Dinner at Sage on a Saturday is not a regular night out. It's degustation dining, small-plates dining, and tonight surprisingly interactive dining.
Usually, with a degustation menu you at least get a menu so you can contemplate what's to come, sometimes with choices . Not here. It's Kinder Surprise. It's a chef feed-me meal, for everyone.
And when we say everyone, the dining room is in peculiar lock-step. Because there are two sittings - essentially 6.15pm and 8.30pm (although you can come earlier or later, just not in between). At 8.15pm, the restaurant empties, we wait less patiently than is reasonable for the tables to be exactingly set again and we file in with our fellow 8.30ers. Each table gets the same introduction to the way things will pan out, and each begins with the same dishes in the same order until the five courses, plus amuse bouche, plus extra mini-dessert are done.
That's not to say there is nil flexibility. Our waiter asks us whether there is any ingredient or food group we don't eat, so clearly they will tailor things to suit. And we're not entirely in the dark. Because again, there is a real effort among wait staff to communicate. They explain what course you are up to and they all have the detail of what's in each dish. Which is just as well. Because, as I say, you don't get to see an actual menu of any description at all.
I realise later that degustation-only (at $99) is a Saturday night thing - and it looks like you can choose between options on the other nights - with three courses at $79.
Sage is sparkling, as always. Coloured banquettes, white-painted walls, good-looking glassware and pretty table settings. You enter through the fairy-light garden at Gorman House. It has a special occasion feel and full of couples. Most of whom seem pretty into the evening and quite happy to find a stamped scorecard on the paper that covers the table, with two pencils poised. This is where we are supposed to score each course and write comments - because it's a transition menu and the chef is trialling new dishes. Well and good, I guess. But we're not inclined to turn dinner into this oddly interactive experience. It's a bit like going to a performance in which you're invited to participate - I paid for you to do the performing, people, me audience, you actor, I watch, you perform! But that's probably just irritable me. As I say, most people seem quite happy to make this their focus tonight.
It gets off to a good start, with two amuse bouche offerings - a slice of kingfish with avocado and a crisp served on a stone, a bite with heat and freshness. Alongside is a bowl of potato cream with a herb oil and little crisp rounds on top; we like both.
A dish of smoked swordfish ash appears, the fluffy, black "ash" serving as a kind of fishy dip, with creme fraiche and avruga caviar, for a cool-looking salty crisp which I think they said was made of tapioca and squid ink. It's a good-looking, interesting dish, textually spot on - in various parts creamy, crispy and fluffy.
Now a little bowl of calamari, in a sea-urchin butter. The calamari is in slippery pasta-like strips, looking for all the world like fettuccine. The creamy urchin sauce is rich and salty. It's a small dish, very pretty with its purple flowers and roe on top, rich, stimulating, perhaps not so satisfying. But that's the meal we're in for tonight - lots of small-plate intensity and variety.
Wait staff are well versed in the ingredients - as they have to be when there is no other reference point about what we're eating. We try to keep their descriptions in memory as we eat, with no real sense of where we are going next.
The wine list is very good. It chooses some of the great local wines, and by the bottle and glass is en pointe and on trend. It's also rather expensive. By the glass, you're paying $15 to $18, which is really getting to the point of no return. We're happy with the result, if not the price, drinking Mount Majura sparkling, and Barringwood Schonburger, a new favourite, an exotic, aromatic, very likeable wine from Tasmania, made of a grape you might have heard of, but not me. Disappointingly, for a restaurant that aims at high-end service, the bottles are not brought to the table for pouring.
We're moving into more substantial courses - first a duck dish in two parts. Tiny duck tarts are served with fried parsley. We like these little bites. The duck breast is very pink, pretty dense as duck can be. It is served with a very sweet caramel sauce, which is sticky and caramelised to what feels like excess. There's also a smoked tahini sauce, which we find too dominant, and a likeable parsley emulsion, and pickled cucumber. This isn't our favourite.
A kangaroo dish arrives and the meat is lovely, beautifully cooked. I think they described it as cocoa-butter kangaroo, but we could well be wrong. There are only so many times you can ask someone to repeat the ingredients for each of a parade of dishes. And there is only so much a failing memory can rouse itself to store, even long enough to write it down. Which I am, assiduously, albeit not on their scorecard. The kangaroo is with housemade ketchup, a rich blob of tomato, and with sweet potato puree and a sweet potato crisp. This dish is largely very good. There is incredible richness and intensity in sauces, a good thing in the ketchup, but just too much sticky sweetness in the jus, both here and in the duck dish.
A pair of raspberry and white chocolate pops arrive, very pretty, with raspberry inside and a thin chocolate crust, and with good ingredients. There's a mini pina colada dessert, light and likeable. And a main dessert of chocolate mousse with vanilla "snow" and cherry sorbet. The sorbet is properly intense. The mousse is really good, sticky and dense. This is a good dessert.
In sum, Sage is accomplished, firmly high-end and a lovely setting. Your feelings about it will depend on whether this is your thing.
Address: Gorman House Arts Centre, Batman St, Braddon
Hours: Lunch, Tuesday to Saturday, noon-2pm; Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, 6-11pm.
Owners: Peter and Michael Harrington
Chef: Thomas Heinrich
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise: No problem