Review: Sage’s summer menu (and Mint Garden Bar’s snacks!) | HerCanberra

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Review: Sage’s summer menu (and Mint Garden Bar’s snacks!)

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Are you the kind of person who only eats because they have to, or do you live to eat? I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that I fall firmly into the latter category. I get excited about food. Not just what it tastes like (which is admittedly the most important thing), but also about the other things that make eating so enjoyable. This could be the tantalising smell of a wonderful dish, its appearance, or if it’s interactive (sounds odd, but trust me, it’s a thing). The right combination of these can make a meal not just delicious, but fun. And that’s how I’d describe Sage’s summer menu—and Mint Garden Bar’s new take on bar ‘snacks’.

I was lucky enough to be asked to go along last Thursday to try the new menus at both, starting with Mint.

Canberra’s had some unpredictable weather lately, so I was pleased the rain decided to stay away that day. Mint has wet weather contingencies (which I’d benefited from during torrential rain at the Mad Hatter’s tea party the weekend before), but it’s definitely more enjoyable when it’s dry. I’d brought a friend with me, and we started off with some drinks—an El Floridita Daiquiri for her and a strawberry-mint lemonade for me. We were both impressed that her daiquiri was made with freshly-squeezed grapefruit and limes.

mintdrinks

Both drinks were very pretty, but more importantly, they tasted lovely and refreshing. My friend described her daiquiri as the perfect summer cocktail, and I enjoyed my lemonade so much that I finished it all the liquid—including the strawberries using my straws as chopsticks (I’m classy like that).

While we were enjoying our drinks, we were treated to some of Mint’s new bar snacks, which were unlike any other bar food I’ve ever eaten. First up were wonton tacos. These were really cute! One serve was filled with yellowfin tuna sashimi with avocado and wasabi puree and ABC mayonnaise aioli, and the other was filled with salt cod, béchamel sauce, and chives.

minttacos

Both tasted delicious, and my friend and I both commented that it was nice to have bar snack options that were light and healthy. And also easy to eat with your hands.

Next we were presented with a serve of tempura soft shell crab with chorizo aioli, baby coriander, saffron, and paprika. This was also nice and light but tasty. My friend said she thought the crab was trickier as a bar snack because it was a bit messier to eat, but this didn’t bother me as much.

mintsscrab

I should note that Mint had put out a public invite to try the new menu at this time, so the bar was packed, but it meant we could observe all the other dishes going around. The people at the other end of our table had bread and ‘the garden jar’. The contents of the garden jar changes every week; on this occasion I think it was some kind of duck (quite happy to be corrected if I’m wrong). They passed it down to us and we couldn’t resist trying it even though we knew we had more food to come.

It was in this state that Sage/Mint Executive Chef and creator of all the tasty treats, Damian Brabender, found us bringing with him our final bar snack—doughnut macarons. We felt a bit guilty and slightly regretted the bread and topping (well, not really) when we saw these as they took up valuable doughnut room.

Damian sensibly removed the garden jar and bread from us and left us to try the sweets. Like the contents of the garden jar, the fillings of the macarons will also change weekly. The ones we tried were lemon curd, vanilla custard, and rhubarb compote (one flavour in each, not all mixed together!).

mintdonutmacs

The doughnut macarons tasted as indulgent as they looked. We shook off some of the sugar, and they were definitely sweet enough without it. The lemon curd was the favourite for both of us with my second favourite being the vanilla custard and my friend’s the rhubarb. Honestly, if my friend hadn’t been with me I would have eaten all three on my own.

It was then time for the main event, a taste of Sage’s summer menu. While I dine at Sage fairly regularly (every few months), this was my first visit since Damian took the reins as Executive Chef. I won’t go on about Damian’s experience here, but in short his CV is impressive and we’re lucky he’s come to Canberra (you can read more about him on Sage’s blog). He’s also a genuinely nice guy with a wicked sense of humour.

But back to the food—my friend and I had no idea what to expect, and we looked on with interest as Damian brought out two shotglasses.

sagesaltvinchips

These, he explained, were his version of salt and vinegar chips. I can’t imagine what our expressions looked like as we processed this information but it made more sense after he told us what was in them—Crookwell potatoes with hollandaise made from ghee and cabernet sauvignon. You may remember that I said in the opening paragraph that I like interactive food—the salt and vinegar chips are an example of this. My friend likes to taste components separately before eating them together, so she nibbled at the potato first. I went straight to mixing the contents of my shotglass. And it really did taste like a salt and vinegar chip! In three words: crunchy, salty, delicious. And fun to eat.

