FRANKFORT — Sage Garden Café has one of the most inviting interiors I have seen in years. It is rustic yet contemporary, with sunlight, stained pine, cement bricks, tiny amber track lights and freestanding water walls. The paint is a soft sage green. The design and feel could have come straight from Sunset Magazine, the publication dedicated to living in the West.
Yet the hospitality at Sage Garden, full of ironic humor and casual familiarity, is pure Kentucky, and the menu, while modern, has hot Brown panini and pimento cheese, two traditional local items that you would be hard-pressed to find outside this state and region. And because it is beside Wilson Nurseries, the restaurant has well-tended plants inside and out. As the weather gets warm, the patio, overlooking hills, vegetable plots and greenhouses, is a perfect spot to eat.
Almost everything, from starters to desserts, is homemade, and the baked goods are especially delicious.
Growers have their seasons, but butternut squash soup seems a perennial favorite. Sage Garden's version is creamy, lightly laced with curry and slightly sweet, and great with a glass of pinot grigio. There is also a tomato-basil soup with chunks of tomato, sliced celery and dried basil (I expect that chiffonade of fresh basil will be there once the summer comes). The portions are large, but no worries if half goes home; they reheat beautifully.
Salads arrayed in the cold case are a temptation from the minute you walk in the door. Oranges, grapefruit segments and grapes make up the citrus salad, but I prefer the broccoli salad, also with mandarin orange and grapes, because it is more vibrant and colorful to look at, more interesting texturally, and savory with slices of red onion.
Daily specials might include quiche with mozzarella cheese and asparagus, which was ordered on one visit. The flaky crust was perfect, but the filling was gelatinous rather than custardy.
My preference, in any case, is for Sage Garden's wonderful sandwiches. Try the chicken salad, with tart dried cranberries, piled high with sprouts, on oatmeal wheat bread. And what could be better than a hot Brown any time of year? Why, a hot Brown with two slices of bread, of course.
For readers unaware of this dish, it was born at Louisville's Brown Hotel as an open-faced sandwich on toast with turkey, bacon, Mornay sauce and slices of tomato. Sage Garden's extra "layer" of toast is one of the few modifications — and over the years there have been many — that really works.
And then there is the sweet course.
The chocolate cake is light as a feather, and the lemon cake has an incredibly tender crumb. Icings, by contrast, are thick, dense and sweet, making them seem charmingly old-fashioned. The lemon cake's icing is made with cream cheese, so it is doubly rich; a simple and bright lemon curd filling, however, prevents it from being cloying. The chocolate frosting is completely untempered by a lighter filling, so the result is one big, sugary chocolate rush. On both, however, the attractive toppings create a delicious dramatic effect, be it a scattering of pretty green pistachios or handfuls of crumbled crunchy toffee.
Even in the winter, visits to Sage Garden Café have been lovely interludes. But from now through the autumn, from pastel spring to bright-leafed fall, this is the place to go for combining garden shopping with relaxed bistro dining.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.