Sunny, simple Café Sage (34 E. Lanvale St.,  727-7243) feels like an outpost. Just a block away from the bustling 1700 block of North Charles Street with all its theaters and restaurants and foot traffic, the café faces the lunar landscape of Penn Station's surface parking lots and the omnipresent queue of people awaiting the next BoltBus. The surrounding streets are otherwise mostly empty, and anyone wandering through this area looks to be passing through to someplace else.
Inside is an oasis of pristine white space, light, flourishing plants. A portable record player spins thrift-store vinyl whenever one of the staff has time to flip the LP. It's not all that easy to tell who constitutes Café Sage staff actually-almost everyone in the place seems well-acquainted and at ease. Eventually, however, someone will drift over from the improvised food-service area to one of the four small, unfinished wooden tables and ask if you'd like something. A blackboard explains the handful of offerings: coffee, tea, baked goods, and one or two heftier savory items, like a goat cheesecake or potato knishes. Open just over a month, Café Sage is currently focused on light fare for neighborhood denizens Monday through Friday, 8 A.M. until 6 P.M. ("or later, if we are still here hanging out," says Dane Nester, who emerges as one of the proprietors). Plans to expand the menu and open for dinner and on weekends are in the works.
For now, Café Sage's menu is small but laser-focused. Each item is wrought by hand: ginger tea ($3), for example. A knob of fresh gingerroot is grated right before your eyes, a precise amount of water put on to boil, and everything is then steeped in a glass beaker (fun and creative repurposing of items like chemistry labware for food service is part of the place's unconventional charm) and served with Oakhill honey-Oakhill being the name of an alley 10 blocks away, where Café Sage staff raise their own bees. Talk about farm-to-table.
Coffee is taken very seriously here. When you ask for a cup, there is solemn discussion of the blends available that day as well as how you'd like it brewed. I highly recommend splurging $3 for the AeroPress coffee of the day-it takes awhile to concoct, what with all the custom boiling of water and grinding and measuring and gentle coaxing of the elixir through the low-pressure microfilter press. But it's a stunning cup of coffee-the lower-temperature process and brief steep produce an extraordinarily full-bodied brew with very low acidity, which allows, say, promised flavors of cacao and raspberry preserve in a Counter Culture Peruvian roast to all but leap from the mug.
To speed the plow, Café Sage also has French-pressed coffee for $1.85 per cup, served from a vacuum thermos-unless that runs out unexpectedly, as happened when a gentleman, just arrived on the BoltBus, wandered into the café asking for a cup to go. Ten minutes later, he was still standing there, empty paper cup in hand, watching bewilderedly as the staff ambled about the kitchen area, collaborating on a new batch of brew.
The staff has been growing their own microgreens on the space's capacious, sunny windowsills and using them to concoct a new and interesting, savory main-dish offering many days during the week-sometimes sandwiches, sometimes salads, sometimes the aforementioned goat cheesecake. The day of my visit, the dish of the day turned out to be a well-executed, meal-sized salad ($4.50) of baby radish and basil leaves with bresaola (air-dried salted beef, sliced thin into translucent rounds-think prosciutto but from a cow) topped with pieces of homemade spelt cracker. The salad was not dressed, but I didn't miss it; the sharp, spicy greens restrained the rich saltiness of the meat, and the hearty-yet-flaky spelt cracker lent heft to the plate. A tiny plate of exquisite homemade pickles-cucumber, fennel, and turmeric-spiced daikon radish-came alongside. The sole other savory menu item was a knish ($3.95), dense but moist potato filling cradled within a flaky pastry shell and served with a dollop of coarse-grain mustard.
Menu items not handmade by the Café Sage crew are carefully curated from the best of the city's artisanal purveyors. Charcuterie, like the bresaola in that day's salad, comes from Clementine; the insanely tender biscuits ($3) from Blacksauce Kitchen; and decadent baked goods from Kinderhook Snacks. The Kinderhook cookies ($1 each) are reason enough to visit, along with a cup of that exquisite coffee-a seat in the sunny café window with a sampler plate of triple-ginger cardamom, salted chocolate chip, and chile-dark chocolate cookies is an extremely pleasant way to while away a blustery spring afternoon. There are also a few pastries handmade by "our friend Whitney" (like Cher or Sade, she appears to need no last name) for the café. The blood-orange tart ($3.95) was the only disappointing experience of my visit-the fluted pastry shell was leaden and overpowered the sprightly citrus custard glazed atop. Whitney's alfajores ($2), though, are worth crossing the city to obtain. These cosmopolitan sandwich cookies-rich, buttery rounds with a dulce de leche center, dusted with powdered sugar-are an astonishing exercise in simultaneous lightness and richness. Fantastic.
I am utterly charmed by Café Sage. Even now, in its earliest days, I sense exciting potential. Certainly, there's nothing else like it in Baltimore. It's food as haiku-brief offerings exquisitely rendered. Freedom found within a simple and severe framework. I'm very much looking forward to what this creative crew will do next.