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A First Look at Shawn McClain's Sage at Aria CityCenter

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After a somewhat tepid experience the previous night at the brand spanking new Bar Masa, I was looking to Sage to kick things up a notch. A globally-influenced contemporary American concept, Sage is the creation of Shawn McClain, chef and owner of the Chicago eateries Spring, Green Zebra, and Custom House.

Since there is no tasting menu option currently at Sage, so we opted to build our own by sampling half the menu:

Kumamoto Oysters [$19.00] | Piquillo Pepper and Tabasco Sorbet / Aged-Tequila Mignonette
I love to begin with oysters, and just my luck, they happened to have Kumamotos, my favorite, in stock. The light brine of the oysters was apparent on the attack, while the Tabasco added a bit of heat in the middle, with the tequila providing an earthy weight. The best part, though, was the finish, imbued with the vegetal tang of pepper. Excellent.

Black and Blue Tuna [$16.00] | Charred Bluefin Tuna / Black Olive Vinaigrette / Crispy Anchovy / Confit Artichokes
Taken alone, the black pepper- and fennel-crusted tuna was tasty, but unexciting. This was a case where the fish really served as a blank canvas for its accoutrements. First and more important was the quail egg, which contributed an overarching creaminess to the mildly-flavored fish. The olive vinaigrette, meanwhile, added heft, and the artichokes, a distinct tanginess. I really appreciated the anchovy, which accentuated the tuna's natural fishiness.

Smoked Columbia River Sturgeon [$17.00] | Honey Crisp Apple / Smoked Bacon / Fromage Blanc
Here, the interaction between the sturgeon and fromage was instrumental, with the cheese providing a certain richness and weight to the fish that really allowed the other ingredients to sing. I liked the crunch, and more importantly, the salt imparted by the bacon, while the sweet crispness of apple was also very welcomed.

Pacific Yellowtail Crudo [$19.00] | Shaved Trumpet Mushrooms / Black Winter Truffles / Toasted Pine Nuts
Next, we have one of my favorites of the night. The yellowtail itself was expectedly clean and mild in savor--it'd make for a fine sashimi. The truffle added a touch of earthiness into the fray, but the trumpet mushrooms were simply superb, adding a profound, and delicious, gravity to the hamachi. Rounding things out was the pine nut espuma, which contributed a lovely nuttiness to complete the dish.

Wagyu Beef Tartare [$16.00] | Crushed Caper Aioli / Slow-Poached Egg / Pickled Mustards Seeds / Crispy Chocolate
The tartare in and of itself was fairly traditional: tarted up by the capers, with the egg adding a permeating weightiness. Certainly, the arugula and radish salad tossed some levity into the mix, but the best part of this was the chocolate, which contributed a delightful bittersweet element that really did a great job offsetting the tartare. My dining companion, however, felt that the beef could've used more salt.

Foie Gras Custard 'Brûlée' [$25.00] | Moro Blood Orange / Toasted Cocoa Nibs / Salted Brioche
As regular readers will know, I don't like my foie gras too sweet, so I was a bit wary of this dish. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be unfounded. Light and ethereal in body, the custard--with Grand Marnier, brandy, orange, and cocoa--was wonderfully imbued with the delicate quintessence of the liver, with only a touch of "eggy" sweetness. It was like eating a savory crème brûlée. Very good.

Escargot and Pork Belly Agnolotti [$16.00] | Smoked Bacon / Black Garlic / Parsley Sauce / Lemon Oil
Set in a red wine sauce, the agnolotti were tasty enough, but I would've liked a bolder, more aggressive sapor--pork belly should've been more assertive. I felt that the pasta really took a back seat to the rest of the plate, the bacon in particular. At the same time, the snails were a nice touch, and the citrus did an admirable in counterbalancing all the heavy elements at play.

