Sage Inn and Lounge
Driving along the National Seashore I found myself grinning. We didn’t see it coming, and we were happily floored. Every eager chef has an agenda, and each has his or her culinary statement to make. We had been fed for two days by a chef whose raison d’être seemed to be messing with people’s heads. Someone who takes pride in blindfolding unsuspecting palates for a game of pin the tail on the secret ingredient. Fortunately, above his kitchen were 19 guest rooms. After one dinner we wanted more, so we stayed. But before diving fork first into one of the most surprising menus on Cape Cod, let’s go back to Valentine’s Day weekend, where it all started…
A Tale of Two Chocolates
We were racing yet another incoming blizzard on the way to Provincetown. Cooking began at eleven a.m., and the snow was to begin at noon. It was February 15th, and in honor of the Hallmark holiday, Chef Lucio Garnica was hosting another one of his cooking classes, this one entitled “The Tale of Two Chocolates.” This was our first class at the Sage Inn and Lounge, which is tucked away just off the most happening block of P-Town’s Commercial Street. Part one of the class was wrapped around a classic Mexican mole sauce, and the second was being taught by the Sage pastry chef—Lucio’s wife and Johnson & Wales alum Alana—on tempering chocolate for truffles.
Although the private room behind the Sage lounge can host 100 guests, the classes are kept intimate and are usually maxed out at ten students, giving attendees the freedom to move, join discussions and lean in for a closer look, smell or taste.
Chef Lucio opened the morning comparing mole to barbecue sauce—but only in the sense that there are countless variations, and everyone has his or her favorite. His favorite hails from his father. “I think you’ll love this mole. It looks like a lot of work, but it’s not. One thing I can promise you is that the flavors are gonna bounce all over your mouth,” Lucio informs the class with a shy smile.
The best-known mole is named after the Mexican city of Puebla, mole poblano. Not coincidentally, the chef’s father, Rigoberto, happens to be from that very city. “My father was a butcher, a baker…he loved to work with food and he still makes incredible Mexican dishes.” As a young man, Rigoberto moved to Arizona and worked as a stock boy for an Asian family who owned a local super market. “They were a hardworking family and all lived in the back of the store in a ten by ten room,” Lucio recalls. “They befriended my father and he became part of their extended family.
As their business grew my Dad worked through the ranks, learning about Asian cooking and international cuisine. He passed that on to me and my two sisters. As a kid he made us try everything.” Lucio’s grandmother was equally handy in the kitchen. “She had no electricity in the house, but my grandmother could make a sauce smoother than anything I could using an electric blender.” Lucio looked down at the floor thoughtfully, “I don’t know how she did it.”
Rigoberto later moved to Michigan where Lucio was born and raised. When the time came, Lucio, wanting to avoid heavy debt, made the decision to forgo the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales and instead attended Grand Rapids Community College, honing his skills in culinary classes while relying heavily on his family’s teachings. He eventually earned a sous chef position at the Sun River Resort at the base of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Having always wanted to live and work somewhere in New England, in 2010 Lucio found his way to Cape Cod. His then-friend from back home, Alana, had moved back to Peabody to be with family a couple of years earlier. Eventually the friendship and passion for cooking developed into a more bonding relationship, and Alana joined Lucio at Sage.
Our mole delivered more than promised, and wasn’t so much jumping as doing a Mexican Fandango on our taste buds, and, as a fellow classmate pointed out, kept changing flavors with every passing second.
“I can taste the orange…but now I’m getting chocolate.” Another added, “The poblano and jalapeño give just the right heat…but I don’t taste them as strongly as the cilantro.” I was catching tiny bursts of cinnamon while my partner Ali mentioned something about pine nuts. While we were all comparing different characteristics of the sauce, Lucio was searing duck breasts in preparation for our lunch—quietly smiling to himself as if to say, “They got it!”
