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Convivial Sage 

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ining out is about more than eating -- it's a social event, a way to connect with friends and family around the common experience of food. The best meals enhance the connections among the people around the table without drawing undue attention away from sociability. Presentation is important, yes, as is the quality of the food and the sublime melding of flavors, but breaking bread together is what it's all about.





On the evening we visited Wild Sage, it was a reunion of sorts as Marty Demarest and I sat down with two companions to catch up on our lives and share time together over glasses of wine and the simple pleasures of a beautiful meal -- prepared by someone else. The warm golden glow of the interior set the mood, as did the friendly greeting we received as soon as we entered.





We selected a bottle of wine -- an Australian Syrah from Penfolds -- and established the theme for the evening by ordering the Breaking Bread appetizer for four ($17). A large platter arrived with a variety of breads and crackers, all baked on the premises by partner Gare Traeger, plus several toppings or dippers for the bread, including caviar with sour cream, hummus and a mild yet pleasantly pungent gouda. Marty wished the breads came whole rather than sliced, so we could have physically torn the bread apart by hand, but we had great fun spinning the platter around so we could each nab our favorite toppings.





Co-owner David Wells, who was our server, says the idea for the Breaking Bread appetizers came from the owners' personal experience. "This is what we do when we get together to socialize," he says. "We have a little of this, a little of that. I like variety, so I like trying multiple smaller things."





The wine set conversation flowing -- not that Marty and I have any problems in that area -- as we shared small plates. The handmade potato dumplings ($6), dressed in brown butter and sage, were velvety smooth with a mild flavor and comforting texture -- and they're also available as an entr & eacute;e. The calamari ($9) was lightly breaded and deep fried, then served with rings of banana peppers and a sweet-and-sour sauce. The peppers lent a vinegary bite to the mild and tender squid, while the cornmeal crust delivered just the right amount of crunch. The sweet-and-sour sauce didn't do much for me -- it was fine, but unnecessary, as the calamari was perfect without it.





As we moved on to the main courses, the evening became a blur of faces and smiles, happy flavors and an intimate bubble of hospitality. I splurged on one of executive chef Alexa Wilson's signature dishes, the rack of lamb ($28), with its architectural presentation. On this night, the lamb was grilled with a pistachio and pepita (Mexican pumpkin seed) crust then glazed with red pepper jelly and served with an intriguing cornbread casserole -- think a savory bread pudding made with cornbread. The sweet-tart glaze balanced the rich earthiness of the lamb and contrasted nicely with the soft crumble and crunch of the cornbread.





Marty's oysters remoulade ($16) arrived -- a large plate filled with large oysters, pan-fried in a buttermilk-cornmeal crust, and served with the cornbread casserole. They were fresh and tasted of the sea, but he found both the size of the oysters and the size of the portion to be a bit daunting. Perhaps the appetizer portion would be a better choice next time.





Our companions had the macadamia halibut ($22), another signature dish, and the Misty Isle natural peppercorn flat iron steak ($23). The steak was one of three preparations on the menu that night based on Misty Isle natural beef; it came with a slightly sweet whiskey glaze and bleu cheese butter. The halibut was aromatic and tender, firm but not dry, crusted with crushed macadamia nuts and served with coconut curry sauce and delicately fragrant jasmine rice.





Overall, we were impressed with the thought and care that went into presentation -- fresh herbs on each plate -- and with the distinct aromas that were allowed to come through from each dish. Eating involves all of the senses, and we were fully engaged by our experience at Wild Sage.





After all this, we didn't want the evening to end, so we ordered dessert ($6 each) and shots of espresso. Marty and I shared the cookie sampler while our companions tried the dark chocolate cake and the house-made ice cream -- an orange-and-vanilla blend reminiscent of the Dreamsicles of our youth.





Throughout the evening, I noticed several other parties of four to six sharing small plates, drinking wine, and generally using the food as an excuse for good company. As we were leaving, a gentleman from the next table came over to chat with us for a few moments -- the festive, companionable atmosphere of Wild Sage blurred even the boundaries that usually separate strangers dining nearby.


& r &


Wild Sage, 916 W. Second Ave., is open Mon-Fri 11 am-11 pm, Sat 4 pm-11 pm. Call 456-7575.

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