After the intense daylong NEJM meeting at Countway, I needed some time to myself, so I bowed out of dinner with Mark, Tom & Cheryl. I stopped for an hour at the Museum of Fine Arts, and then strolled back to Nine Zero, breasting the crowds heading for Fenway Park and what turned out to be the astonishing game 5 of the league championship series. A little email in my hotel room and I was ready to head out to find a restaurant. I walked into the North End, sure that I could find something!
I remember that marvelous afternoon a year ago, when Mark, Philly, Lynn and I set off into the North End to have lunch. Mark had a couple of places in mind, but they both turned out to be closed for lunch and we ended up at Café Assagio (a perfectly wonderful choice – we had a great meal and really bonded telling couples stories). I wondered if I might be able to retrace our steps and find one of those restaurants.
And I did -- a beautiful little place called Sage. I recognized it by location as much as anything else, although the name sounded right. When I saw the menu and the wine list, though, I knew that even if it wasn’t the place Mark had wanted to take us, it’s the kind of place he would like.
It’s tiny – I counted 28 seats – and was about half full. Finding that I didn’t have a reservation, the waiter interrogated the reservations list, and then said brusquely, “Sit there,” pointing at a two-top along the wall. He brought me the menu & wine list and poured some bottled water. He told me, “There’s no specials, the menu changes every couple of weeks. You can have any of the pasta entrees as a half order appetizer, or you can have a pasta sampler, which is a little taste of the risotto, the gnocchi and the lasagna.” How could I resist that?
For the main, I couldn't decide between the "Duet of Braised Pork Shoulder & Crisp Pork Belly with Truffled Cabbage" or the cassoulet. I asked the waiter for help and he rolled his eyes and groaned and twisted his shoulders back, looking up at the ceiling as if he'd rather mediate an argument between his wife and mother-in-law than offer a choice between those two dishes. But he came down on the side of the cassoulet. I ordered a 1998 Brunello di Montalcino and we were off.
The tables are arranged on either side of the aisle that leads back to the kitchen. The walls are that pumpkin/peach color that seems to be so popular in restaurants these days. On one wall there was a nice arrangement of twelve small oil paintings of Mediterranean urban scenes, done in the bright colors and tight focus that a contemporary art photographer might use. On the wall next to me were a series of larger abstract paintings, squares with raised squares standing out from their centers, cool colors contrasting nicely with the warmth of the walls. I wrote a bit in my journal and sipped my wine and waited for the pasta course.
The risotto is made with asparagus and is a pale delicate green, with a dollop of goat cheese fondue on top. In the last couple of years I've become pretty adept at risotto, and frequently when Lynn orders it in a restaurant (I almost never do) she'll say, "Not quite as good as yours." She wouldn't've said it about this. The handmade gnocchi incorporate cherry tomatoes, olives and basil and melt in your mouth. But it was the rabbit lasagna with chanterelle mushrooms that was the standout. A perfect blend of rich flavors -- I took the tiniest bites I could, to make it last as long as possible.
The cassoulet was beautifully done, one large sausage and several big pieces of duck, sitting on top of the several kinds of beans and broth. It was perfectly matched with the wine, and I ate as slowly as I could. This was a meal I didn't want to end.
But of course it does. My waiter cleared the plates and asked if I wanted to see the dessert menu. "Only if it includes cheese," I said. And he grabbed one and presented it to me and the list of cheeses was longer than the list of chocolate desserts. One could select three or six, and I was sensible and chose just three, and they were presented in as lovely a fashion as any cheese dessert I've ever had -- laid out on an oblong, handled wooden platter, each cheese matched with a sweet -- the french young cow's milk cheese next to chopped dates, the italian semisoft cheese sitting next to a little pool of honey, and the hard, astringent Spanish cheese next to a beautfully flavorful ripe fig drenched in its own jam.
It was exquisite. Not a single false note in the presentation, flavor, arrangement, scents and service. On a scale of ten, it is an easy ten.
I stopped in the restroom before I left. Did I mention that it's a tiny place? To get to the restroom you actually have to go up into the kitchen, and the chef has to step aside so you can get at it. The chef & sous chef stand next to each other cooking. There's no room for anything else.
That makes it easy to thank them on your way out.