Roll Up for the Culinary Mystery Tour
The dining room at Sage isn’t a dining room at all, hence the sign out front that states “Inn and Lounge”. The slick, sage-colored room sets the tone for a lively night. As I perused the menu, I wondered if there would be enough to write a story about. I was expecting a restaurant, not a lounge, and I was caught off guard. No apps, no entrées—but the change felt refreshing. My C’Love cocktail (dark rum, house-made agave and fresh lime) easily put my rhythm in line with the surroundings. It was time to chill out and let Sage do its thing. Ali settled in with her Masshattan, a healthy blend of bourbon, house-made cranberry bitters, sweet vermouth and candied local cranberries.
Pushing my note pad aside, we decided to go with the flow and ordered a little from the Nibbles column, some shared bites from Sea & Land, but ignored the Flatbreads section.
We ordered the grilled goat cheese (delicately flamed just long enough to get the moisture out), which was drizzled with a house-made blueberry-blackberry jam and finished with healthy drops of Lucio’s chive oil. Beautifully plated, the cheese offered a complex marriage of rich and creamy with sweet, nectarous notes and a faintly smokey finish.
With the noshing engine gaining steam, we continued our nibbling with an order of spicy pickles fried in a tempura batter. Inspired by his good friends at Mac’s Seafood (the best fried pickles he ever tasted, he told me), Lucio decided to go one further. The fact that he often makes his own pickles not withstanding, we instantly noticed the difference in Lucio’s tempura batter—the total lack of yeasty taste often associated with this kind of prep.
“You have to add club soda to get the batter to bloom,” he explained. “I just substitute a careful mixture of ginger ale and sprite, so instead of yeasty you get a bit of ginger and sweetness.” (As I wrote that, I instinctively added an exclamation point. Such a simple but well thought out attention to detail kicks my food-loving fervor into overdrive, but I digress.) Lucio doesn’t talk in exclamation points. He delivers his words like his food—outwardly understated, but with layers of fierce enthusiasm carefully tucked just under the surface.
The Sage house-made BBQ Chicken Wings were not on my ordering radar. Wings are awesome, but you pretty much know what’s coming, and they might not be considered great food writing fodder. Again, I was mistaken. Meaty drumsticks and wings were delivered from the kitchen steaming hot with their skin crisp and slathered with a rich, dark barbecue sauce. The sauce, thick with molasses, sharpened with Lucio’s own barbecue seasoning and syrupy sweet from Coca-Cola, brought the dish to a measure of divinely sinful. At the bottom of the bowl were carefully hidden triangles of fresh bread for ample knuckle dragging. Eventually, when the sauce stopped flying, we looked up with our sticky lips to find our truffle-making friend Alana standing before us with a bowl of thick, moist towels.
“Pace yourselves,” she warned. “You should try the chocolate crème brûlée!” It was at that very moment we decided to stay over night.
The rooms at Sage are reasonably priced. The owners, Diane DiCarlo and Jeanne Leszczynki, encourage business from participants of courses and programs created by P-Town’s creative arts and natural science organizations. “We aim to fill our inn with artist interns, students and scientists, and foster an off-season arts and education industry,” Diane told me.
We were well taken care of by another one of Sage’s secret weapons, General Manager Cathy Nagorski. Cathy is unobtrusive but always present, and quick to make sure guests are at the peak of relaxed comfort, recommending a quiet corner or a seat beside the lounge fireplace or at the bar. Cathy started her career at Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster, and her impressive resume is highlighted with the position as Director of Conference Planning at the world-renowned Wequassett Resort. Cathy’s front-of-the-house skills lift the ambiance throughout Sage to a lofty level, and it is she who gracefully piloted our getaway.
On night two we joined Corey Sievers at his bar, because if there’s one thing that compliments great food, it’s a knowledgeable bartender who can circumnavigate food, wine and cocktail menu. Corey was just what the doctor ordered. We talked about the cocktails and all the fresh fruits and herbs that are grown on the property to create them. “This summer we’re going to start growing some wild herbs,” Corey said. “I already have this cocktail in my head that needs fresh fennel—it’s my version of a Sazerac. And then I’m going to change it up and add fresh saffron to the fennel for a crazy Tom Collins. I also put my order in to the chef for chocolate mint leaves. I told everyone, ‘Get your tweezers out! I’m gonna be sending you aaaall out to the garden!’”
