There’s a long tradition of high-end restaurateurs opening more modestly priced offshoots. Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller have done it, as have, more locally, the owners of Granite Bay’s Hawks (with Hawks Public House in Sacramento) and Kru (Fish Face Poke Bar).Add tiny Elk Grove daytime lunch spot and evening wine bar Sage Mill to the local list. Tucked between a hot-yoga studio and a swim-lesson and fitness center in the aging, low-slung shopping center on Elk Grove Florin Road, Sage Mill lets diners interact closely with chef/co-owner Bret Bohlmann, the man who’s also behind Boulevard Bistro, the restaurant largely considered to be Elk Grove’s finest.
At the French-leaning Boulevard Bistro, Bohlmann serves pork rillettes, bone marrow and duck confit. At Sage Mill, he serves cold fried chicken, macaroni salad and sandwiches. When we visited Sage Mill, Bohlmann, a classically trained chef in a black Johnny Cash T-shirt, worked a panini press while chatting about flavor combinations and wine pairings with customers seated just across the counter from him.
Though our visits focused on lunch, which involves counter service and runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, Sage Mill for the past few months has stayed open as a wine bar until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Starting this week, it will be open Tuesday-Thursday evenings as well. At night, it offers more complete service and cheese and charcuterie plates to go with flights of wine.
Wine and beer are available at lunch as well, and all seating inside Sage Mill is bar seating. One bar faces the food-preparation area, the other runs along the window overlooking a patio, and beyond that, the swim center. The remaining few seats face shelves lined with jars of house-pickled vegetables (a Sage Mill specialty) and dog-eared, stained cookbooks that look like tools instead of props.
Sage Mill seats 16 inside and 15 at outdoor tables, though on the scorching days we visited, when all of outdoors felt like a hot-yoga studio, we sat inside.
Bohlmann, whose main, dinner-only restaurant turned 10 this year, said he opened Sage Mill last August to provide a locally owned, affordable lunch spot in chain-heavy Elk Grove. He also sought more direct contact with customers. On our visits, he already seemed familiar with many of Sage Mill’s customers. But he chatted with us, too, his manner easygoing even as he hurried to fill lunch orders for workers from nearby offices with tight schedules.
Instead of holding court, the way some chefs can, Bohlmann engages customers in a back-and-forth dialogue about food and wine. Though it’s evident from his words that he knows 1,000 percent more than you do, it’s never evident in his unpretentious, curious manner.
Bohlmann’s sandwiches, which run from $10 to $12 with green or macaroni salad and pickled vegetables on the side, made me wish my office was closer. Most come on house-baked baguettes that are softer and require less mouth exertion – that ripping motion – than is typical.
Though turkey, roasted pork loin and meatloaf are not revolutionary sandwich fillings, great care goes into their preparation. Bohlmann brines, sous-vides (cooking at low temperature in a water bath) and finally roasts the turkey and pork loin, resulting in exceptionally tender meat.
The turkey baguette comes with cream cheese, dried cranberry and lettuce and tomato. The tomato and cranberry work a push-pull effect on each other, the sweetness of the first teasing out the tartness of the second, and vice versa.
House-made tomato bacon jam lends acidity and a touch of smoke to the predominantly sweet taste of the meatloaf, the ingredients of which include tomato paste, brown sugar and bread crumbs that are soaked in milk and thus robbed of their drying effect.
Bohlmann’s grilled cheese with ratatouille – a daily special on one visit – uses earthy, buttery Brie to anchor a combination of tomato, eggplant, bell pepper and zucchini that flutters toward the sweet.
Another special, the shrimp banh mi sandwich, holds succulent shrimp sparked by pickled red onion and purple cabbage, then cooled by cilantro.
All the pickled vegetables we tried were wonderful – bright in taste and still crisp in texture. The cauliflower, which carries a touch of heat from curry paste, was the best.
