Sage Cafe Makes a Meathead Believe

The walk was kind of like willfully closing in on disaster, of knowing, deep down in the black and fatty cockles of my heart, that no good could come from where I was headed. Convicts headed to the cell, reluctant grooms on their way down the aisle, cheating husbands returning to a home all lit up at 2 a.m., and children realizing they've been tricked into going to the dentist--these were my kin as I made the turn onto 15th Avenue and headed toward Sage Cafe for a meal of . . . twigs, berries, and lumps of tofu quivering like unset cheese on gluten-free bread as thick and heavy as a brick.Every step was a cruelty, a denial of my most base and starveling urges. I passed Palermo Pizza, where crowds sat in the windows eating hot slices dotted with pepperoni and sausage; past the Bagel Deli, which had a nice lox special.I was doing this because I had to. Because a couple weeks back, in a Comment of the Day post entitled "Vegan Barbecue, and a Challenge to the Fans," I'd asked Voracious readers to name a vegan restaurant that could satisfy some weird and half-joking demands I'd made for a suitable vegan alternative to proper summer barbecue. There were rules: It had to be prepared at least vaguely like real barbecue, and had to taste at least as good as the worst full-cruelty, pig-based 'cue I'd ever had in my years of full-blown BBQ addiction. And Sage kept coming up, a place many people swore by—their go-to joint for cruelty-free cuisine and a menu completely devoid of anything with a face.Everything was fine and fun while we were all arguing on the blog about the limits of vegetarian cuisine and calling each other names, but at a certain point it had become clear that I was going to have to check out Sage for myself, to see if the claims of those who loved it were true: that it was not just tolerable, but good, occasionally great—the kind of food that people craved.Standing out front of neighboring Smith, I was drooling. Flatiron steaks. Fat, bloody-rare burgers. Plates of lamb sausage with medjool dates and rabbit salads. I wanted to lick the glass of the big front windows. This was what I was passing by in order to voluntarily eat vegetables, soy, sprouts, and tofu.My major issue with vegans, vegetarians, pescetarians, those who reject gluten or red meat, ovo-lacto hairsplitters, and all their ilk, is not one of morality or health, but a simple one of choice. I never try to argue food chains or cholesterol or protein loads or anything like that. That's a sucker's game. I ask only this: Don't you feel like you're missing something? Why, given a choice, would you willfully lock yourself into a cuisine which, rather than being about the best possible expression of the best possible ingredients, is solely about denial—about thou shalt not rather than thou motherfucking shall, and have seconds, too?Sage Cafe used to be Hillside Quickie's Cafe, which closed last year for "renovations" and reopened as Sage in December. Sage is related to Hillside Quickie's Vegan Sandwich Shop in the U District and to Quickie Too on MLK Way in Tacoma—the original iteration of this mini-empire.All of them are linked to Capitol Hill's Plum Bistro, and the central figure here is Makini Howell—born and raised in Tacoma and a lifelong vegan who's made a point of flying the tofu banner proudly for years. She owns and operates all the locations, which share menus, names, and, more important, an unwillingness to compromise on flavor simply for a lack of animal products.Stepping one foot inside Sage is to see all there is to see: three or four tables, a bakery case and counter, a few baked goods, and a kitchen in the back from which pumps whatever music the cook has a yen for at the moment. The decor is minimal (artful photos of flowers and salads) and the service simple: Step up, order what you like, and wait—sometimes for a long time. Because of the size of the place, 10 customers can feel like a king-hell rush, and three orders coming in at once can jam the kitchen for a half-hour, easy.But none of this matters. The style of cooking is what's important here, a form and a mindset. There's something different about Sage, something that sets it apart from most other vegan operations from the minute you step through the door and into the swing of lunch business on the Hill.It's the smell. Sage smells good, like caramelizing onions and hot oil in the pan, like roasting mushrooms and smoke from the grill, the tart spike of citrus and the deep, earthy sweetness of sugars meeting heat. Too many vegetarian restaurants stink like flowers, patchouli, wet dogs and the hippies keeping them, of the dim and verdant vegetable murk of slowly dying greenery, like the death scream of broccoli being terribly abused.Sage, on the other hand, smells like a restaurant. Like cooks working hard and making the most of every little thing at hand. So when I found myself at the counter, waiting my turn, the smell was enough to make me forget briefly about pepperoni pizza and lox and lamb sausage. For a moment, there was a sense of possibility, not regret. In any restaurant, this is the rare, magic instant. In a vegan restaurant, for a guy like me, it's just one step shy of miraculous.On my first day at Sage, I ate macaroni made without egg and cheese made without cheese—a marvel of transubstantiation bordering on what that long-haired guy supposedly did with the loaves and the fishes. The "Mac and Yease" has just about the stupidest name in the entire vegan canon (no small feat, up against winners like "tofurkey" and "not-dogs"), but the kitchen at Sage had done something very smart: In addition to preparing its mac and yease in a serviceable