Brian McCracken and Dana Tough’s new Pike-Pine saloon, The Old Sage, is the flip side of their pre-Prohibition-era lounge Tavern Law, just next door. It’s more a kindred spirit to Spur, the modernist Belltown gastropub the chefs launched in 2008.
My first meal at The Old Sage began with some pricey nibbles: a mound of shaved Virginia ham alongside a dark, delicious swipe of malted mustard for $16; a plate of pickled vegetables for $10; and a single butter-flake roll with a pot of cultured butter for $9. (We’ll pause here for a collective gasp.)
If I tell you that the salty, sweet, hickory-smoked ham was soft as butter and tasted like an American cousin to Parma prosciutto; that the vibrant radish, okra, cucumber and wild-carrot pickles had been fermented three different ways; and that making the rolls is a two-day process, would those prices sound more reasonable?
Your answer to that question will determine whether The Old Sage — a handsomely broody bar and lounge with two-star service and four-star food — is your kind of place.
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I look at it this way: You could make a pilgrimage to Lummi Island for the $150 tasting menu at Willows Inn. Or for a fraction of that price you can climb onto a saddle stool here, sip a caraway daiquiri or scotch any number of ways, and ooh-and-aah your way through plate after astonishing plate on McCracken and Tough’s tightly focused smoke-and-malt-inspired menu of meat, fish, vegetables and grains.
Amberjack arrived at the table under a glass dome in a swirl of hickory smoke. The pale petals of fish formed a bouquet with tiny radishes and their greens, dotted with mustard seed and puddinglike dabs of pungent black garlic.
Torchon of foie gras, cold smoked over pine, was a brilliant match for brittle slices of roasted matsutake mushrooms and pear that was by turns raw, spiced or sweetly compressed. Pinenut relish and pumpernickel toast completed the tableau.
Apple-wood smoke infused fabulous duck wings — brined, cooked sous vide in duck fat, then roasted to order. The stack of crisp, meaty bones straddled creamy maple sabayon and wore a jaunty topper of spicy micro greens and chili-flecked apple batons.
Big chanterelles, tiny, tart plums and sweet rutabaga purée accompanied a sage-smoked boneless chicken leg and thigh. You’ll pay as much for that leg ($19) as you would for half a chicken at some restaurants, but it was a stunning ensemble. Cooked sous vide and oven-browned, the chicken was every bit as yielding as lavender-smoked pork cheeks that had been brined, braised with caraway and trimmed with colorful curls of pickled beets.
When it comes to vegetables, it’s all in the families. A salad of amaranth gathers beets, quinoa and young chard leaves in a dressing that gets some heat from urfa biber, a smoky Turkish chili pepper. Calabrian chilies enliven a composition of gourds that includes several varieties of squash: some raw, some roasted, some jelled, some frozen into granita.
The cabbage clan (oven-roasted rutabaga, turnips, kohlrabi, mustard greens) assembles for a cruciferous romp in rich ham broth. Carrots braised in a similar “pot likker” broth come with an astringent watercress salad and a drift of whipped buttermilk.
Desserts are ice creams and sorbets inspired by the season. Sound dull? Try horseradish ice cream, sprinkled with sea salt and fresh savory, melting into a magical soil of vanilla and olive oil. It was unbelievably good.
McCracken and Tough credit sous chef Matthew Woolen for the day-to-day execution of the menu, and for the daily-changing Happy Hour roster. That’s where I found cured salmon pastrami with horseradish pudding and pumpernickel crumbles ($6), as well as ham-and-rhubarb-stuffed cherry bomb peppers with frizzled shallots and fresh herbs ($4).
At Happy Hour you’ll also find half-price versions of some items from the main menu, among them a divine hot-from-the-oven puff of flat bread, dusted with caraway, fennel pollen and sea salt ($4). Drink specials included $7 bourbon, rye or scotch Manhattans, complex and well-constructed. Tip your glass to teetotaling pioneer Arthur Denny, whose visage graces the wall. That old sage may look askance at this Old Sage, but I’m a fangirl.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.