Island Creek. Barron Point. Fanny Bay.
The names sound like marine vistas framed by picture windows: cold, fresh waterscapes that have never seen an oil spill or a toxic dump. But they're real places — in Massachusetts, in Washington State, in British Columbia. And the oysters harvested there share their names.
A couple of weeks ago and thousands of miles from those distant bays, I was standing at the raw bar at Sage Bistro and Oyster Bar in Hollywood, contemplating those very oysters and quizzing the dreamy French dude manning the shellfish station about his preferences. Oyster aficionados, like wine snobs, make a big deal about the physical differences in various oysters and in the flavor imparted by their terroir — though maybe aquatique would be a better word. But truly, these oysters, prettily arranged on ice, are much alike, apart from vagaries of size and shape. They're not particularly beautiful: rough, knobbed, grainy shells the color of wet concrete; even pried open and exposing jiggling, gray flesh, they don't look too appetizing. Once you taste a perfect raw oyster, though, you're hooked. At least, I am. You keep trying to get back to that first delirious swallow, in the way of all addicts.
I've eaten 18 oysters from the raw bar at Sage now at a cost of $42 — or a whopping $2.50 each. And three of them were as good as any oyster I've ever tasted. Those were the Island Creeks, produced out of Duxberry, Massachusetts, by a collective of oyster farmers. The others I've sampled at Sage — the tiny, crusty Kumamotos, the refreshing Blue Points, the elongated, oval Fanny Bays — were cold, salty, and full of oyster liquor (basically, shellfish-flavored seawater), but they didn't give me the kick I was looking for. There's an interaction between sweetness and salinity, creaminess and weight, when they magically achieve balance that feels like an act of God. Eating oysters is an expensive, risky business, and there's no gaming the system.
If you want to play, though, Sage is an ideal environment, and since their oysters are flown in fresh daily, your odds are much improved. Opened late last year by Laurent Tasic, chef/owner of the popular Sage French-American Café in Fort Lauderdale, Sage Hollywood-style is a different kettle of fish. Where Sage north, going strong for 18 years, is all cozy French country and lace curtains, its southern sister is extreme chic — a gorgeous, oceanic Dale Chihuly chandelier in the foyer, an electric blue martini bar, a floor-to-ceiling glass wine cellar dividing informal high-top tables from the dining room. Not to mention a clientele of elegant fur-and-pearl-draped ladies with grey-haired, ponytailed escorts in tow. Some of these features, like the wine cellar and the theatrical open grill, are baubles left over from Michael's Kitchen. Michael Blum spent a fortune, and $150,000 of city money, equipping the restaurant he kept open for just two years. But some of the touches are Tasic's doing, like the Provençal flagstones on the walls, crisp white tablecloths, marine-blue water goblets. The space feels more intimate and more varied than its last incarnation, although I have yet to snag a table in the rear dining room. Sage doesn't take reservations, and the main room has been full on both of my visits. We took the last available table in the bar one Tuesday night at 8 and were glad to have it.
For all its glitz and glitter, Sage's prices (excepting the raw bar) must partially account for the consistently full house. Entrées carry recession-era tags: $10 for a crepe Christina, $22 for braised lamb shank. Classic cassoulet or a bowl of mussels go for $17; saumon royal (king salmon with artichoke hearts, spinach, and lemon tarragon sauce) is just $20. I drank a generously poured, beautiful Magellan gin gimlet for a piddling $8 the first night I visited, and I felt like I'd inadvertently hit the gin jackpot. They were out of Magellan by my second trip five nights later, so the same drink made with Bombay Sapphire was $10 — go figure.
But even with these small fluctuations, I really have to hand it to Tasic. He's juggling two completely different concepts here and nailing them both. He's got the high-end raw bar, with its $52 shellfish tower and a $28 "Trio" of three jumbo pink Gulf shrimp, three oysters, and three ounces of lump crabmeat. And he's also turning out gourmet French comfort food that's full of flair, little surprises, and big flavors — on a skimpy budget. For instance: The crepe du jour ($14) one Thursday was the lightest of pancakes wrapped around a body-warming concoction of sirloin tips, a great tangle of carmelized onions, and rich stewed mushrooms in a wine-dark sauce. It was like one of those terrific French winter hot pots with a built-in sponge to soak it all up, hearty and layered. A dish that sounded weird on the menu turned out to be a gem on the palate: steak Maurice ($22), a ten-ounce rib eye topped with asparagus, mushrooms, and a slice of slightly warm brie, surrounded by a little pool of rosy sauce made from fresh raspberries and served with chunky mashed potatoes.
Many of the dishes at the new Sage are shared with the old — the steak Maurice, the crepes, Tasic's justly famous roast duck with honey raspberry sauce, coq au vin, and cassoulet. Others are new: short ribs Parisienne with red peppers and onions, braised lamb shank, a thin breaded pork chop paillarde, tuna Provençale, tilapia crusted with pistachios, gratinée de la mer. Everything we ate was delicious in an elemental way. A gigantic sweet onion appetizer ($7) roasted and stuffed with ground veal and topped with melted provolone and set in a puddle of reduced veal sauce, was much tastier than it looked once we'd mashed it apart — real soul food. And the nightly special: Two snapper fillets drenched in butter and served over a wheel of red-pepper polenta, all of it topped with a little hat of snappy arugula salad, was beautiful to look at, and it tasted marvelous. Tasic takes a classic American dish and Frenches it up: Meatloaf ($17) is composed of ground veal and filet mignon and topped with a sauce of mushrooms, garlic, and merlot. It's deeply satisfying.
And before I run out of superlatives, a word about the wine list. Tasic has hired a young whippersnapper of a sommelier who has put together a fun, intelligent menu of wines at the most reasonable prices I've seen anywhere for a long, long time. The French list is particularly good, with 11 bottles of Bordeaux priced from $34 to $74, Burgundies and Beaujolais from $32, and bottles from the Rhone Valley and South of France from $22. Domestics and globals include a Beckstoffer Cabernet, Green Lion Merlot from Napa, a Spanish Calatayud, a Primitivo/Zin from Italy. He put his personal favorites in bold, to make it easy for us, and I can't wait to try some of his weirder, rarer recommendations.
Here's to delicious, affordable wines paired with delicious, affordable food. Oysters are ever dearer, ever more delectable, and it seems especially so when they're out of reach for most of us. But we can ply ourselves with crepes Angelique and chicken liver pâté till we're too stuffed to feel any pain — that's ample compensation in hard times.