In the main, I’m not especially enthralled with nouvelle Southwestern cuisine. I’m never pleased to find lemongrass-infused enchiladas on my plate, or French green lentils where black beans should be. But when David Sargeant—the fellow who cuts my hair and keeps me abreast of the crucial matters in life—spoke so enthusiastically about the meatloaf at Park City’s Purple Sage restaurant, I have to admit it stirred my interest. Pondering the notion of veal meatloaf with roasted poblano chiles and toasted pine nuts, I said to David as he nipped away at my locks, “That sounds like a great idea.” But what really sealed the deal and made me want to visit Purple Sage was the way that David described the interior as being classy and serene with calming hues of lavender, cream and olive—well, sage really.
If you’re familiar with Park City restaurants, you might remember The Irish Camel. The space that is now home to Purple Sage was never one that I had high hopes for in terms of ambience. The Irish Camel was pretty much ambience-free and devoid of any culinary appeal, which perhaps is why it’s gone.
But Purple Sage’s slogan advertising “American Western Cuisine” did little to embolden my dreams of daring dÃ©cor or dishes. For some reason, American Western Cuisine conjures up in my mind the idea of dining in Conestoga wagons. I pictured eating “campfire” beans out of blue tin cups—and gingham, lots of gingham. I was certain I’d be attended to by servers wearing cowboy hats and the walls of the restaurant would be trimmed out with lassos and lariats.
Well, let me assure you that you have nothing to fear of the American Western Cuisine at Purple Sage—even if, like me, you dread gingham and other nostalgic trappings of the Wild Wild West. The truth is there’s almost nothing “Western” about Purple Sage, with the possible exception of the use of chiles and a smattering of salsa here and there. The ambience is anything but stereotypical Southwestern, and the food is much more exciting than “American Western Cuisine” would suggest.
I wasn’t encouraged by the lackadaisical greeting at Purple Sage. A very young hostess was chatting with a male employee who was literally lounging on the bench near the hostess stand. You know, the place customers waiting for a table would normally park themselves. I felt like I’d interrupted something important—a discussion of the latest Britney Spears CD, perhaps. I didn’t feel like I’d wandered into a quality restaurant.
But the stunning improvement in ambience that has occurred as The Irish Camel morphed into Purple Sage—run by the same owners who run Park City’s CafÃ© Terigo—helped to change that feeling. Simply put, it’s a gorgeous restaurant, but not in that over-the-top, million-dollar-makeover manner. In fact, Purple Sage is proof that you don’t have to spend a million bucks to make a restaurant look like a million bucks. Cream-colored cloth scrims serve as visual screens to help separate both sight and sound, and they function to break up the space of the rectangular restaurant. Shades of lavender and sage fill the space; judicious splashes of color—a tiny vase of purple flowers on each table, for instance—combine to create one of the most soothing dining spaces I’ve ever encountered. It’s not eye-popping dÃ©cor; it’s just exactly appropriate.
Yet, as much as I was surprised by the lovely dÃ©cor at Purple Sage, the food caught me even more off guard. Perusing appetizers on the menu like shrimp with apricot-mustard dipping sauce ($7.95) and house-made potato chips with bleu cheese ($5.95), I was quick to admit that this wasn’t chuckwagon cuisine.
My dining companion, who for some reason always feels the need to engage restaurant servers in conversation, asked our Purple Sage waiter how long he’d been in the business. “Five years,” he said, “But I’m not very good at it.” Well, give the guy bonus points for honesty. He wasn’t very good at it, although he was friendly and laid back.
Service ranges at Purple Sage from excellent to dismal. On a recent Saturday night, it was dismal. It was irritating, for example, to have a “food runner”—the guy who was lounging on the bench out front—deliver every dish, from appetizers through dessert, to our table with the admonition to “Enjoy!” Since he hadn’t taken our orders, he screwed up delivery of about half of them and my companion and I found ourselves exchanging plates frequently. “No, I had the meatloaf. She ordered the trout.” With only two other tables of customers in the restaurant, why was our waiter too busy to bring us our food? I thought it strange that he wrote down our orders and brought us our bill, but didn’t check on us in the interim and for some reason, wasn’t allowed to touch any plates. When I asked him who the chef was—because I’d been completely blown away by the excellent veal meatloaf and my sensational crispy shrimp with apricot dipping sauce—he said, “I think his name is Doug something-or-other...” Is it too much to ask for a server to know the name of the head chef in the restaurant where he’s working?
All of which just goes to show how remarkable the food and overall ambience at Purple Sage is. Because whether you luck into good service or bad, dishes like herb-breaded Utah trout with a mild tomato salsa ($19.95) or sugar-cured duck breast and leg with green-chile macaroni and cheese ($22.95) or pan-roasted pork tenderloin with mango barbecue sauce ($19.95) are so satisfying that less-than-stellar service can be overlooked. The silky flan is a perfect “Western” dessert. I just found it a shame that the service at Purple Sage wasn’t consistently on a par with everything else about the restaurant, which was exceptional.
By the way, the chef cooking up those great dishes is named Ed Axtell. I hope that waiter remembers his name, because I sure will.<>PURPLE SAGE, 434 Main, Park City, 435-655-9505, Open nightly for dinner