As of June 1, Blue Sage (1604 Kelly Ave.,  438-9417, blue-sage-cafe.com) has been open for a year. So, why is City Paper just now getting around to reviewing it?
For one reason, the large Mount Washington Village space the bar/restaurant occupies has been a bit cursed: Freda's and the Falls both tried and failed to make a go of things there over the past five years. And rumors started floating just a couple months after Blue Sage opened that it would soon close. Every time CP considered a review, the rumors seemed to circulate. Now approaching its one-year anniversary, Blue Sage deserves credit just for getting by in a difficult market (and space) for new restaurants.
And "getting by" is a good description for what Blue Sage is doing.
The passions of a food writer are easily fired up. When a place is great-and I mean great-it's like flying a broomstick at 3,749 miles an hour. It's a pleasure and a rush to tell people about a place they HAVE to go to. When a place is awful, the same thing happens, but the fire is fueled by outrage and righteous indignation. How dare someone serve food I wouldn't bury in unhallowed ground? When the food is uneven, however, is when work comes into the job of a food writer. When the high or low is not there and all that you're left with is "meh," it's a hard slog through the mundane details that feels like a blank placeholder until you can get to that next big fix.
Such was the case at Blue Sage. From the moment we stepped into the restaurant, we knew it would be that way. Six people (including us) sat in the blue-crab gray interior that spanned what looked like a small bistro circa 1992 on one side of the space and a glaucous ice cream parlor on the other.
Drinks were in order, and fortunately they made the scenery a little less drab. The Eiffel Tower ($9), a refreshing drink consisting of house-infused grapefruit vodka, elderflower liqueur, and orange bitters, was lifted by sparkling wine. The slight effervescence gave the drink a needed aromatic kick. The signature drink, Blue Sage ($9), was a potent and herbaceous mix of Bluecoat gin, blueberry syrup, lime, and muddled sage. The sage and piney gin gave the herb notes while the blueberry lent sweetness. The lime juice rounded the drink out and provided a much-needed acid spike to offset the sage. It was a good drink, but we preferred the Eiffel Tower.
Speaking of towers, the chevre tower ($8) was anything but. More of a turret, this diminutive layered appetizer was built of coin-sized slices of goat cheese separated by two types of tapenade (green and black) and diced roasted red pepper. The dish needed something acidic to make it a little less plain. It was fine as is, but fine doesn't make one a repeat customer. The portabella fries ($8), on the other hand, were salty and crisp, with a teriyaki mayo dipping sauce that played well with the earthiness of the mushrooms. We pulled them out of the cone they were served in to keep them from steaming themselves soft and that helped, although they didn't last long enough to get soggy.
We moved from apps to entrees with the Sicilian salmon cakes with salmoriglio sauce ($13). The cakes were comprised of mashed salmon meat, giving it an unpleasant texture, while the salmoriglio sauce, normally a thin and herby garlic-lemon dressing, was made up of lemon juice and half-cooked garlic. The garlic and lemon juice blew out the cakes and any other flavors that were hidden within. The sides of mashed potatoes and black beans were cold, but the side of sauteed vegetables (squash and zucchini with rosemary) was cooked perfectly.
The banh mi sandwich ($10) was the best dish we had at Blue Sage, though it is not what one would think of as a traditional banh mi. The standard Vietnamese sandwich usually features various cold cuts, pork parts, and pate with pickled veggies and chilies. This version had grilled chicken, Sriracha mayo, and pickled carrots, daikon, and cucumber on soft French bread. The whole thing was topped with cilantro and was moist and well-balanced due to the play between the pickles, the mayo, and the spicy Sriracha. It was a good sandwich, but it, like the chevre tower, left us longing for something more.
The pizzas at Blue Sage are cooked on barbary bread, a type of light and crisp flatbread perfect for pizzas if you lack a wood-fired oven. The pizza Portuguese ($15 whole, $8 half) was loaded with bacon, clam pieces, garlic, olive oil, and parsley. It was a bit dry, but the bacon overpowered everything so much so that it didn't matter. The pizza Carolina ($17 whole, $9 half) was a lip-burning mess that had pulled pork spiked with way too much chili flake, topped with chopped dill pickles. A base of caramelized onions and cheddar lent sweetness but it did little to quell the inferno from the chilies and the sourness from all of the pickle juice released by the dill-spear pieces. It was a waste of an interesting crust.
A flourless chocolate cake ($6) was rich and dense but not heavy. The slice of strawberry made us wish for a sauce or whole strawberries as an accompaniment. It would have made for a much better desert.
Blue Sage serves OK food, but that's not enough to draw a crowd in Mount Washington these days, amid the rebuilt Mt. Washington Tavern and solid standbys like Desert Café, Crepe Du Jour, and Ethel and Ramone's. "Meh" is never the reaction a restaurant wants to hear from a customer, but until the menu and cooking are refined, that's all Blue Sage is going to get.