Charred Baby Octopus Caponata [$17.00] | Rosa Bianca Eggplant / Golden Raisins / Rocket Lettuce
The term caponata refers to a Sicilian eggplant salad dressed with a tangy sauce. Sage's version adds some superbly done octopus--beautifully charred, with a wondrous bitterness offsetting the cephalopod's natural sweetness. I really enjoyed eating the supple bits of octopus alone, though the smack of its sweet and sour accompaniments was enjoyable as well. Ironically, the eggplant was the least successful part of the dish for me.

Roasted Sweetbreads [$17.00] | Glazed Bacon / Creamy White Polenta / Chanterelles
Sweetbreads can be hit or miss--this was definitely a hit. I loved how the chanterelles added a another level of earthy richness to the already saporous sweetbreads, while the greens (spinach?) provided a wonderful countervailing bitterness. My favorite part here, though, was the polenta; mild and creamy, it did a great job tempering the other elements at play. The bacon, however, was a bit superfluous.

Grilled Rib-Eye Cap Steak [$21.00] | Roasted Beets / Pistachio Salsa Verde / Sage Honey / 10-year Balsamic
Our last item from the list of starters was this sort of "beef salad." Served cool, the ribeye itself was nicely done, not too heavy, deftly balanced by the tangy salsa and bitter greens. Though I'm not a huge fan of beets, they worked well enough here; I did feel, however, that the honey was a touch strong.

Slow-Poached Organic Farm Egg [$16.00] | Smoked Potato / Shaved Black Winter Truffles / Toasted Country Bread
Here was our sole selection from the "Vegetarian" section of the menu. Pairing egg and truffle isn't novel, but when it works, the results can be profound. Such was the case here. The heady, lingering perfume of the truffle was a flawless complement to the gently creamy egg. Meanwhile, the toast, with its you tiao-esque sweetness, provided a perfect moderating element.

Grilled Pacific Cobia [$34.00] | Butter Clam Chowder / Heirloom Marble Potatoes | Shaved Iberico Ham
For our solitary main course, we chose the cobia, which is not often seen on menus. The fish demonstrated its characteristically firm, strongly savory flesh--it made me think of a more intense version of John Dory. The ham further accentuated the fish's saltiness, while the potatoes acted as a mitigating factor. My favorite accompaniment, though, was the clam chowder, which provided a lovely brininess to go along with the cobia, as well as a chewy textural contrast.

Roasted Winter Pear Tarte Tatin [$10.00] | Red Wine Caramel / Blue Cheese Ice Cream
Our first dessert was like a deconstructed and reimagined iteration of LudoBites' Fourme d’Ambert Tourte! The sweetness of the pear was tempered by its pastry container, while the ice cream really captured the spirit of blue cheese, creating a sharp, countervailing component. Quite nice.

Warm Almond Financier Cake [$10.00] | Moro Blood Orange Marmalade / Licorice-Fennel Ice Cream
A financier is a small, spongy cake, typically flavored with almond, originating in France. Here, the cake's light body and subtle sweetness were heightened by the blood orange (resulting in an almost fruitcake-esque flair), with the almond slivers contributing a marked nuttiness. The ice cream, meanwhile, served as a pungent, spicy contrast.

Canelles de Bordeaux [$10.00] | Winter Spices / Aged-Rum Sabayon / White Chocolate Sorbet
Lastly, we have some canelés, small French pastries originating in Bordeaux. Traditionally flavored with rum and vanilla, they're known for their tough, caramelized crusts and soft, spongy, custard-like interiors. The canelés' heavy, eggy sweetness was further heightened by the sabayon, and went beautifully with the comparatively light sorbet.

Overall, I left Sage very satisfied. Service was pretty much spot-on, and though I could certainly identify nits with what I ate, the food was largely on point, and tasty--pretty impressive for only the second night of service. From what I gathered, McClain's cuisine at Sage effectively balances complexity with approachability and sensibility--my dining companion even made a comparison to Pierre Gagnaire--and I have high hopes for the restaurant in the future.

Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/12/sage...

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