Matthew and Joan Lallo never intended to open a restaurant in Baltimore. But considering the interesting menu and top-notch service at their Mount Washington spot, the Blue Sage Cafe & Wine Bar, Baltimore is lucky that they did.
Blue Sage opened in June in the space formerly occupied by the short-lived restaurant, The Falls.
Matthew, a former freelance food critic for The Baltimore Sun, and his wife, Joan, were regular lunch customers at The Falls. They were such big fans of the restaurant — and its location — that after it closed in September 2011, Matt Lallo tracked down the building's landlord and signed a lease.
Before moving to Baltimore to be closer to their children and grandchildren, the Lallos owned and operated several restaurants in Philadelphia, including the Purple Sage. That experience shows; Blue Sage runs like a well-oiled machine.
When we arrived just before 7 on a recent Thursday night, the sun hadn't yet set. Thanks to enormous front windows, the space felt bright and open. But its dark walls, dressed with vibrant abstract paintings, will probably give the restaurant a moodier air in the winter.
With a long bar and a mix of tables, booths and sofas, Blue Sage is an easy place for a private dinner, but just as appropriate for a schmoozy evening.
Seated in a high-backed booth, we received immediate attention. Our waiter, smartly dressed in a shirt and tie, introduced the menu and specials so elegantly and succinctly we had to smile.
We started with cocktails. Our favorite: The Blue Sage ($9), which paired crisp Bluecoat Gin and lime juice with blueberry syrup and sage.
The drink's deep purple color caused a moment of concern; we worried it was a sugary fruit bomb. Fortunately, lime was the dominant flavor. Backed by blueberry, the drink was fruity but tart.
With drinks, we sampled the chevre tower ($8), a teetering stack of goat cheese, layered with pesto, olive spread and red peppers chopped into oblivion.
Spread on a toasted round of bread, the spread was tangy, salty and sweet. But fresh greens served on the side, lightly dressed in vinaigrette, added bitter and acidic elements that made the whole dish.
After appetizers, we scoped out Blue Sage's wine and beer lists, settling on a glass of the Dibon Cava ($6), a dry Spanish sparkling wine, and a pint of Philadelphia's Yards Brawler ($5).
The wine list was reasonable and diverse, as befits a wine bar, but the beer list was more impressive, showcasing a constantly rotating selection of drafts. As promised, the Brawler tasted of malt and caramel.
The eclectic menu features pastas, pizzas, sandwiches and entrees, but all those choices also made ordering difficult. Intimidated, we stuck with comfort food.
The chicken salad and fried oyster entree ($16) was a traditional take on the classic Eastern Shore combo. Fleshy oysters were coated in a batter that could have used a little heat but had great crunch.
With tender chicken and just enough mayonnaise, the chicken salad was moist and mild — a good match for the crusty oysters. Overall, a successful dish, but it came with a puzzler: "truffle fries" without truffle flavor.
As it turns out, the kitchen uses truffle salt to flavor the fries. We got the salt, but none of that heady truffle scent. We're not sure it was necessary, though — the fries were crunchy and good on their own.
Pasta with scallops ($19) raised a few questions, as well. Two large, nicely seared scallops topped rigatoni, tossed with an intensely savory pistachio pesto. The sweet flavor of the scallops was an inspired match for the earthy pesto; we enjoyed the dish, though we would have liked one more scallop.
But the dinner's placement on the menu confused us. It was listed under "Spicy Pastas" but was not spicy in the least. Like the truffle fries, we liked the pasta as it was. But it didn't arrive as advertised.
Desserts were traditional, but prepared with a twist. Served in a champagne glass with a dollop of cream and a ripe strawberry, chocolate mousse ($7) was rich and dark, with an unusually rough but appealing texture.
Deconstructed Key lime pie ($6), on the other hand, was creamier than the traditional version. Tart and tasty in a stemless wine glass, whole blueberries and crisp phyllo flakes studded the "pie."
Throughout dinner, our waiter kept up his end of the conversation. Happily, the rest of his skills — from timing to overall care — were as top-notch as his banter. The level of service elevated the whole meal.
There's more from that eclectic menu we'd like to try. Pizzas, burgers, banh mi — they all sound great. And with service like we had, even a plain burger might feel like a five-star meal.
Blue Sage Cafe & Wine Bar
Back story: The Blue Sage Cafe & Wine Bar opened in early June in the Mt. Washington space formerly occupied by The Falls.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The chevre tower — crumbly goat cheese layered with pesto, olive spread and finely diced red peppers and served with bread rounds and lightly dressed greens — is a good appetizer to share over drinks.
Where: 1604 Kelly Ave., Baltimore
Contact: 443-438-9417, blue-sage-cafe.com
Open: 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Credit Cards: All major credit cards
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