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Sage scoring big for democratic eating

Emma Macdonald

Sometimes do you feel the restaurant ordering system is a little, ah, autocratic?

You know, you come in, sit down, get given a menu of dishes the chef has devised, choose something off it and it arrives. That’s pretty much it, save for some information chit-chat with the waiter about whether you like the dish or not.

Where is the genuine information exchange and feedback loop in all of that?

I’ve read about Sage Dining Rooms Taste and Test experience and been intrigued by the concept of diners coming in and tasting potential menu items before scoring them out of ten and leaving feedback on whether the dish should make the menu or not.

With a rush of blood to my palate and my writing hand, I book a table.

It’s a Wednesday night but the place is buzzing. Our tablecloth is covered with a large piece of paper with a scorecard printed on the corner and a pencil on the bread plate.

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In the name of a full immersion, we ask for the potential wine matches to go with our mystery dishes.

Indeed it is quite an exciting experience to sit down to five dishes – identity unknown. I have put my control freak tendencies to one side, knowing that my pescatarian preferences have been taken care of and the rest is in the hands of the capable chef Rhys Lebreaux.

Our host Andy explains the process, how a score of 8.5 is considered worthy of a menu spot, anything above seven may require some tweaking to bring it up to wow-factor level, and anything below it means it’s unlikely to be pursued. Dish scores are collated and averaged over a month of tasting and testing and those dishes will become the basis for the upcoming seasonal degustation.

Andy suggests that people tend to hold back in scoring their first dish highly, not quite knowing what to expect.

We feel an anticipatory thrill as delicate bowls of scallop sashimi, pickled apple with star anise powder and a soy crème Fraiche with a verdant tarragon oil are placed before us.

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I spoon up the creamiest sliver of scallop, which is laid on an even creamier base – both of which are cut through with the crunch of the apple and liquorice-y powder.

So that’s a nine from me. I reckon it’s the freshest and most perfect way to eat a scallop I’ve experienced.

So far so good.

Dish Two is a miso-roasted broccoli with lemon buckwheat and cured egg yolk.

It may not be the prettiest dish, but the nutty crunch over the broccoli is beautiful and I am an egg fan for life.

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I give it an eight and feel heady with wine, sorry, words, as I note down my thoughts. This is clearly important work. And I need to remember how to spell broccoli.

Dish Three is a spinach-wrapped piece of barramundi, sitting upon mushroom and daikon and surrounded by a swirl of sweetly salty broth. I am not a fan of barramundi but this is beautifully firm and buttery and the broth holds the complexity of the mushrooms to make it excellent. 8.5.

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So with the fourth glass of wine, I wonder whether I am scoring too high. Would I order these dishes at the restaurant? Yes. Yes, I would. Would I like others to do the same? Well, frankly they could do far worse than anything that has come out so far.

By Dish Four, I determine I am going to be really, really critical. Yep. And out comes the roasted celeriac, roast cauliflower puree, with pickled horseradish, buckwheat and black olive oil.

I have been a vegetarian, then pescatarian, for 20 years now. So while it may not sound as exciting as the lamb dish that my husband is inhaling, this is my favourite of the night. The celeriac is caramelised, the puree nutty, the buckwheat crunchy and the horseradish sets all those strong flavours off. Plus, it looks a vision. Given I would never attempt such a fiddly vegetarian dish, I am overwhelmed with competitive urges. I want this on the menu. I really do. 9.5.

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Dessert comes out and I am fairly non-committal. It is a passion fruit bavarois with an almond financier, Kalamansi (part orange, part mandarin and part kumquat) and vanilla bean ice cream. I would not normally order a dessert – preferring to eat an entrée or order another side. It is lovely, but only an 8.

I have so many flavours, textures, techniques and numbers – not to mention the wines – swirling around in my head it is time to walk it all off.

I stumble home having left Andy my email. Like every good cooking show I watch these days, I need to know the winner.

the essentials

What: Sage Dining Rooms
Where: Gorman House Arts Centre, Batman St, Braddon
When: Open Tuesday-Saturday 12pm – 2pm, 5.30pm-10pm. Taste and Test dinners Tuesdays-Thursdays until 17th March
Food: Modern Australian
Drinks: Wine and Mint Garden Bar cocktails. Matching wines and soft drinks also available for Taste and Test
Call: 02 6249 6050
Web: www.sagerestaurant.net.au
Facebook: www.facebook.com/sagediningrooms

The author and her guest ate courtesy of Sage Dining Rooms however all opinions remain her own. 

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism – including a Walkley or two – along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials.

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