Sage, Las Vegas (June 2011)

Jet-lagged, hungry and slightly woozy from the putrid fast food odors on the airplane, I arrived at the airport in Las Vegas thirty-five minutes before our 9:15pm (Pacific Time) dinner reservation. With only a carry-on duffel bag I made my way to the tortuous taxi line and waited about seven minutes before a good-humored vulgarian would rush me to Aria. Arriving at 9:05, I would thank the driver, meet my mother in front of the hotel’s registration desk and make the short walk over to Sage. In an unintentional homage to my San Francisco dining days, I pulled my jacket from my bag and put it on just steps away from the restaurant. Okay, that’s enough with the pre-dinner frenzy. Let me get on to the meal itself.

One’s first fine-dining experience is just that, an experience and nonpareil at that. Every meal thereafter then becomes a matter of grading experiences against themselves. And fairly or not, I decided to compare Sage to Mesa Grill and Daniel Boulud Brasserie, the first dinners on our two previous trips to Vegas. Through that lens, Sage dwarfs its competitors.

A bit of background. Sage is helmed by Shawn McClain, a relative nobody in a hotel that hosts Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Masa Takayama. But don’t let the limited name recognition fool you, for McClain is a “Best Chef Midwest” James Beard-award winner.

With our order for the four-course prix fixe placed, a runner dropped off the the evening’s amuse, two tiny pieces of apricot with slivered almond and crispy pancetta. Soon after, another runner approached our table with the bread tray. Two offerings were available: a country bacon and a sourdough with flecks of sea salt embedded in the crust along with Murray River sea salt and room temperature, house-churned butter studded with lavender.

For our first course, we went with one of McClain’s signature dishes: a foie gras brûlée, which was infused with Grand Marnier, a bing cherry, toasted cocoa nibs, shavings of foie gras torchon and brioche. This is right up there as one of the top-five foie gras dishes it has ever been my privilege to eat! The wine pairing, a 2006 Tokaj, reminded me of a Mott’s apple sauce made with Fiji apples, complementing the sweet custard (bear in mind, dear reader, this is my first wine pairing, so my repository on which to draw is barren).

Can one ever really have enough offal? The correct answer is no, so I supplemented the first course with a generous-sized appetizer of crispy sweetbreads, a piece of crispy pork belly, roasted trumpet mushrooms, sautéed spinach, and mascarpone-laced polenta. A polenta described as “creamy” was watery, wholly inferior to Scarpetta’s in Beverly Hills; the greens, too, went almost entirely untouched. It seems after the kitchen expertly handled the sweetbreads and belly, they relegated the accoutrement to an afterthought.
 For the second course, my mother was served Maine Dayboat Scallops with braised oxtail, broccoli rabe and wild mushrooms, paired with an oak monster of a 2008 Pinot Noir. Again the greens were underseasoned, but the half of scallop my mother shared with me had a lovely caramelized crust–though not quite as nice as the one atop the brûlée–and a healthy helping of salt. And I had the Maine lobster-stuffed casoncelli with braised Spring peas and lobster knuckle scattered throughout, paired with a 2007 Chardonnay. I would have been devastated if the kitchen fucked the peas; to their credit, they made love to them. In fact, everything on the plate was properly cooked and well-seasoned, from the al dente pasta to the tender lobster.
The penultimate courses for the evening were (1) a 48-hour braised beef belly with roasted potatoes, onions and rhubarb and (2) an Iberico pork loin, a milk-braised cannelloni of shredded pork shoulder, all of which rested atop asparagus and creminelli mortadella. As for the pairings, there was a 2006 Margaux with some barnyard funk to it for the beef and a Côtes du Rhône for the pork. The balmy 90+ degree temperature outside ought to have swayed me in favor of the leaner pork, yet it was the intensely marbled beef that left me smitten, the reasons for which include its fork tenderness and its ability to tame the aggressively alcoholic wine.

As we knocked on dessert’s door, I had yet to finish a single glass of wine. On the bright side, it suggests the probability of me becoming a dipso is exceedingly low.

Speaking of dessert, we were treated to a terrine (from the bottom layer to the top) of chocolate, blackberry and raspberry cremeux with a blackberry gelée, powdered chocolate and chocolate pudding. Its tartness proved to be a good foil to the richness from the previous courses. And to go with it, a glass of Lillypilly Late Harvest that tasted of starfruit with a hint of florality.
Having finished the terrine, I was left with four nearly full glasses of wine in front of me. Fortunately, my mother came to my aid quicker than Hank Paulson at the news of a drop in Goldman’s equity value and finished off the Tokaj and Lillypilly.
For our last taste of the two-and-a-half hour meal, our server brought us Sage’s version of a petite four, a shot of hot chocolate infused with mint, which I sipped happily, content that the first act of our Vegas gourmandizing had delivered.
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