Daube de boeuf is a traditional, beloved dish of Southern France. It doesn't appear on many restaurant menus these days. Frou-frou it's not, just a profoundly comforting and convivial dish. It requires a little patience in the kitchen but -- apologies to Mrs. Ramsey -- actually would have held just fine if her guest had turned up late; it's delicious reheated.
We were glad to find Daube on the menu at Sage French Café on a recent chilly winter's night, along with several dozen Southern French country comfort foods: crepes and omelettes aux fines herbes, onion soup, roast chicken and coq au vin, cassoulet, duck breast with apples and apricot sauce. Sage has been around for more than a decade, but it acquired a new owner in 1998, Laurent Tasic. The globetrotting chef grew up in Italy and France, and he owned Studio One Cafe in Fort Lauderdale before buying Sage.
At Sage, Tasic has created a warm and charming space: two deftly lighted rooms where flickering candlelight plays over glossy wood floors, rustic brick walls, and a whitewashed ceiling. Servers in starched aprons greet you with bon soir and whip out big sheets of clean newsprint to cover the tables. A plump, white-haired pianist -- a dead ringer for your old piano teacher -- picks out familiar tunes on the baby grand. From the pristine black-and-white checked tile on the bathroom floors to the spotless lace curtains in the windows, there's visual pleasure everywhere. If there's another restaurant as inviting as this one in Lauderdale, I'd love to see it.
And people adore this café. It's always packed with jolly tables of gay men, birthday parties, elderly couples, tourists, dating singles. Apart from voluptuous coziness, Sage's popularity is due in part to an entertainment line-up that includes monthly follies shows (first Wednesday) and wine tastings (first Tuesday), a Sunday brunch, plus some very fair prices. There's a pleasant wine list of French and American labels and a good selection of table and dessert wines by the glass, including a "wine of the month" (Avery Lane, the nights we visited). Most entrées run $10 to $17, lots at the low end. Sad to say, though, at Sage these low prices may account for the unevenness of the vittles -- which ranged from really good to bafflingly bad -- and some dishes that combined elements of both.
Premier plat: We ordered paté de chef ($5.95) made of duck and black truffles; escargots en croute ($7.95); grilled artichoke with balsamic vinegar ($6.25); twice-baked goat cheese soufflé with balsamic reduction ($6.50). While we waited, we snacked on rounds of overtoasted bread with a black olive tapenade. The paté arrived -- enough to feed a table of six -- creamy, full bodied, dense, and earthy. We didn't expect true French truffles for $5.95, and we didn't get them: Black specks of something truffle-looking were dotted throughout, but they had zero flavor. As for the soufflé, it had no business parading around under that banner. A chef breathes soul into a cheese soufflé, which is literally full of hot air (food writer Mark Morton says the word has the same root in French as the word for flatulence). You might expect a twice-baked soufflé to be denser, but this one had the grainy consistency of Italian cheesecake. Nice flavor, though. My friend's grilled artichoke was boring; its drizzle of balsamic wasn't enough to save it, and the heart had been inexplicably removed. Her escargots, served with ubiquitous puff pastry, tasted old to me, but she didn't agree.
We settled our differences with this fun food fact: Snails may have been the first animal cultivated by humankind. This is the kind of trivia you find yourself blathering about when the fauna on your plate doesn't deserve your undivided attention.
We had better luck with our entrées. Cassoulet l'Armagnac ($13.50), a garlicky stew made with white beans, sausage, and roast duck leg, originates in Gascony (the Basque region of Southwest France), where they say that cassoulet isn't a recipe, it's a reason for people from different villages to argue. Traditionally, cassoulet combines the specialties of the region -- Armagnac brandy and preserved Muscovy duck, pork rind or sausage, goose, occasionally mutton -- to make a magical winter stew cooked with a breadcrumb crust. Sage's version is exact in the details and fair in the execution. The duck leg was flavorful and tender. The garlic sausage a bit strong, but passable. The beans had absorbed the pot's flavors like good little sponges. It was served with crunchy grilled vegetables: zucchini, green beans, carrots. But it was oversalted.
A plate of meatloaf ($13.50) wasn't worth bothering with; despite being made with filet mignon and veal, the dish was dreary and dry. The mashed potatoes and grilled veg served with it were just perfect, though.
Our daube de boeuf ($13.95) was rich, deep, dark, and winey with hints of fruity sweetness (the menu says orange zest) and great complexity of flavor -- it all pulled together beautifully around tender chunks of beef. Diving into this dish was like exploring your subconscious; it was a delicious process of discovery that kept turning up new experiences. The heartwarming stew came festooned with a puff pastry croute hat. This croute, which appears all over the menu -- with the escargots, the coquilles St. Jacques, with a brie appetizer, with the dessert profiteroles, was completely inexplicable. Depending upon the dish, it veered between flakey but flavorless to tough as jerky. It didn't add a thing to the daube; neither did the penne pasta it was served on. Buttery flat noodles, or, even better, a really good half-loaf of bread, would have been just the ticket. As for my friend's coquilles St. Jacques ($15.95), the scallops were plump, but soggy and flavorless. They were rescued by a puddle of fennel cream sauce that was so good we could have quaffed a bowl of it by itself. We thought we could taste brandy, certainly white wine, and it evinced that wonderful layered effect French sauces have, where you can tease out flavors just briefly before they lapse back into harmony.
En fin, the desserts were a disaster. To screw up a crepe au chocolat ($5.95) takes deliberation. Flour, butter, egg, milk, and a hot pan is all you need to make one. At Sage, here's how you botch it: First, freeze your crepe forever. Then thaw it out and let it sit around getting as stale as the soles of your chausseurs. Overfill it with whipped cream and raspberries; drizzle a bunch of Hershey's syrup all over it. Serve on a gigantic platter.
A French bakery we like in Lantana, Le Petit Pain, makes crepes daily. Two dollars buys you one rolled around raspberry or chocolate filling, and a single bite is enough to transport the most jaded gastronome. Spongy, light, and buttery, this crepe is a revelation. It takes some skill to make these, but chef Tasic, who according to Sage's website was once "honored by Paris Match as the best young chef of France" must know how to cook a pancake. What possible excuse could his kitchen have for serving these boggling imposters? Some notion that Americans have no palate and require desserts the size of their own heads? Possibly true, but still no excuse!
It's easier to make a wildly unsuccessful profiterole with ice cream. A profiterole is basically a delicate pastry built around empty space -- very Being and Nothingness. Sage's version ($7.95, the chef's special) was a puff pastry so unpuffed you could use it as shirt backing. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: There was too much there there.
I hope Tasic makes one New Year's resolution for 2005: May he strive to perfect all the elements at Sage to meet the standards of its gorgeous setting and the chef's own fine reputation. Like Woolf's famous daube de boeuf, let him bring exquisite order to our chaotic lives. Things are damned difficult and humbling enough without our having to lose the battle to puff pastry.