You’ll love it, says Denise Irvine
You could drift into speciality beer bar Craft on Hamilton’s Hood St, expect to have maybe pizza or burger and fries to offset the brews, and be so wrong.
You’ve actually found one of the city’s best-kept culinary secrets, Sage Kitchen, which does the food at Craft, offering a brief, bold and beautiful menu of shared plates that truly bucks the bar food stereotype.
Sage is run by chef Lani Lemaua, and Craft bar is part of the Gothenburg stable, the site of Gothenburg’s first incarnation before it moved to Grantham St. Lani has previously worked at Gothenburg, and also at Chim Choo Ree with chef Cam Farmilo, under the original Chim ownership.
The Sage-Craft relationship was formed about 18 months ago when Lani had the idea to do Sage as a pop-up, a travelling kitchen, and he was offered the kitchen space at Craft. So that’s where you’ll find him, drawing in his regulars, and challenging the punters who haven’t heard about him. Or
To quote a recent social media review: “Lovely selection of craft beer on tap with helpful suggestions from bar staff. The biggest surprise was the food, far from your normal pub grub. Don’t be put off by no burgers or fries. Try something from the menu and you won’t be disappointed. The braised lamb is exceptional.”
Says Lani: “Once they eat the food and get the service, they get an unexpected surprise. We’ve created our own little pocket here. And we’re not that scary.”
Lani is pretty much a one-man band, although nowadays he has a helper in the weekend. “We’re growing our team but in some ways, being on my own is quite liberating. I do everything my way: sourcing ingredients, cooking the food (from scratch), washing dishes, every single thing.”
Lani works closely with Craft manager Aneurin O’Mahoney, who is as knowledgeable about Lani’s food as he is the brews on offer from all over the globe. Aneurin talks people through Lani’s menu, takes orders, suggests beer matches, and he personally rates Lani’s skills. “We’ve got some of the best beer and food going.”
Aneurin’s always been a big meat eater . . . “but if you’ve got a good chef like Lani the vegetable dishes are just as good.”
Lani is modest about his work; he lets his menu speak for itself. He cooks with the seasons, with careful and creative attention to every detail on the plate. The beef tartare with sesame mayo and lavosh crackers is richly meaty and punchy, the lavosh providing crunchy texture alongside the softness of finely chopped raw beef.
There is the happy combo of truffle and pea tortellini; the visual feast of roasted baby flounder with papaya salad; and clever flavour-matching with crispy pork belly plated with fig and pistachio agrodolce (sweet-sour Italian condiment), baby carrots and crumbled feta. His charred broccolini dressed in dan dan sauce is a longtime menu favourite, and barbecued corn ribs with Japanese yum yum sauce and chorizo crumb has been a hit this summer. As have the banana prawns.
Lani says his dishes may seem simple but they involve many techniques. “People ask, ‘how did that taste so mean?’ It’s about layering the techniques, elevating the flavours.”
The broccolini, for example, a member of the brassica family, takes well to high temperatures. Lani chars the robust greens, dresses them with his homemade Sichuan dan dan sauce packed with umami and zing, and tops it off with peanuts and crispy shallots for extra texture.
Lani says he’s always got ideas ticking over in his head. He’s continuing to build the business, the Covid pandemic lockdown was a challenge for him. But he may, in future, move Sage into its own premises. “That’s still part of the dream.”
- Sage is open Wed-Sunday for dinner at Craft, 15 Hood St, Hamilton.