Back in 1996, when Andrée Falls opened the now-venerable Sage Bakehouse, who would have thought that a timeless staple item like bread, ordained by the Bible as the staff of life, would become the subject of such a hot-button food-culture war? Twenty years on — after the advent of the low-carb revolution, increased awareness of celiac disease, and trendy elimination diets — Oprah Winfrey’s joyful declaration in a Weight Watchers commercial that she does not deny herself her beloved bread and in fact eats it every day seems like a rabble-rousing act of sedition.
But at Sage’s industrial strip-mall operation on Cerrillos Road and Paseo de Peralta, it seems, blessedly so, that the gluten-free movement might well never have happened. Customers who park in the small lot and walk around to the entrance, following the heady, beguiling aroma of fresh bread, are treated to a clear view of the bakery’s inner workings, with its flour-dusted surfaces, huge sacks of grain, French oven, and industrious boulangers. Inside, the minimalist vibe is comparable to a gentrifying ’90s establishment in a larger city, with several sleek wooden café tables alongside a banquette on one side and a sizeable community table on the other.
A hand-lettered butcher-paper menu on the wall contains a modest assortment of carefully crafted sandwiches: open-faced tartines, pressed paninis, and cold sandwiches to go, along with two rotating soups, two salads, and a few breakfast options. The small French wine list includes a Sancerre, a Burgundy, a Bordeaux, and a Côtes du Rhone, and the coffee hails from California’s LaCoppa. The pastry case, filled with croissants, mini-quiches, and tarts, is topped with cookies, more pastries, and bread samples; a nearby baker’s rack houses invitingly plump burnished loaves that can be sliced and wrapped up to go home.
Obsessive attention to detail is evident in many menu items. One recent cold, gray morning found me staring lovingly down at the beauty of my egg tartine, a toasted slice of crusty farm bread topped with buttery-soft light scrambled eggs, which I ordered with melted white cheddar cheese and avocado (serrano ham is also available). Two passersby also stopped to admire its enticing appearance: Cut neatly into five sizeable pieces, attractively topped by half-moon avocado rings, and flanked by a line of alternating herbed green and black olives, it made a substantial breakfast alongside a bittersweet cappuccino. Later that evening, I relished the treats I had gotten to go: a mini-quiche with a mild flaky crust, fresh spinach, creamy eggs, and not-too-strong blue cheese, alongside a truly phenomenal croissant: crisp on the outside, tissue-soft on the inside, it was a finely tuned balance of salty and slightly sweet.
On a bustling lunchtime visit, my dining companions and I were lucky to snag a table; all around us, a prosperous-looking bourgeoisie were happily having their bread and eating it too. A nicely conceived salad of romaine leaves with warm beets, roasted Brussels sprouts, and Roquefort cheese came out a tad overdressed, though the fresh character of the slightly caramelized sprouts and earthy magenta beets burst forth, the creamy tang of the Roquefort complementing every bite.
A farmer’s market vegetable soup arrived garnished by a few soft, sweet carrot slices and tasty wilted greens; the rest was a somewhat bland orange puree of unnamed vegetables (squash? carrots?) that I livened up with a few twirls from the Bodum salt-and-pepper grinder on the table.
The grill-striped tuna and mozzarella panini oozed rich cheese over a hearty, salty mash of white tuna and nutty arugula pesto, while the roast-beef tartine was a marvel of luscious, thin-sliced strips of blushing meat over toasted farm bread slathered with herbed mayo (more aioli than gloppy) and topped with a delicious olive-oiled leek confit. My companion, who had been skeptical of the $12 price tag for the sandwich until he tried it, ended up too full to finish his last piece, which I agreeably polished off. A cold turkey half sandwich on wheat bread is ingeniously spread with a tiny bit of honey and then topped with white cheddar, roasted and sliced turkey, and mixed greens — the combo is simple yet revelatory.
Sage may have remained immune to the crusade against gluten, but the bakery seems closely aligned with the locavore and farm-to-table movements, as evidenced by a few placards around the shop that attest to their commitment to non-GMO foods. Sage says that 88 percent of their flour originates from wheat grown and milled within 275 miles of Santa Fe. Untreated, the flour is naturally leavened, handcrafted with water and sea salt, slowly fermented, and then baked on stone slabs. The result is truly top-shelf bread, wonderfully crusty outside and chewy on the inside, and Sage deserves every bit of their robust, ever-growing business with retail outlets and restaurants all over town and nearby.
As I ordered a loaf of the moist, briny olive bread to take home, the cashier asked me, “Have you ever made a grilled cheese sandwich with this?” I replied in the affirmative, relishing her somewhat conspiratorial tone, and she nodded at me as if we had shared an indulgent secret. “It’s great with fresh tomatoes,” she added gleefully, and she was right about that, too. ◀