Brian McCracken and Dana Tough’s newest restaurant, The Old Sage, is barely out if its infancy, but already it’s taking care of a number of babies. The chef-owners of Spur, Tavern Law, and the Coterie Room opened the doors on the scotch-and-smoked-meats-themed restaurant nine months ago, at just about the same time as Tough’s son was born. A few months later, McCracken, too, had a child. But the two infants and a newborn bar are not the babies in need of care inside of The Old Sage.
Nothing at The Old Sage is as simple as it appears. The sourdough starter used in the puffed sour bread is a year-and-a-half old, and every day is tended to, cared for, and babied. Similarly, vegetables on their way to being nukazake pickles live in high-maintenance fermenting rice bran—which sounds way stranger than the Japanese pickles taste. A fire burns constantly, needing maintenance and flame control throughout service. Just another baby with an open mouth at The Old Sage.
An affinity for the neediness of children, whether literal or figurative, is in stark contrast to the heavy, dark, wizened feel of the bar. Walls are mostly black, save for the kitchen, with its flames, and the one behind the bar, covered in a plethora of unique scotches. “Smoked meats and malts,” states The Old Sage’s tag line. The applewood-smoked pig head appetizer has both.
It, too, is needy, though, requiring endless hours and methods of cooking. Tough and McCracken don’t shy away from complicated, multi-step dishes. The pig-head goes through a number of cooking processes (de-boning, curing, smoking, and sous-vide) to make it ready for slicing. Looking at the finished dish, a smoked meat served with malt (here, in the form of malted mustard), it would be hard to guess that the slices—looking like a cross between salami and mortadella—require so much work before they land next to the radishes.
Despite the caretaking, the chefs aren’t using kid gloves on their food. While the concept of a “salad of amaranths” is cute, the quinoa base with beets two ways and chard (all of which are from the amaranth family), is serious food, complete with urfa biber pepper dressing. The duck wings (another meat requiring multiple cooking techniques: in addition to the much-promoted smoking, these are roasted and crisped in a hearth oven) have a little bit more fun, ending up where you wish that high-end comfort food trend had gone, rather than putting lobster in your mac-and-cheese and bacon in your ice cream. Roquefort crème fraîche acts like the blue cheese at your local wing joint, with the crunch of the celery slaw in place of raw sticks. Where the Muscat grapes came from, who knows, but they work, bringing sweetness that lightens up the dish that would otherwise be as heavy as the dark lighting in the restaurant.
McCracken and Tough work hard taking care of all of the babies growing, fermenting, and burning in their bar, creating dishes that thrive on the smoke of the fire and the zing of pickles. Check out the gallery for a preview of their spring menu.