The Old Sage serves a roll that costs nine dollars. On the menu, it's called "Butter Flake Bread," and it is, in fact, buttery without being at all greasy, and it is full of light, flaky layers. It comes with a pat of particularly delicious cultured butter with tiny bits of chive and sea salt on top, and one side of the Butter Flake Bread, where the butter congregates, is extra crisped and extra tasty. The Butter Flake Bread appears to have miniscule flecks of herbs in it. Still, it is a roll—a single roll, made of bread—and it costs $9.
"It's pretty good, for a roll," the person I shared the roll with said. It's a little weird to share a roll, but if you don't, you're out 20 bucks on bread alone.
The Old Sage (1410 12th Ave, 557-7430) is the new Capitol Hill restaurant and bar from Brian McCracken and Dana Tough—they also run Tavern Law on the same block, and Spur in Belltown. The food at Spur has attracted praise from Food & Wine, and their Coterie Room, before it recently became an events-only space, got very positive reviews from me and others; it made the Seattle Times' "10 Fab Restaurants" list in 2011.
There's reason to expect very good things from Old Sage's menu of "non-traditional" smoked meats and seafood, but what I had there one night last week didn't quite rise to its price point, including the $9 roll. The mesquite-smoked beef short rib ($19) had the expected falling-apart tenderness, and the sweet potato puree underneath created the flavor contrast you'd expect. But it was topped with carrot greens, which were bitter and tough: the opposite of a revelation about how people really should eat carrot tops.
Seaweed-smoked arctic char ($19) carried a faint scent of nori on its soft, pink-orange flesh, but the dish lacked coherence: Pieces of vinegary celery, dollops of mild pureed celery root, and the umami of a black sesame sauce were all over the place in taste, plus difficult to corral in one forkful. A small bowlful of sprouted malted emmer ($12), served warm, had a pungent smoked-pork smell, a tangle of miniature ribbons of apple, and sweating cheese on top (the well-meaning server did not know what kind; she checked, then said it was Comté, "like a cross between Swiss and Gruyère," which is kind of correct, in spirit). A bite of the grain alone was almost eye-wateringly salty; the combination of all three elements was just okay.
The Old Sage has a smoke-and-malt theme, and there's lots of Scotch, a wide-ranging selection of beer (including "Cheap Beer [whatever we're feeling]," for $3), and cocktails that favor the brown liquors. The Savory Smoke ($12), with mezcal, Drambuie, Madeira, and celery, is one improbable combination that tastes great. The place has a postindustrial men's club look, dark and cavelike but with clean lines and some overly self-conscious old-timey flair, like murals of a locomotive and Arthur Denny rendered in an airbrushed style. There's also a slim gas-powered stove to sit by (would a potbellied one make the place look fat?), a representative piece of polished wood burl, and a pelt on a table, which our server obviously wished wasn't there (she didn't know what animal it came from, and she didn't want to know, but she gamely found out anyway: raccoon). Wu-Tang played. The party crowd is already coming to the Old Sage on weekend nights, and it feels more like a party bar, albeit a dark-'n'-manly one, than a place for high-concept food.
A couple blocks south on 12th Avenue, Jamie Boudreau's Canon (928 12th Ave, 552-9755) is also manly and loves its liquor. Now in its third year, the place is full of booze to the literal rafters, its glowing shelves seven high. High rollers note: Either here or at the Old Sage, you can spend nearly an unlimited amount on one drink, though Canon wins that war in print with a $1,100 brandy crusta on its cocktail menu. Despite this outrageousness, Canon feels warm and genuine, more like a place to just get a really good drink than the bigger, slicker, carefully calibrated Old Sage. I'm partial to the Canon Cocktail, which is rye and Ramazzotti topped with triple sec foam and bitters, and a bargain at $1,090 less than the crusta.
If you haven't eaten at Canon in a while—or ever—you should. The menu is manageable in length, it's interestingly varied, and, as of not too long ago, Laurie Riedeman is the one cooking: She was chef/co-owner of the excellent Elemental. (Those who remember her partner Phred Westfall's style of beverage service will probably be extra happy to choose their own drinks.) The other night, the basic wintery pleasure of roasted bone marrow was augmented with smoked-garlic gremolata, subtle and just right, and two big bones' worth was only $8. Perfectly braised octopus came with creamy-light white bean puree and slices of rich, dark, chewy chorizo, plus salsa verde and chorizo oil ($12): a plate of neo-Spanish greatness. A porcini risotto cake topped with foraged mushrooms, bits of shallot, and a poached egg ($12), was also precisely right for the season, like eating superlative stuffing without bothering with the bird. (If it had truffle oil, it had the correct amount: when you can't tell for sure.) And the roasted black cod with yam puree, figs, and prosciutto chips ($12) was as complicated as the char dish at the Old Sage, but better balanced in flavor and texture—maybe still a little overthought, but better. Elsewhere on the menu, the pork belly bun sandwiches, a confit chicken, and a variation on a Reuben look very promising.
The soundtrack included the White Stripes and Hendrix, seemingly chosen by a person rather than Pandora. When we told the server how much we liked all the food, he said, "I always feel bad that all our press is drink-related when our chef is so amazing." Noted.