Next up was a mixed lettuce and Clyde River oyster salad that turned out to be much richer than it looked. The oyster part was smooth and creamy (with hidden caviar and a whole oyster in the middle), with the lettuce adding some crunch and texture. To explain how much I liked this, I will just say that I would have licked the bowl clean if I could.

sageoystersalad

Our final entrée was a confit chicken wing glazed with honey with black and white garlic, white milk aioli, black sesame, and coriander. The skin was nice and crispy with just the right kick of sweetness from the honey, and the meat was juicy but firm.

sagechicken

Then it was time for the mains. My friend and I had a hint of what we were going to get as Damian checked if we both ate raw beef, but we definitely didn’t expect the dish to look like it did.

sagebeef

What we were presented with was a tartare of beef with a yuzu-cured egg yolk, sashimi puree, and pickled chilli on a ‘bowl’ of tapioca, rice starch and cuttlefish ink. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen or eaten anything like it before. The flavours worked really well together; it was fun to eat and the softness of the beef was a great contrast to the crunchiness of the crisp. Damian is a master of textures. There’s no other way to put it. My friend and I agreed this was the winning dish on both presentation and taste.

But there was still more to come and next was a serve of South Coast calamari with XO crumbs, mussel foam, turmeric, coconut, and a cod crisp. Damian explained that it would taste like pad thai. The texture of the calamari was really unusual—I think I’m used to calamari being pretty chewy or overcooked so this was possibly the first time I’ve had it cooked just right. It was soft and smooth and slippery balanced out by the contrasting texture of the cod. When everything was mixed together, it just worked.

sagesquid

We thought that might have been it, but out came another dish—quail—presented as I’d never seen it before (are you seeing a theme here?). One piece was covered in a cocoa glaze with cocoa nibs, buckwheat and macadamias. The other piece was decorated with sorrell. Accompanying the quail was a cranberry, liquorice and cherry puree along with some bay leaf gel.

sagequail

My friend described the cocoa-covered quail as having a ‘pretty full on crunch’, which was a pretty accurate description. Normally when I think of cocoa and cherries combined I think of a cherry ripe, not something I’d be eating as a savoury quail dish for dinner—who knew it could be so good? The sorrell was light and a nice balance to the richness of the quail.

After the “wow” factor of the presentation of the food we’d had so far, we were intrigued by the simplicity of the final savoury dish. Two pieces of bok choy covering…something?

sageduck1

The something turned out to be a Thai dish—duck leg and lychee cooked in coconut milk and coconut water on salted cashews. The bok choy had been soaked in wild thistle and coconut water, and dressed with sesame oil. I love duck, and this dish was a dream. The meat was soft and juicy, mixed with the sweetness of the lychee and contrasting with the saltiness and crunchiness of the salted cashews. So much flavour and texture in such a simple-looking dish (but don’t be fooled into thinking it would have been simple to make!).

sageduck2

My friend and I were getting pretty full by this point, but there’s always room for dessert, right? Or pre-dessert and then dessert as the case turned out to be. Like the salt and vinegar chips, the pre-dessert was Damian’s take on a classic favourite: milo and cold milk.

sagemilo

In our cups was milo, sorbet, chocolate, and Jersey milk crisps. And it really was like cold milo in a solid (well, apart from the sorbet) dessert form. It was cool, it was delicious; it reminded us of being kids.

Finally, it was time for the last course. Dessert was an Eton Mess with some unexpected flavours: tarragon ice cream with fresh chopped berries and Chambord, covered in a Swiss meringue with Japanese green matcha tea powder and cracked silkwood pepper. I wasn’t sure if I’d like this one, as I’m not a huge fan of the flavour of licorice (which tarragon has), but eating the ice cream with everything else was fine, and I ended up quite liking it. As my friend said, the flavour was more like a fruity licorice, which combined well with the berries and meringue.

sageetonmess

My final verdict is that this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. No exaggeration. Usually when I get a several course meal there’s one or two dishes that are a bit meh, or they look pretty but don’t taste great. Everything we had on the night, including the bar snacks, was fantastic in both presentation and taste, as well as fun to eat.

The last thing to note is that while Sage has a bit of a reputation as being an ‘only on special occasions’ restaurant, Damian is aiming to change that. His reasoning is that people work hard enough these days to be able to say, “I deserve to spoil myself, even on weekdays,” and the quality and variety of food Sage offers (menu items change every day) is worth a few extra dollars.

In addition to providing creative and delicious meals to tempt people, Damian says he’ll be aiming to engage and entertain his guests; a point of difference compared to many other places. To illustrate, not many restaurants see their chef delivering food to tables and taking the time to chat with customers, but this is just what my friend and I saw Damian doing during our dinner, and it was really nice to see.

Sage is one of my favourite restaurants in Canberra, and with Damian at the helm, I can see it’s just going to get even better.

The author and her friend dined courtesy of Sage Dining Rooms.

The essentials
The place: Sage Dining Rooms and Mint Garden Bar
Where: Gorman House Arts Centre, Batman St, Braddon
When: Sage lunch Tues-Sat 12pm – 2pm, dinner Tues-Sat 5.30pm – 10pm. Mint lunch Wed-Fri 12-2.30pm, other times Tues–Fri 4pm-late; Saturday 12pm-late
Food: Modern Australian, with Asian and European influences
Drinks: Wine, cocktails, and non-alcoholic drinks (not your standard soft drinks!). Matching wines or non-alcoholic drinks also available for the chef’s pick menu.
Contact: Call 02 6249 6050 or visit Sage’s website or Facebook page or Mint’s Facebook page.

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