A Wise Choice for Vegetarian Tastes
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006
Great Sage may not be exactly what Benjamin Franklin was looking for, but he would have enjoyed its chutzpah. After all, the menu promises not only health and well-being (if not exactly wealth) but wisdom. And not a word about an early curfew!
Eating wisely inarguably has benefits, although sagacity -- punny or not -- has yet to be demonstrated. Nevertheless, there are plenty of good reasons to give an overindulged system a break with a meal at Clarksville's popular vegetarian cafe, and the hot fudge lava cake is only a minor one. The Indian vegetable cakes, on the other hand, are a major plus.
Despite being hemmed into a shopping center shoebox, Great Sage is quite attractive -- striking and restrained at the same time. The room is L shaped, with a small bar and stools in the small arm near the entrance and a long, straight room alongside the kitchen. The ceiling and ducts are exposed warehouse-fashion; the walls are painted in spice-market paprika, saffron, turmeric and lime (the restrooms are spinach green); and the bold colors are ideal backgrounds to a series of full-color photographs, blown up to poster size, of indigenous tribes in India, China and Nepal.
The eco-theme runs throughout the restaurant, though without polemic: The menus are bound in cork, the salt shakers and pepper grinders are apple shaped and the wooden tables are left bare, which saves the ground water from extra detergent (at least, that's my excuse). And the signature box of fresh sage is placed discreetly beneath a sideboard, a little pleasantry for those who get it.
The entire menu is organic, and nearly all of the dishes are vegan or can be served in vegan fashion. Vegetarians (who consume dairy products and eggs) can have dairy cheese or sour cream rather than soy products, and so on. Several dishes are gluten free (optional), and some are even soy free (also optional). Even the wines, beers and drinks are organic, which is not nearly as restrictive or as mediocre as skeptics might imagine: Lolonis Ladybug Red Old Vines is a favorite from way back.
In fact, Great Sage is part of a family of succinctly named organic businesses in the Clarksville Square Shopping Center, including a pet store (Bark!), a health food store (Roots) and a clothing and home accessories store (Nest), all of which except the cafe will soon be replicated in Olney.
The restaurant draws a remarkably diverse crowd, seniors and twenty-ish couples and young parents with children -- in one case, four generations gathered for dinner -- and even businessmen. (The gluten-free macaroni and cheese must be a godsend to many parents.) Although it does not always live up to its boast of "gourmet" fare, Great Sage turns out several very satisfying dishes and few duds. And it would be hard to find even a fast-food regular who couldn't get out of the box with the Santa Fe salad or quesadilla.
The Indian cakes are probably the best entree on the menu: two crumb-coated potato-pea cakes like elevated samosas (and not fried), topped with cashew cream and a drizzle of yogurt and sided with spinach tossed in coconut milk (really good), nice cranberry-mango chutney and rice topped with lightly spicy lentils.
An appetizer sampler of three spreads -- roasted beet pate, gingery carrot puree and walnut-mushroom pate -- is clean tasting and a pleasant change. Blue and yellow tortilla chips with guacamole and a hand-chopped salsa are, not surprisingly, a staple. Soups are a good indication of the cafe's style, clever but not cutesy. Criminis stuffed with a mushroom-pecan pate over braised red cabbage and drizzled with balsamic reduction are one of the best first courses, and a filling one. The spinach-mushroom salad with walnuts and red onion or the Greek salad with kalamatas wouldn't be culled out of a lineup from any traditional kitchen, except maybe for their generous size.
Salt is intentionally scant in this kitchen, which makes the diet more accessible to restricted diets, and generally easy to adjust at the table: The Thai vegetable saute, a generous portion and crisp-tender and topped with crisped tofu triangles, was betrayed by a too-bland coconut-peanut curry sauce, but the slightest sprinkle of salt restored the balance. (A little more heat would have suited the name better as well.) Likewise, carrot-ginger-almond bisque was a pinch short, although a bit of citrus -- grated lemon peel, perhaps -- would have cut the nut even more piquantly.
Sometimes, however, such purity comes up too pale for tableside remedy. The plate of roasted veggies over greens, listed as an appetizer but enough for a light meal, comes with either a nice, tangy goat cheese or, as the vegan alternative, what is described as hummus. The latter, however, tasted only like coarse-chopped (and slightly underdone) chickpeas, no tamari, no salt, no spice. The Americana, the sort of lentil-walnut-whole grain "loaf" that is the test of a vegan kitchen, is pretty good but could really use more herbs and spices; the mashed potatoes and broccoli were fine. Black bean torta could logically have a closer acquaintance with chilies, even if on the side.
On the other hand, a few things come out unexpectedly sweet, such as pasta in sun-dried tomato sauce. The shepherd's pie had a dose of sweet barbecue sauce that wasn't quite right (and the closest thing to cute yet). The good news is that the cornbread is not overly sweet, and although a little dense, had been baked at a high enough temperature to show signs of a crust, although $4.50 an order is a little high.
The staff is quite nice, procuring extra crostini with the spread samplers and often playing Solomon to mixed-diet tables that can't decide between, say, the hummus and goat cheese with the roasted veggies, by bringing both. The only downside is that the combinations can be a bit predictable for a fairly limited menu. If I could mix and match dishes, I'd top those baked tofu triangles with the coconut spinach. If Ben could see me now.