Let me preface this review by admitting that I am not a vegan. I’m not even a vegetarian. What I am is a guilt-ridden, hypocritical, tried all the cures but can’t quit carnivore. Merely the aroma of charring beef sends me into anticipatory ecstasy. Butter is essential to my happiness and sampling cheeses at Whole Foods or Bristol Farms is a favorite pastime.
So preparing to write about Sage Plant Based Bistro & Brewery, which opened less than three months ago in the space formerly occupied by A/K/A and its short-lived successor Alma Rosa in Hugus Alley next to Il Fornaio, caused me some trepidation. But despite their website address: sageveganbistro.com, the title they prefer is “Sage Plant Based Bistro & Brewery” — far less intimidating to folks like me. After all, who doesn’t like plants? I always have fries with my burgers and adore side salads, as long as they’re topped with plenty of blue cheese dressing (oops!).
As many of you more dedicated to your body’s wellbeing than I am already know, Sage isn’t new. They’ve been operating in Echo Park and Culver City for several years. And they’re not even new to Pasadena. They ran a vegan café and small batch dairy-free KindKreme emporium on Arroyo Parkway for six years before moving, enlarging their menu and adding alcoholic beverages. Sage Bistro has 25 beers, including a couple they started brewing themselves last year at their Echo Park location, and a full bar.
About their new digs, not much has changed. The patio, one of A/K/A-Alma Rosa’s finest features, is pretty much the same. The umbrellas shading the tables have changed color from orange to chartreuse. And the interior, formerly cool and rather dark, has been lightened a bit by substituting lighter more informal, but less comfortable, chairs in assorted hues and decorating the rear wall with brightly colored pictures of plants.
I checked out the website’s info about “Chef Mollie” (no last name given) and oddly found absolutely nothing about her culinary background or passions. I did learn she went to CalArts to become a filmmaker but fell in love with the music industry and worked at Sony Music before founding Majestic Studios, “the recording home for many artists on the Epic and Elektra labels in addition to Virgin and many others.” I also was informed that Mollie became a successful spoken word artist with several albums, countrywide tours and appearances on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.
I Googled “Mollie Majestic Studios” and found her last name (Angelheart) and followed that to a YouTube 2012 video interview with Keval Bliss, another biggie in the vegan movement. Aha, finally some relevant info! She was raised on a farm by vegan parents. Her father, Matthew Engelhart, founded the multi-site Café Gratitude, also organic and vegan. She learned to cook watching her father, loves bees and uses honey in some of her KindKreme flavors.
The woman is fascinating, but realizing I could spend several more hours researching her, reluctantly put aside the pursuit and instead turned to describing our initial meal at Sage Bistro, a dineLA special two-course $20 lunch menu.
On the video, Mollie described her goal as the creation of vegan comfort food, somewhere between Big Macs and quinoa and kale. And from what we sampled, it’s obvious she’s been successful. Take our appetizer of pomegranate quinoa kale salad, a gorgeous multicolor plateful of tender emerald greens sprinkled with shining crimson pomegranate pearls, dried ruby cranberries, slender carrot strands, translucent slices of Persian cucumber, beige quinoa grains and a subtle pomegranate balsamic dressing. A masterpiece!
We felt almost as positive about the artichoke spinach dip pizza entrée. Free form, with a puffed and browned outer crust, it was spread with a creamy base of artichoke spinach dip and pesto, studded with deep-fried artichoke hearts and decorated with more swirls of dip. We loved the crust’s yeasty flavor and the piping hot artichoke, and the side of tangy marinara was excellent. We weren’t quite as smitten with the dip, perhaps a little too unctuous for our taste.
Our tacos “al pastor” were, again, absolutely lovely to behold. Two fat corn envelopes filled to the brim with slices of marinated grilled coconut meat “pork” topped with pineapple, jalapeños and grilled onion. They shared the plate with a hefty mound of black beans and brown rice, some lime slices and a cuplet of tomatillo salsa. Messy but fabulous, as long as you weren’t expecting the coconut to simulate the texture or flavor of pork! We weren’t.
Ditto for the cauliflower hot “wings” we ordered for an extra $7. The heap of deep-fried spicy florets were nothing like chicken wings, far neater to eat but just as satisfying. The buffalo sauce was plenty hot, the crust on the cauliflower had ample crunch, and the celery, carrots and vegan ranch dressing were fine as accompaniments.
Our only disappointment (a minor one) was with our other appetizer: quinoa, potato, corn cakes. Four golf ball-sized croquettes nestled in a bed of kale were hidden under a pretty array of avocado fans, pickled purple cabbage tendrils and drizzled habañero “cream cheese” dressing. We liked everything except for the texture of the cakes themselves, which underneath their crisp coat were mostly mashed potato with only a smattering of yellow kernels for color and little evidence of grain. And, unfortunately, the fritters had way too much salt.
Even though our lunch was a mere two courses, the portions were such that we took home enough for another meal. And we were so full we couldn’t even find room to try any desserts although the mini-brownie sundae ($6.50, $13 for a large one on the regular menu) with chocolate, strawberry and vanilla “icekreme,” almonds and raw chocolate syrup almost won us over.
We’ll be back. There’s plenty on the huge menu to appeal to even those leery of ingredients like tempeh, soy, hemp, kelp and the like. I actually wondered, after our eminently enjoyable lunch, whether I could commit to, if not veganism, perhaps vegetarianism, or pescatarianism, with dairy, eggs, and occasional seafood. But on my very next trip to Vons, a $10 hunk of cow called out and I succumbed. Maybe there’s a CA (carnivores anonymous) out there I can join. Meanwhile, an occasional visit to Sage Vegan will have to suffice.