Restaurant Review: At Great Sage, an appeal to all tastes

There are vegans, and there are vegetarians. And then there are those of us who dine out with vegetarian and vegan friends, who have been entertained by inspired vegetarian chefs (and lousy ones, too), and who are generally open to the idea of an occasional meatless or dairy-less meal. We might even have briefly considered the a vegetarian lifestyle. Great Sage, the all-vegan restaurant in Clarksville, keeps us all in their thoughts.

Holly and Jeff Kaufman opened Great Sage as a vegetarian restaurant back in 2004. Earlier this year, they and their chef, Russell K. Svoboda, took things a step further, converting Great Sage into an all-vegan environment. Fundamentally, though, Great Sage remains a choice option for a thoughtfully prepared and served meal. Dinner here still feels like a night out, complete with a good glass of wine or even a good, stiff cocktail.

A companion, who had been to far more vegan restaurants than I, picked up right away on the Great Sage philosophy. Typically, he told me, a vegan restaurant follows one of two paths — one that tries to approximate the flavors and textures of meat ("you won't believe it's not!") and one that eschews it as a matter of principle. My friend found Great Sage's demilitarized approach a refreshing alternative.

In a brief conversation, Svoboda confirmed this observation — he explained that as much as he and the Kaufmans are inclined toward a "purist" approach, he recognizes that many diners at Great Sage will be looking for approachable, crossover fare.

So Svoboda places on his menu an item like a Vietnamese spring roll, filled with raw carrot, cabbage, cilantro and protein-bearing cashews alongside a crossover dish like a Thai "chicken" salad or a black bean and roasted quesadilla with melted cheddar "cheese," and he handles both with conviction and elan.

The spring roll works as a refreshing and crunchy palate-lifter. Filled with black beans, green chiles, roasted poblano and scallions, and melted cheddar, the freshly grilled tortilla was a table favorite. Of course, it wasn't real cheddar in there, but Great Sage uses Daiya, a vegan product with good meltability.

Entrees, likewise, include purist dishes like a saffron masoor dal and entry-level options like chili with brown rice and the option of "blackened chicken." Some dishes, like the Thai green curry noodle dish we all loved so much, smartly straddle the border. I'd order it again and again from my neighborhood Thai joint if it were offered there. Our favorite entree was a zucchini Alfredo, linguine-length strips of zucchini tossed in a cashew "Parmesan" sauce with marinated mushroom and fennel. We loved the play of sweet and salty in this satisfying, attractively presented dish.

Careful pan-roasting kept a sesame-crusted tofu steak, that vegan restaurant standard, from sinking to the mushy depths that some versions fall into, my vegan friend acknowledged. Served over black rice with a sesame seaweed salad, it's another handsome bistro dish, but all us wanted more marinated flavor in the tofu itself, instead of relying on the accompanying miso-ginger sauce. A seitan Wellington crisp, a phyllo shell filled with a marinated seitan and finely chopped truffled mushrooms, similarly showed Svoboda's creativity and flair to full advantage. The seitan here, though, seemed relegated to a filler, or extender role, rather than an essential ingredient of its own.

If there's a rocky patch at Great Sage for friends of vegans, it comes at dessert. In practice, the changeover here from vegetarian to vegan has been more subtle than seismic — the main subtraction being dairy. You might not miss the Point Reyes cheese that Great Sage used to put on its salads, but if you're like me, you'll miss butter and eggs at dessert time.

The carrot cake here is very popular, and for good reason — it's delicious, and its vegan frosting is sweet and creamlike. But a chocolate mousse, made with raw cacao and sweetened with agave nectar, would take years of getting used to. A sodden and synthetic-tasting raw Key lime tart with was the only thing all evening we actively disliked — a chilling reminder of what can happen when vegan cooking, or baking, goes wrong.

Well lit, enthusiastically decorated, and saturated with deep crimsons and eggplants, Great Sage remains one of the area's prettier suburban restaurants. The servers supply knowledge without proselytizing — a big change from the grouchy vegetarian restaurants I grew up with. We dined here on a Thursday, when Great Sage hosts live music shows. Groups of friends had arrived for dinner before the music started; others gathered at the bar. Good vegan time.


Great Sage

Where: 5809 Clarksville Square Drive, Clarksville

Contact: 443-535-9400

Hours: Open for lunch/brunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers: $4.50-$12, Entrees: $11-$15

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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