- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

There's a new executive chef at Red Sage, on the corner of 14th and F streets NW, and when he's in charge, the food is very, very good; when another chef takes over, it's often merely good. Michael Greenstein has moved the Grill away from a purely Western style and offers excellent "modern American with Western influence" cuisine that includes several delicious innovative dishes as well as a few of the old favorites.

At a private dinner recently, with chef Greenstein in charge, the menu included a sensational mussel-and-roasted-tomato soup and a starter of crab with potatoes three ways, both of which are part of the regular menu. The soup was an almost clear broth with a drizzle of chive oil. The three flavors mussel, tomato and chive merged in a sophisticated, delicate broth that enthralled the taste buds.

The room-temperature crab-and-potato starter was equally delicious: A mound of superfresh, first-quality crab with nary a bit of shell and a tiny dice of potato in creme fraiche rested on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes. Three bite-size rounds of house-made potato chips topped the dish. The flavor and texture of the three potato preparations were exquisite and merged with the sweet crabmeat in a beautiful combination.

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The results were not the same when the dishes were ordered off the menu on another occasion. The mussel soup appeared as a thick cream of tomato soup with a slightly oily consistency (perhaps from too much chive oil), not the anticipated broth. About a dozen sweet, perfectly cooked mussels swam in the soup. No complaints there.

When we asked about the difference in the two preparations, the waiter suggested that "every chef" has his own way of preparing the dish. Pity.

The crab dish was prepared with the same fresh lump crabmeat as the one sampled at the private dinner but the dish was so cold that the flavor of the potato dice was lost, and there was barely more than a smear of mashed potato on the plate. Chef Greenstein's supervision appeared to be absent.

An interesting Southwestern-inspired starter is the baked plantain tamale. The tamale (in the traditional corn husk) is made of ground plantain rather than cornmeal, giving the tamale a lovely subtle flavor, which combines well with a goat-cheese filling.

Goat cheese and cranberries with roasted pumpkin and arugula sounds more complex than the appetizer a fresh combination of smooth cheese and tart fruit actually is.

The pecan-crusted chicken breast, an "old favorite," was better at lunch than at dinner. At dinner, the portion was too large and the crunchy glaze was overly sweet. The lunchtime portion, smaller and more tender, was not as sweet. In both, the pecans add a nice contrast to the chicken. The empanadas described on the dinner menu as accompanying the chicken were missing.

Peppered tuna is served on wilted spinach with garlic mashed potatoes in a terrific bordelaise sauce. The red-wine reduction marries well with the fish, and the peppered crust adds spice and texture. Unfortunately, the tuna, ordered rare, was served medium rare and was somewhat dry.

A vegetarian main course of a roasted portobello mushroom with blue cheese and a variety of vegetables was bland and heavy.

One of Mr. Greenstein's innovative dishes is an elk loin served with a dollop of mostarda, a combination of dried figs, dates, prunes and raisins simmered in honey, vinegar and cinnamon. It's unusual and excellent. The meat is served on the rare side; it's tender and not overly gamey a dish well worth trying.

Claude Perdriolat, the Red Sage's pastry chef, has a magic touch with desserts. Be it "moonstruck," "veuve au chocolat" ("chocolate widow"), a divine gratinee of fruits or just the delectable little petits fours that come with coffee, you are in for a treat. Each one is a winner.

Red Sage has a complex, interesting, albeit not inexpensive wine list. Most of the wines are from California, and the selection is extensive. Half a dozen each reds and whites by the glass, including a very good Hahn Estate merlot and a fresh Italian pinot grigio, range from $7 to $14 per glass.

Bottles run from $25 for a Pine Ridge chenin blanc-viognier to $400 plus for outstanding cabernet sauvignons, with a substantial number in the $30 and $40 range. The list includes almost two dozen champagnes and sparkling wines.

The Border Cafe occupies space on the street level of the restaurant. Its nuevo Latino/Southwestern menu comes from a separate kitchen. It's a bit noisier than the Grill, with an attractive zinc bar and whimsical decorations.

Tortilla soup perfect this time of year is full of chunks of chicken, pieces of avocado and melted cheese. The chicken-broth base is given added flavor by the strips of different-colored tortilla chips.

The chicken and the mushroom enchiladas both are very good. Fillings are rich and creamy, the tortillas thin and slightly crisp. Wild-mushroom filling adds an earthy quality to the corn tamale. Cowboy beans are on the bland side and could use a bit more oomph.

The Cafe offers burritos with smoked marinated steak, fajitas of chicken or steak, quesadillas with barbecued beef, mushrooms or chicken and some interesting ceviches. With the exception of the quesadillas, which are available at lunch only, the menu in the cafe is identical, with a few dollars' difference at lunch and dinner. A children's menu for $5.95 consists of chips, a choice of quesadillas and an ice cream sundae.

Service both upstairs and in the Grill is friendly, efficient and courteous. The Red Sage is an attractive, pleasant restaurant, painted in lovely desert colors, with unusual iron lamps and interesting artwork. Fix the sagging benches in the booths both upstairs and downstairs and be sure that Mr. Greenstein watches over what comes out of the kitchen, and you have a winner.

RESTAURANT: Red Sage, 605 14th St. NW; 638-4444.

HOURS: The Grill: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Dinner Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Border Cafe: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. (prices change at 4 p.m.); Sunday 4:30 to 11 p.m.

PRICES: The Grill: starters $6 to $12 (lunch), $6.50 to $16 (dinner); main courses $10 to $17 (lunch), $25 to $34 (dinner); desserts $7.50. Border Cafe: starters $4.50 to $9.50; cafe specialties, burritos and ceviches $8.50 to $14.50; desserts $6.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

PARKING: Difficult metered street parking; several local garages in the neighborhood; $4 dinner valet parking.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

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