way, serving it hot and in reasonable proportion (all the basic duties of a cook), they'd jacked it up several notches by calling it Cajun and hitting it with a huge dose of crushed red pepper, black pepper, salt, turmeric, and cayenne. The heat of it was fully engaging—a straight-arm punch in the mouth—and its strength so surprising that, for the first few bites, I completely forgot that what I was eating had about as much in common with actual mac-and-cheese as a scallop does with a marshmallow. Oddly, the yeasty base (which makes up the bulk of vegan yease) added a not wholly unattractive savory note to the slightly grainy sauce (for lack of an apter term), and served to balance the high notes of spice. Add to this a side of chunky baked seitan with the consistency of off-the-stick kefta, and perfect, creamy white grits topped with a pepper-spiked Louisiana-style cream gravy whose heritage and basic construction I refuse to speculate on because I liked it so much that I don't want to know it was made of soy curd or nut milk or whatever, and I was surprisingly pleased.Since it was brunch time, and one of the improvements of the new Sage was the addition of a brunch menu that includes rice-flour crepes made without milk, egg, yolk, or butter, I watched for a good 20 minutes as the woman manning the flat grill spread the batter, cooked the batter, attempted the flip and failed, then started all over again. Crepes made the classical way are tricky to cook. Done with whatever bizarre replacement ingredients vegans must use, they're even harder to get right. But the cook was a perfectionist and eventually did. The result was a slightly thicker-than-normal crepe, sweet and with a caramel aftertaste, folded once around a filling of wild mushrooms, sliced seitan (which came through as texture only, with no flavor at all), and a thick sauce that tasted similar to the stuff used on my not-quite-macaroni. I had a few bites, but, with a strange sourness and too much fight between the savory and the sweet, the novelty quickly wore thin.But that mac and yease, grits and seitan? It might not have been one of the greatest plates in my life, but I ate every bite, swear to God—and I liked it enough that I knew I'd have to come back for more.My next time in the neighborhood, I didn't even look in the windows at Smith. I ordered a vegan BBQ burger (with an extra mac and yease) and took it to go, eating most of it before I'd even gotten back to my car. It was nothing more than two big slabs of tofu between bread, yeast paste for cheese, sweet onions, and barbecue sauce. And yet the tofu had been house-smoked like a rack of baby-backs and held the flavor of the smoke like a sponge—which was more or less the tofu's texture, because the burger was handed across the counter cold and prewrapped.Still, I ate and rather enjoyed it—the sweet onion and barbecue sauce carrying the weight of the flavor, but ably supported by the smokiness of the tofu. At home I warmed up what was left, but it wasn't nearly as good. Vegan burgers apparently taste better cold, and when I later asked about it, one of the women behind the counter at Sage told me that while the kitchen would warm a burger (or any other prewrapped sandwich) on request, most people eat them just as I did—taking them on the run and eating them walking.Sage does barbecue wraps for vegans with smoked tofu and seitan. It does a Philly steak sandwich (of sorts) that is more or less inedible if you've ever had the real thing or even anything close to the real thing. It's the kind of sandwich you eat only when you have no other options. Lucky for me, I do.Pancakes and French toast are on the brunch menu, all made without animal products and all made better than I expected, with ingredients as fresh as can be. The biscuits are tiny and crumbly. The rest of the lunch menu leans heavily toward sandwiches, most of them premade, and items (like the BBQ wrap) from the grill. It's a small and simple board, but in nearly every dish is something that the kitchen does with care, creativity, and passion for ingredients too often dismissed by those who can't even conceive of a dinner that doesn't involve meat employed in three or four different ways.While the defining characteristic of vegan and vegetarian cooking may be a lack—the missing animal protein which forms the base and center of so many culinary traditions—the removal of meat and animal products still leaves a cook, a chef, a dedicated restaurateur and her crew with an awful lot to work with: herbs and spices, chiles and starches, vegetables and beans, strong flavors and powerful ingredients which, handled with care and a little forethought, can all be incredibly satisfying.What makes the difference is how one approaches those ingredients. I may not have loved everything at Sage, but I was still surprised by how much I truly liked—not as the end product of any -ism, but simply as food. And the reason I did is the same as it would be in any restaurant, regardless of cuisine: cooks approaching their canon looking for possibility and reaching for excellence, which, sadly, many vegan restaurants do not.And in this way, Sage becomes the answer to my original question to vegetarians about what they might miss by their deliberate turning-away from so much that I consider delicious. Are they missing something? Yes. But so are you if you dismiss out-of-hand the possibilities of vegan cooking. The style at play in Sage's kitchen is the glorification of the available, not a yearning for what's not. And that, in its own way, is something that should never be missed.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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