowledge to Australia’s capital. He is the executive chef at not only Sage, but its sister restaurant Akiba as well. On top of this, he will also be the exec chef at a new Mexican inspired restaurant which will open early next year.
As Johnon sipped on his latte he told me about his plans to go to the Sage farm after our meeting. With the recent change in company structure, the farm is currently undergoing a restoration and needs some tender loving care. He told me he makes three or four trips to the farm each week to do what he can to bring it back to life. One day the restaurant hopes to source all their fresh produce solely from their farm, but for now, farmer’s markets and secret restaurant suppliers will have to do.
The restaurant has plans to re-vamp the interior to create a less formal and more relaxed and interactive atmosphere. The plan is to give the restaurant a more modern feel with wooden tables and open spaces. For the moment, floral, cushion-lined booths against the white panels and crisp white lined tablecloths create a feminine and intimate feel.
We all opted for the 5 for $75 degustation, and added the 3 ‘bites’ that would come sporadically throughout our meal for an additional $15. I also chose the non-alcoholic soft pairings for $25 because I’m greedy… Our degustation was different from the others I’d looked up online. This is because Sage constantly change their menu to suit not only the season, but also the best produce available. We started with fresh white sourdough served with soft butter and black salt made from volcanic ash.
The first of the ‘bites’ was a chunk of tender but crunchy fennel with smoked almond purée and apple and ginger purée. It had a slightly sweet, licorice flavour, which was contrasted by the savoury smoked almond purée. The dish was served cold which was refreshing and prepared our palette for the degustation to come.
Smoked salmon parfait
The second of the ‘bites’ was a smoked salmon parfait with preserved lemon curd, dehydrated olives, salmon roe and a cracked pepper tuile. The parfait was so creamy and smooth with a subtle smokey flavour. The preserved lemon curd was not overly sweet and perfectly cut through the creaminess of the parfait. I also loved the saltiness of the dehydrated olives and salmon roe which I thought went really well with the sweet lemon curd. The tuile had a slight pepper flavour and added a nice crunchy element to the smooth parfait.
Sugar cured salmon
This sugar cured salmon dish with whipped tahini, walnut tarator (a walnut, red onion, coriander, lemon and chilli salsa) and dehydrated lemon was one of my favourite dishes of the entire degustation. The salmon itself was so tender it melted in my mouth. The whipped tahini was thick and creamy, and the walnut tarator was light and added a fresh element.
At his trial for the executive position at Sage, Johnon cooked a dish very similar to this one. Rather than salmon, he used ocean trout but used the same technique of curing. So, this salmon dish pays homage to his career at Sage.
This was a great pairing with the sugar cured salmon as it wasn’t too sweet. Rather, it was tart and fresh.
Textures of carrot
This dish is actually Johnon’s favourite because of its simple flavours. It comes with hommus, bread and carrot purée, black charred carrot, ribbons of dehydrated then rehydrated carrot, the spiced juice used to rehydrate the carrot and fried curry leaves. Both the hommus and purée were smooth and creamy which contrasted well with the almost leathery (in a good way, like the texture of pickles but with more bite) ribbons of rehydrated carrot. I loved the crispy fried curry leaves and the spiced carrot juice too. The only criticism was that we all wanted a spoon to use to slurp up the delicious carrot juice. On a side note, look at that colour!
This was my favourite soft pairing because of its intense lemony flavour. It was sour, sweet, tart and refreshing all at the same time, and went perfectly with the carrot dish.
This was my sister’s favourite dish of the day. The dish consisted of tea-smoked duck breast, stinging nettle purée, charred spring onion, ginger oil and rhubarb juice with a pepita, chili, ginger and nettle salsa. The nettle purée was so different from anything I’d tasted before—it was creamy, sweet, salty with deep earthy notes. The duck was really tender and wasn’t overly smokey (one of my pet peeves is over-smoked meats). The rhubarb juice was sweeter than I expected, but I actually really liked it with the duck and bitter charred spring onion.
At my meeting with Johnon he told me that some dishes come together more quickly than others, and this dish was one of them. He was out one day picking stinging nettle for the kitchen and a badling of ducks waddled passed. He went straight to the kitchen and whipped this dish up with his team.
Grapefruit and rosemary virgin mojito
The duck was paired with a grapefruit and rosemary virgin mojito. I thought this rosy drink had a good balance of bitterness and sweetness from the grapefruit and savouriness from the rosemary. The earthiness of the rosemary went also went well with the earthiness of the nettle.
Coffee-rubbed lamb rump served with a walnut purée, fermented celeriac and a beetroot béarnaise. This was both my dad’s favourite dish (he is a coffee fiend), and my mum’s (who doesn’t drink coffee). That is, the coffee rub didn’t have a strong coffee flavour, rather it imparted a subtle but sweet earthiness to the lamb. The lamb itself was so tender we barely needed to chew. The beetroot béarnaise was tart and helped cut through the creamy, earthy walnut puree. The combination of the tender lamb, earthy coffee and walnut and sweet but tart beetroot was just amazing.
The lamb was paired with an apple pie inspired mock-tail made with fresh apple juice and cinnamon infused syrup. It wasn’t overly sweet and I loved the strong kick of cinnamon.
French goats’ cheese
The final of our ‘bites’ was a small morsel of ash rind goats’ cheese with dollops of blood plum vinegar, local honey, macadamias and house made lavosh. I’ve never had lavosh before, but I loved it. Sage sprinkle fennel seeds on top of theirs before they bake it, so it gives a slight aniseed flavour which went perfectly with the creamy cheese and plum vinegar.
Oh. My. Goodness. This was possibly one of the most beautiful and dainty desserts I’ve eaten in a long time, but not only did it look amazing, it was delicious too. This dish came with a punchy lemon custard, meringue, berries, stewed rhubarb and crumbly citrus shortbread. The lemon custard was both sweet and sour and absolutely delicious. The citrus shortbread was buttery and had beautiful flecks of green and yellow from the lime and lemon zest. The other individual components were simple, yet refined and went perfectly with the lemon custard.
The last of the pairings was essentially an iced earl grey tea with notes of rose and strawberry. One of my favourite combos is lemon and rose, so I thought it went really well with the lemon posset and wasn’t too over powering.
Surprise carrot and hazelnut cake
At the end of our meal, we were surprised with two little complimentary birthday cakes from the kitchen! Although we were completely stuffed, we managed to eat the plate clean. How cute are they!
This lunch at Sage was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a really long time. The quality and execution of their food is an absolute given, but the relaxed atmosphere and friendly service just topped it off. If you haven’t yet tried Sage, or it’s been a while since you last visited, book a table for your next lunch date!
Details for Sage:
Tuesday – Saturday
Lunch: 12:00pm – 2:00pm
Dinner: 5:30pm – 10:00pm
Gorman House Arts Centre, Batman Street, Braddon