Mr. Denny, what are you doing here?
The Old Sage is Brian McCracken and Dana Tough’s (Spur Gastropub, Tavern Law, The Coterie Room) newest project, a low-lit boite near Tavern Law on 12th, with a whiskey-centric bar list and a smoker for meats. I popped in for a bite last week and found it to be the most confounding restaurant I’ve been to in ages.

It’s billed as a brown-booze-and-smoked meats place. You know, a joint with pulled pork and whisky shots, right? Nope. Try pork cheeks smoked in lavender over caraway potatoes and pickled beets, with $40 drams of 18-year-old Bunnahabhain single malt scotch.

Okay, so you should’ve expected this had you known the exalted culinary reputation of Tough and McCracken, who at Spur gave Seattle some of its first modernist cuisine. It’s just that nothing about the place leads you to expect it. In one corner: A whole lotta bar. In another: huge wall paintings of a railroad train and Seattle pioneer ArthurDenny. (Huh?) On the sound system: Booming classic rock.

And at the door: A fleet of hosts and manager-types who evinced zero knowledge about  the food. “Is that what you’re using to smoke the meats?” I asked one, spying an open hearth through the kitchen window and marveling if they were using it as the smoker. “Uh, I don’t know,” replied the hostess, smiling broadly.

Alrighty then.  

After all these first impressions, precious foodiness was about the last thing we expected from our waiter—but there it was, in spades. Meat was “the protein,” sides “the starches,” and when we asked him to define cultured butter he intoned simply: “It’s alive.” Without a whiff of irony he used the term “a la minute” to describe how something would be prepared to order, proudly adding that the kitchen would release dishes not so that everyone could eat at once, but as they became ready.

None of this bow-to-the-almighty-kitchen attitude jibed in the slightest with the ‘70s-van-mural look of the walls, the earnest strains of Elton John, the boozy feel, or the uninformed staff. Certainly the food didn’t; it was almost entirely stunning. A plate of gourds roasted and raw—smoky bits of squash, curled cuke slices, chunks of compressed watermelon—arrived on a plate prettied with mint leaves and dollops of yogurt and Calabrian chiles. A $9 butterflake roll was dense yet featherweight, and extraordinary with the tang of that living butter. Mesquite-smoked short ribs were moist and sensational with sweet potato chunks and chips. Meats were well executed; flavor harmonies uncommonly thoughtful and almost entirely successful.

The prices for the smallish mains are $16 to $24, with sides from $8 to $12. Here is where expectations most critically come into play, because for the bar the Old Sage seems like, it's ridiculously expensive. (A freakin’ $9 roll?) For the carefully intelligent restaurant the Old Sage is, however, prices are entirely fair; even kind of a deal.

It'll be interesting to watch where popular opinion will come down on the place. Unfortunately at prime dinner hour on a recent balmy Saturday night, there weren’t enough diners in there for a quorum.

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