Sage - Las Vegas, NV

Dinner - Monday, December 27, 2010

Sage is Shawn McClain's (he of Spring, Green Zebra and Custom House fame) Vegas venture in the Aria casino, and represents his first restaurant outside the Windy City. Having eaten at all his Chicago establishments, my general impression is of well-executed food grounded in a Midwestern sensibility - the chef elevates many tried-and-true combinations to the level of fine-dining. However, I never found myself bowled over by his dishes. To me, his restaurants always seemed to lack that certain je ne sais quoi experienced at truly transcendent meals. We had not planned to eat at Sage, but a plethora of positive reviews changed our mind. "Don't judge Sage by Spring or Green Zebra," said one poster on Chowhound, "it seems like Chef McClain ages like a fine wine."

And so it was that we found ourselves here on a Monday night, 2 hours after arriving in Sin City. We were promptly seated in the main dining room, which was about half-full at 7.30 pm. We decided to skip the four-course "Signature" prix fixe (which I should note is quite a steal at $79) and craft our own tasting menu.

Amuse - "Salad" of apple, tangerine and chevre 
To start, we were presented a delightful amuse of apple, tangerine and goat cheese. Deceivingly simple, the sweet crunch of the apple was perfectly-balanced with the acidity of the tangerine and creaminess of the chevre. This bite effectively encompassed sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

Wagyu beef tartare
Crushed caper aioli, slow-poached egg, pickled mustard seeds, crispy chocolate
The crispy chocolate really took this dish above and beyond a run-of-the-mill tartare. It acted in concert with the egg yolk to enhance the beefy flavour of the tartare, and also provided an essential delicate crunch to each bite.

Pacific yellowtail crudo
Shaved trumpet mushrooms, black winter truffles, toasted pine nuts
This dish had a lot of potential - the combination of seafood with the earthiness of truffles and pine nuts was an unexpected and brilliant combination. However, I found that the fish and truffles were both sliced far too thick, muddying the flavours.

Slow-poached farm egg
Shaved black winter truffles, smoked potato puree, toasted country bread
This plate was tied for favourite dish of the evening with the roasted sweetbreads (below). The heady aroma of truffles wafted forth as soon as it was set on the table, bathing us in its decadence. Really, this is a combination that cannot fail. The country bread was perfect for dipping into the creamy yolk. The only thing that marred the experience was the graininess of the potato puree - it detracted significantly from the silky sensation of the other components.

Roasted sweetbreads and glazed bacon
Creamy white polenta, trumpet mushrooms, spinach
The polenta and spinach were an excellent foil to the richness of the proteins, while the mushrooms (meaty in their own right) served to bridge the flavours of the other components.

Grimaud Farms duck breast
Celery root puree, duck leg confit, heirloom apples
The most disappointing dish of the evening, especially after I'd heard many good things written about it by others. The breast was overcooked, the skin chewy. I take full blame for not sending it back to the kitchen. The confit leg was also a letdown, being somewhat stringy and lacking the mouthfeel one would usually expect. A real shame, because the other components were excellent and I can imagine that this could have been a real stunner.

Warm honeycrisp apple cheesecake
Hazelnut crust, apple butter, sour cream gelato
At our server's suggestion, we ended with the honeycrisp apple cheesecake. I can't think of a better way to evoke the Midwest in a dessert. The cake was sweet, but not overly so, and it played well with the slightly-tart sour cream gelato. The apple butter, in moderation, also provided a depth of caramel notes that worked well with everything else. The only weakness here was the actual hazelnut crust, which was slightly soggy.

This meal didn't really change my opinion of Chef McClain's cuisine. Once again, a perfectly good meal (with a few missteps), but nothing that was truly exceptional. Perhaps others will resonate more with his food, but it seems that we are just on ever-so-slightly different wavelengths. That being said, dinner was very reasonably priced ($230 after tax/tip, including 4 drinks), and I'm not sure one would be able to find a better deal on the Strip. I would definitely recommend this place if you've never tried Shawn McClain's food, as it is his best showing yet.

Aria Resort & Casino
3730 Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89158
Phone: (877) 230-2742