Surf and Surf

W hen I hear stories of old-time prisoners in Maine revolting over their steady diet of lobsters, I imagine myself committing crimes just to get thrown behind bars and into a bib. Trouble is, unless you know where to look, it’s tough finding a tender lobster with a view of the water here in New Haven—which is surprising, considering we’re one of the (self-proclaimed) culinary capitals of New England.

Thank heavens (or rather, the seas) for Sage American Grill. The venerable City Point restaurant—it first opened as The Chart House in 1974—has been continuously run by the charming Dave McCoart, a chef and C.I.A. graduate (class of ’69, back when the school was in New Haven). Dave bought the business and the building in 2000, naming the eatery after his daughter, and kept the same basic food and philosophy: great steaks, old-school service and—my, oh my—excellent seafood.

I recently visited Sage with my up-for-anything mother Kay and my down-to-earth sister Cynthia. We were seated next to a window (there are two whole walls of them) overlooking a cheerful deck with potted palms and a Caribbean color scheme. Just beyond, Long Island Sound churned and gurgled following a storm. The dining room at Sage is handsome and subdued, with white tablecloths and a central bar surrounded by movable walls, which come in handy when the restaurant is used for private events. The bar has a parallel counter that faces the view, which is a favorite perch for snacks and drinks, year-round.

Our trio was joined that evening by owner Dave, who is such a good storyteller that we quietly wondered if he were a secret relative of Frank McCourt. When he learned that I was there on a lobster mission, he waved the menus away and ordered for us: lobster bisque, Oysters Rockefeller, lobster rolls, a trio of salads, steamed lobster, lobster bake and filet mignon. A queenly feast!

Before I describe these drool-worthy

Sage American Grill
100 South Water Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 5-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 5-10pm, Sun 11am-9pm
Mon-Thurs 4-11pm, Fri-Sat 4pm-12am, Sun 12-10pm

dishes, let me fill you in on changes at Sage that may come as a surprise. For most of its history, The Chart House/Sage was a two-story restaurant with 250 seats. The upstairs had a grand piano, an even grander bar and wrap-around views of the water and the marina next door. “We used to fill it,” explained Dave, “but business dropped off in the crash of ’07 and ’08.” In the meantime, the Pequonnock Yacht Club lost its Bridgeport home to eminent domain; they accepted that city’s multi-million dollar offer and started shopping for a new location. The Sage building and the adjacent, apparently underutilized marina suited their needs perfectly, and so Dave sold his building to them and leased back the first floor for his restaurant. Thus, the second floor of Sage now houses the Pequonnock Yacht Club; Sage does all the club’s catering (it doesn’t have a kitchen) and non-club members can rent out that space, which has a terrific dance floor, for private events. (Seafarers take note: The club is actively seeking new members.)

Dave himself is a man of the sea whose grandfather was a lighthouse keeper. Perhaps that’s why he has such a way with shellfish. We started our meal with a divine lobster bisque, served in a small pewter kettle, which keeps it hot. Flavored with fresh fennel, it had a natural, not-too-thick texture, helped along with lobster meat and sherry butter added just before serving. It was like sipping a lobster dinner from a spoon. “If you can’t tackle a whole lobster,” notes Dave, “the bisque plus our bread can make a meal, for just $8.95.” That bread, it should be noted, is an original recipe that appropriately features sage, produced by Bread and Chocolate in Hamden.

Next up was Oysters Rockefeller, a dish that

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often smothers delicate oysters in boozy, cheesy goop. Not at Sage. This version, adapted from the famous recipe at Antoine’s in New Orleans, uses a light crust of shredded spinach and barely-noticeable bread crumbs gently scented with Pernod, fennel, onions, celery and anise. Lovely. Three salads followed—all successful, all devoured—and then, the main event. Well, actually, four main events.

Cynthia’s 1.5 pound steamed lobster was unfussy and perfectly prepared (if a tad pricey at $36). “This is the kind of lobster you dream of but rarely get,” she exclaimed, dabbing drawn butter from the corners of her mouth. Next, a dish that Dave calls “theater in the dining room:” a peppercorn filet that’s wheeled tableside, doused with brandy and ignited. Cooked exactly to temperature and peppered with restraint, it was an excellent steak and greatly complimented by creamy Yukon mashed potatoes and caramelized onions.

The star of the show, for my money, was the Lobster Bake. This, a variation on the traditional New England lobster bake, arrives in a steel skillet nearly exploding with steam. Inside, a culinary treasure trove: clams, shrimp, corn, chicken sausage, spinach (“standing in for seaweed,” notes Dave) and, of course, a half-lobster, pre-cracked for ease of attack, all on a bed of linguini in broth. That was my summer moment, inhaling those essences in a cloud of steam against a sunset over the Sound.

Kay was the beneficiary of twin lobster rolls, full of pure flavor on buttered hotdog buns with a side of top-notch, fresh-cut Russet fries. Dave, who is a bit of a culinary historian, believes that the lobster roll as we know it was invented at Jimmie’s of Savin Rock in West Haven, which was originally a destination for split franks on grilled rolls. Substitute picked lobster meat for hotdogs and… voila?

I couldn’t eat another bite. But Cynthia and Kay were unstoppable. As I pushed back from the table, they dug into a miniature chocolate cake with a bittersweet Belgian chocolate sauce and vanilla bean ice cream that induced moans of pleasure. Dave, watching my mother with bemusement, made the calls: “She’s hit the white stuff! That’s the plate! That means she liked it!”

Sage is a wonderful place to make your own summer moments. Every Sunday afternoon there is live reggae on the Palm Deck; Friday and Saturday evenings find mellow jazz, pianoside; and every day and night there are salty breezes and the cry of seagulls and beautiful lobsters, plain or fancy.

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Todd Lyon has been covering the New Haven dining scene for 20-plus years. She has authored, co-authored or ghost written 17 books on subjects as diverse as business, wedding gowns and kissing; currently she co-owns Fashionista Vintage and Variety, a clothing store for eccentrics.

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