Sage’s vertical herb garden, fruit trees, multiple species of peppers (a passion of Lucio’s) and various vegetables are just part of the local sourcing Lucio does. His kitchen relies heavily on the year-round green house at Luscious Organics in Monument Beach. He’s also revving up for the 2014 season by reaching out to other local growers such as Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm and Cape Cod Organic Farm.
Like the chicken wings the night before, the New Orleans shrimp with house-made buttermilk biscuit did not pique my interest, but was recommended, so who am I to fight it? “Damon Jones was a chef I worked under in Sun River,” Chef Lucio explained, half in the kitchen, and half behind the bar, taking a moment to check on his diners. “He worked under Emeril LaGasse. This shrimp dish is a killer. Chef Jones always features it on all of his menus, and I stole it as well. No matter what’s on your menu, or what people love or don’t love, I know I have a home run with this one.”
He is right. The thinly sliced, yet dense and buttery corn muffin is the perfect sopper-upper for a sauce that boasts an intense sweetness more associated with oxtail. The cayenne kicks up the Creole. The Worcestershire sauce in the marinade—a predominant flavor I couldn’t put my finger on—kept me pleasurably puzzled, while flavors of lemon, garlic, white wine, thyme and oregano took their turn, not unlike that mole we had at our class. Babe Ruth? Nah, this is P-Town, and this carefully prepared dish delivers a righteous curve ball of kick, color and curiosity, deserving the high rank of the RuPaul of shrimp dishes!
With lots of vegetarian-friendly items throughout the menu we decided to try a Potato and Onion flatbread. The flatbreads, which are very popular at Sage, are prepared with fresh herbs and a thin, crispy, perfectly-charred oval. Ours included chunks of garlic, fresh tomatoes, bubbling mozzarella and ultra-sweet caramelized onions. We switched from white to red and continued to crunch away, chatting to other guests at the bar as our sliders were being prepared. The mouth-watering trio included a Colorado lamb slider with blueberry jam and a lobster knuckle and claw slider with roasted sweet corn—both impressive in presentation and flavors. But the night’s slider special—an all-natural grass-fed beef stuffed with minced bacon with Cobb’s Hill Tomme and peppercorn demi-glace—tasted as big, juicy and grand as any mini-burger could. Without wanting to sound too weird, it was a glorious moment.
Timing being everything, Alana asked if we’d like to hear about her creations du jour, when Ali interrupted, “Last night’s chocolate crème brûlée was the best I’ve ever had. Do you still have any?” Alana headed toward the kitchen to check, and I had to wonder if she had any idea what a huge compliment that was. With the last of the crispy, creamy offerings landing in front of us, I one-upped things with the Sundae Gone Rogue, a house-made potato chip-crusted vanilla bean ice cream with creamy chocolate ganache and a warm bacon crumble. Before you roll your eyes at the thought of potato chips, bacon and ice cream, break it down: creamy, salty, crunchy and sweet. That was Alana’s intention, and she pulled it off perfectly. As you read this, Alana is arm-wrestling her husband on whether this dessert should stay or go (we vote stay).
Lucio is always changing things up, adding and subtracting dishes, tweaking recipes with a dash of this here or omitting a pinch there, swapping accompaniments, always wanting to take things a different way to keep his diners in delicious bewilderment, while keeping himself on top of his game.
As we headed up to our room I thanked Lucio, commenting on my original feeling of uneasiness that a flat bread, or slider or a barbecued shrimp might not deliver enough of a “wow” factor, and how wrong about that I was. “You have more surprises up your sleeve than you have tattoos,” I told him. With his signature shy smile, Lucio held his finger over his lips as if to say “Shhhh…don’t give me away.”
Along his shushing finger was another tattoo…the word CHEF. OK, I get it, Lucio. Your secret is safe with me.
Tom Dott is co-owner of the Lamb and Lion Inn on Cape Cod. Previously Tom and his partner Ali Pitcher owned and operated a 4-diamond Relais and Chateaux property in New York’s Hudson Valley, which featured a menu dedicated to all things local. Tom is an Elvis impersonator, has received three national Eddy writing awards and is two-time runner up. As an Elvis impersonator he remains awardless. Tom’s articles can be read at ediblecommunties.com/capecod.