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!

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.

But--but what's that noise? Oh no, it's dead copy editors spinning in their graves over the Sage Hen's utterly distracting menu, the one thing at this brightly lit charmer that truly needs to be redone, top to bottom. Where even to begin? Simply determining what is on the menu made me want to bust out green eyeshade and thesaurus, and by the time my third visit rolled around I was offering my guests cash prizes if they could find the lunch chimichangas in under three minutes. (They couldn't; they're hidden under the heading "Fajita Chimi's." The breakfast chimichangas are merely a red herring. Go figure.) Burgers are sequestered where you'd instinctually turn to look for dessert and--ugh--under the heading "bun appetite." No one knows the restaurant serves a not-bad assortment of homemade desserts except for me--really! I'm the only one who knows that if you ask about cakes and such you'll find homemade flan-berry-tart, chocolate layer cake--oh, all sorts of things.

And hey, need a laugh? Direct your eyes to the category descriptions like this, for "Fire Baked Skillets": "Skillet potatoes laden with a symphony of ingredients finished with a crescendo of fire baked cheese and two basted eggs. A serving of the Sage Hen's daily bread selections complete your feast. The forest and wilderness is indeed a symphony and mankind must live in harmony with Nature." Yup. All of it. Really.

I'm telling you, the Miracle Mile: She giveth forth nigh endless mirth in a mirthless world, for truly, she is a Miraculous Mile.

TABLEHOPPING:

AN ENVELOPE OF CASH?! I always hoped I'd get a wad of greenbacks in the mail; I just never figured it would come from a church. You know, a church. With the pews and the clergy and the morality and all. But lo and behold, there it was, in a package of promotional material for St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church's upcoming festival; a fat plain No. 10 envelope just stuffed full of cash. That sure got my attention.

Well, it got my attention long enough to see that it wasn't cash at all, but promo dollars redeemable for pastitsio and such at the church's upcoming "Taste of Greece." Now, St. Mary's is the pretty domed church on the hill that overlooks the east shore of Lake Calhoun. You know the one: Walk twice around Lake Calhoun and you're sure to see it gleaming up on that hill in the sunshine. But odds are that unless you're one of St Mary's 1,400 parishioners you've never gotten to see the inside of it. And even the parishioners probably haven't seen it with a belly full of beer and honey pastries, all of which is possible this weekend when the church throws its annual fundraiser. There will be an outdoor beer tent, a moonwalk for kids, live music, church tours, and lots and lots of food.

So, what does Greece taste like? Like lamb and honey, mostly. "The big attraction is our delicious Greek food," says Nick Grammas, the festival's chairman, noting that local Greek restaurateurs from Rudolph's Bar-B-Que, Santorini, It's Greek to Me, and Gardens of Salonica are all donating food, including moussaka, roast leg of lamb, gyros, and souvlaki. Sample dishes à la carte from about $4, or for $12 you can dine from a vast buffet heaped with all sorts of treats, including homemade pastries provided by Philoptochos, St. Mary's women's philanthropic organization. "These are pastries the women have learned to make from their mothers and their families, so they're the real deal," says Grammas.

Of especial interest to me are the loukoumades, deep-fried dough balls about the size of egg yolks, served coated with honey. Loukoumades are a traditional Greek festival food that I've never seen in Minnesota before, but that figured prominently in my childhood. In grade school in New York all my best friends were Greek, and I grew up in the shadow of a Greek Orthodox basilica, and so seem to have spent a significant amount of time tearing around festivals while the moms set up, and I remember loukoumades occupying a major place in the system of rewards and punishment that make up the life of six-year-olds: If you don't quit it, you won't get any loukoumades. If you effectively tape streamers to that wall, youwill get loukoumades. If you stand innocently by the loukoumades table pretending to play with dolls, you can sneak plates of them. When the moms want to know why your good party dress is covered with honey, feign complete bafflement.

Are loukoumades really all that? I for one am going to find out, and now I'm going to even have to pay for the things with my own money, for now that I've reached the bottom of this item I see that I've really painted myself into a corner, having publicly admitted receiving envelopes of currency and then writing about the event the cash was meant to promote. Rats! Credibility bought and sold again. So please know I'd never use my fat wad of under-the-table church cash, though I am having my attorneys look into whether I can use the stuff to buy off a couple dozen venial sins....St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church: www.stmarysgoc.org; 3450 Irving Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 825-9595; Greek Festival 2001 Friday, September 14, 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.; Saturday, September 15, 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Sunday noon-6:00 p.m.

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