A Corporate Do-Gooder

Sage Hen Cafe & Coffeehouse
5001 Excelsior Blvd., St Louis Park;
(952) 848-1881

Hours: 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

In the cars that I travel in, St. Louis Park's Miracle Mile has been productive of nearly endless joy and levity, following hard on the heels of merciless mocking: And the Lord looked before him on the Earth that he had made, and he saw that in one region his faithful were receiving unto them not only ample parking but also fair pricing on remaindered books and unpainted furniture; and he saw that his faithful herewith received the loaves of man's sustenance and the fishes of the bounteous ocean, rendered as quick-serve meals at Schlotzsky's Deli, Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, and, he happeneth to noticeth, also at a Baja Tortilla Grill; and he saw also the convenience to major freeways; the lights that say stoppeth and the lights that say goeth; and he saw that it was good; and so it was that he decreed, hallelujah, this mile, it shall henceforth be called a Miracle Mile!

Michael Dvorak

And, uh, stuff like that.

I'm telling you, I crack myself up.

So it was that every time I walked into the Sage Hen Cafe, I had a big smile on my face. What's remarkable is that that is also how I left the cheerful little breakfast joint, each and every time. And this even taking into account that I am predisposed to violent reactions when placed in environments where wallpaper borders of gaily patterned roosters lead the eye to knick-knack shelves heaped with winsome crockery. But Sage Hen won me over with plate after plate of charming goodies, with cup after cup of flawless beverages, with such attentive service that I feel warm and tender toward all statues of farm animals in aprons everywhere.

Where to begin? I'll start with the concept, which was initially hard for me to grasp, because we don't generally get new restaurants like this. Sage Hen is basically an upscale Perkins--a comparison I was reluctant to make initially, fearing it would make these chipotle-mayonnaise folks cringe, but now I've learned that the Sage Hen is owned by Don Smith, who owns the non-franchised Perkins restaurants. This is the first Sage Hen; a new one is about to open in Deerfield, Illinois, and if my hunch is good, there will be one every two blocks or so by the year 2009.

So, I betcha you didn't think you wanted an upscale Perkins. I didn't know I did either. But just add it to the list of modern miracles like green ketchup, Post-it notes, and self-repairing biomorphic pets. The Sage Hen has got all the good corporate family-restaurant stuff that I didn't recall missing: It's very kid-friendly, even though there's no kids' menu proper; it's exceedingly senior-coddling (I heard one table instruct their ever-smiling server in such detail on dietary restrictions that it sounded like a comedy skit); it's the most wheelchair-accessible restaurant I can think of; food arrives lickety-split (for $4 to $8 an entrée!); and it's got a staff you can't make stop smiling. And it does all of this with unheard-of exotica like freshly torn leaf lettuce, fresh berries, house-baked bread, half-caf skim lattes, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, available in sizes from half pint ($1.45) to quart ($5.25). And chipotle mayonnaise! How's that for fancy?

That chipotle mayonnaise graces my absolute favorite Sage Hen offering, the "untamed turkey melt" ($6.45). What they do for this thing is take an inch-thick stack of shaved turkey, top it with good bacon, slices of tomatoes and pepper-jack cheese, add some of that got-your-attention mayo, put sourdough bread around it, and somehow cover the bread with a spicy Parmesan coating that leaves the griddle potato-chip crisp. The whole thing is just spicy, meaty, cheesy, and crisp, crisp, crisp. Does that sound good to you? It sounds good to me. Throw in a stack of waffle-cut fries, a carafe of lemon water, and an endlessly refilled iced tea ($1.50), and I can't see a thing wrong with it.

Ditto for the French toast ($4.50 plain, $5.95 with eggs, meat, and skillet potatoes), a tender, eggy, fluffy rendition that I'd expect to come from a fancy hotel kitchen at twice the price. Pancakes (from $3.25) were commendable. But the breakfast meats are what really sets the place apart as an egg house: The ham steak is tender and sweet, seared crisp, and good--not just salty and filled with injected water like the low-budget ham steaks you usually see at this price. Get it with potatoes and eggs for $6.45!

The house salad (from $3.65) also seemed like it was made by real people and not poured out of a bag: fresh-torn lettuce, wedges of tomato, slices of red onions, and absolutely addictive spicy, buttery, house-made croutons. Will the corporate restaurants of the future really make their own yummy, yummy croutons? The future's so bright I gotta wear shades.

Well, I guess I'm getting beside myself. I did have things that weren't good. The caesar salad (available, puzzlingly, only with chicken breast, for $6.95, or well-done salmon, $7.95) was just so-so. A cheeseburger ($6.95) was the most Perkins-y thing, tasting just like corporate tasteless beef, and the skillet potatoes could use reengineering; they're decent, but could be so much better. I say let the crouton maker at them.

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