Great Sage adds sophistication to a vegetarian menu

Clarksville restaurant also serves organic wines

Eats: Dining Reviews, Hot Stuff

September 23, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In June, the owners of the popular health-food store Roots opened a restaurant featuring organic and vegetarian cooking. While not every item on the menu is organic, everything is vegetarian, and a great deal is vegan, meaning it is made with no animal products at all, not even eggs, honey or butter. There are also soy-free and gluten-free items.

Some vegetarian restaurants seem as if they're channeling a '70s-era hippie vibe, but not Great Sage. This Clarksville restaurant is a thoroughly modern place. The menu is sophisticated, the service is excellent and the organic wines, many sold by the glass, are lovely and reasonably priced.

The hard edges of the interior, formerly a Donna's Cafe, have been softened. Warm mustards and paprika tones have been added, along with two beautiful wall-art water fountains. Tables are dressed with white tablecloths, with a small live plant as the centerpiece.

Dishes like a Tuscan stack, a subtle mix of flavors with layers of polenta, spinach and roasted vegetables, are a far cry from the brown-rice concoctions of yore. The polenta, flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, provides a sprightly contrast to the earthier vegetables, as does a vibrant marinara sauce. The artful presentation is completed with a smattering of salty, tender string beans.

Lunch leans more toward salads and wraps, but the dinner menu boasts heartier fare, including a burger made with black beans, a vegetable lasagna and a "meatloaf" of lentils and walnuts.

Seitan, a firm-textured wheat gluten product, is a key component in the Savannah barbecue. The seitan, along with roasted carrots, potatoes and tomatoes, is doused in barbecue sauce to form a tangy stew, served alongside collards, cole slaw and cornbread.

The collards obviously can't be seasoned with pork, so they are reinterpreted completely: shredded, kept crisp and seasoned with copious amounts of garlic and onion.

A similarly powerful flavor punch can be found in the Thai bowl, a steaming mix of tofu and vegetables flavored with lime, coconut milk and plenty of heat. Like other dishes, it arrived with thoughtful sides, in this case coconut rice and a kind of mango slaw that mixed sweet and sour, crunchy and soft to great effect.

By some miracle of alchemy, the baked goods at Great Sage are light and moist, even though they are all vegan. Both the cornbread in the Savannah barbecue and the shortcake biscuit in a mixed-berry shortcake dusted with cinnamon were as good as non-vegan varieties. The four-layer chocolate cake was richer and more flavorful than many I've had.

The signature salad, made, of course, with the freshest of organic vegetables, is a treat for the eye as well as the taste buds. Greens are mounded in the middle of the square white plate, with tiny clusters of grated ruby-red beets, steamed edamame and grated radish anchoring the corners. The whole thing is drizzled in a tart, herby vinaigrette. A cheese plate features a beautiful salad of artichokes and sweet-tart cherry tomatoes.

Presentation is taken seriously at Great Sage. The three dips in the Great Sage Sampler - a mellow mushroom-walnut pate, a spicy carrot puree and a mild white bean spread - are served in tiny white ceramic bowls, all on a larger white ceramic dish with crostini.

Our amazing server, Gabriel, spent several minutes before we ordered explaining what items could be with a soy-free, vegan or gluten-free option. Though the restaurant was crowded, he was so attentive that he overheard my dining companion muse that he'd like an extra spoon and soundlessly arrived with it within moments.

Jeff Kaufman, who owns Roots and Great Sage with his wife, Holly, and partner, Jody Cutler, said he wants the restaurant to stand with the top vegetarian venues in the country. With its menu of creative, healthful and delicious food, it just might.

Great Sage

Where: 5809 Clarksville Square Drive, Clarksville

Call: 443-535-9400

Open: Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. Closed Monday.

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $4.99-$7.99, entrees $11.99-$15.99

Food: ***1/2

Service: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***

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