Sweetness characterized, to some degree, all our favorites at Sage Mill, from the pickled vegetables to a sage vinaigrette with honey used to dress a side green salad of romaine, cucumber and tomato to a house-baked butterscotch cookie heavy with butterscotch chunks.
Sweetness, in these instances, does not equate cloying or overly sugary, but rather the most noticeable component in a balanced construction of flavors. But the balance was off in Sage Mill’s chili, which Bohlmann serves every Saturday. The version we tried ($8 with corn bread), with ground beef, was too light on heat and heavy on tomato and sweet-tasting peppers. It tasted more like a pasta sauce.
But Bohlmann changes up the chili every week. On a previous Saturday, he cooked a 27-pound beef shoulder sous vide then crisped up the fat, sliced off some for sandwiches and cubed other parts for chili.
Elk Grove native Bohlmann’s bent for experimentation stops with his macaroni salad, which he based on the version his grandmother brought to family outings when he was a kid. It holds plentiful mayonnaise along with celery, red onion and vinegar.
This salad, the pasta in which is cooked within an inch of its life, tastes like the 1970s – like something one would eat out of a white-and-gold Corelle bowl.
Maybe it was the mayonnaise. Maybe it was nostalgia. Something had me forking up bite after bite of this salad before recognizing its quality was not on par with the rest of Sage Mill’s menu.
Nostalgia plays a definite role in my love of Sage Mill’s cold fried chicken, another homage to Bohlmann’s grandmother’s family-gathering treats. It’s also cold by necessity, since Sage Mill’s kitchen lacks a deep fryer or oven with a hood. Bohlmann makes it at Boulevard Bistro.
Bohlmann brines the chicken overnight, then uses a batter that includes cornstarch, flour, dried thyme and cayenne and black pepper before it hits the deep fryer.
Once it cools, he takes it to Sage Mill, where fortunate diners can revel in its pepper-fronted suggestions of a plumper, juicier version of Kentucky Fried Chicken (which has been lodged in my palate memory since childhood as the fried-chicken pinnacle and refused to budge).
Bohlmann makes just six or seven orders (thigh and leg, plus side salad, for $10) per day. He stacks the orders together, enticingly, under glass on Sage Mill’s counter. It’s all gone by 12:30 or 1 p.m., he said.
Get it while it’s cold.
9380 Elk Grove Florin Road, Elk Grove. 916-714-8802
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Beverage options: International but California-leaning list of wines available by the glass and bottle. Four beers on draft, including Mraz and Flatland.
Ambiance: A nice, bright corner shopping-center space that has been used efficiently for seating. All seating is against counters or walls, allowing space in the middle of the room to move around. Chef/owner Bret Bohlmann is the star attraction, working a panini press behind the counter while interacting with diners. The bathroom situation is odd: One must get the key for a separate space, around the corner, that looks as if it is used by several businesses. Consider that when downing local beers.
Vegetarian friendly: Not particularly, though there was wonderful grilled cheese sandwich with ratatouille on special one day.
Gluten-free options: Yes, but no gluten-free bread.
Noise level: Moderate, but voices carry.
Good, inexpensive food with a likable ringmaster in the unpretentious Bohlmann.
Bohlmann is executive chef/owner of Boulevard Bistro, which is largely considered to be the best restaurant in Elk Grove, and his food at Sage Mill reflects his great expertise. The meat is exceptionally tender in the turkey and pork loin sandwiches, on the regular menu. Two daily special sandwiches – the grilled cheese with ratatouille and shrimp banh mi – were exceptional, as is the cold fried chicken, which tastes like a juicier, plumper version of KFC. But the chili and the macaroni salad missed the mark.
Service ☆☆ 1/2
Our order taker was very friendly, and the food came quickly. But service during lunch is minimal. Service is more complete on Friday and Saturday evenings, when Sage Mill becomes a wine bar.
Sandwich plates with house-baked bread, carefully prepared meats and delicious, house-pickled vegetables on the side are very reasonably priced at $10-$12.