Among the first things you notice at Sage Student Bistro is the staff's earnestness. Greeters, servers and cooks are all students in Metropolitan Community College's respected Institute for Culinary Arts, whose sleek building is the face of the Fort Omaha campus' south entrance.
This hidden dining gem occupies an intimate corner space just off the lobby. The contemporary, neo-industrial decor is accented by warm touches. Windows help open up the room and overlook the horticulture department greenhouse, the main supplier of Sage's locally-sourced produce. Some of that fresh goodness is grown in a herb garden surrounding a small, semi-secluded patio outside the bistro.
Culinary students rotate from kitchen to dining room any given night as part of a well-rounded experience both in back and in front of the house. Students don't have to worry about job security there but their performance in this live, public venue is graded and has everything to do with getting them ready for food industry careers. That aspirational motivation translates into eager-to-please service.
Diners are asked to fill out an evaluation form to offer much-valued criticism.
"Sage Student Bistro is an essential part of the student curriculum here. Having a paying customer that expects a restaurant quality meal makes for some honest and direct feedback," says chef instructor Oystein Solberg, "Giving students as close to as possible real life experience hopefully takes away some of the dear-in-the-headlight feel once they're out in the world getting paid for their craft."
If you go on a slow night as I did you're in for a pampered, privileged fine dining experience that could easily spoil you for your next eating-out adventure. The set-up included white linen tablecloths, lit candles and soft recorded music.
Wait staff did a good job explaining the menu's dishes, including ingredients, preparations and techniques. For an appetizer I chose the bistro's play on a BLT, a delightful deconstruction of the staple sandwich with bacon, toasted brioche, tomato relish and shredded butterhead lettuce.
The entree selections variously featured chicken, beef, salmon and duck. Following my servers' suggestions, I ordered the free range chicken breast, well-complemented by chipolata apple sausage and a nice medley of beets and broccoli flowers, all tied together by an apple gastrique. Everything practically melted in my mouth.
A basket of piping hot brioche spread with sage butter added a final satisfying note.
The gourmet meals and sensible portions are reasonably priced, with appetizers at $5 or $6 and entrees from $16 to $18.
I found my table-side servers engaging. For instance, I learned my charming wait person, Yuka VanNorman, is from Okinawa, Japan. She says she was attracted to come from half way around the world to train at the Institute by the quality and affordability of its offerings. My other server, Forrest Whitaker-look-alike Jason Mackey, is a well-traveled Omaha native who one day hopes to impress diners like me at his own eatery. Their heart and passion overflowed.
All of it, the ambition and proving ground and attention to detail, result in a one-of-a-kind, give-and-take transaction that found me rooting for the students to wow me. If my one visit is any indication, they have the chops to pull it off, too. By the end, I felt as invested in the students as they seemed invested in me and this practicum.
It's just what Metro's culinary faculty hope for.
"I really believe culinary arts education must be guest-entered in order to be effective," says chef instructor Brian O'Malley. "We have to learn to ply our craft to the expectations of others and Sage has grown to really drive that home throughout our curriculum."
He says the bistro's come a long way from its predecessor student operation, which served mainly Metro students and faculty in a no-frills cafeteria-like setting in Building 10 and was only "a side piece" of the culinary program. Now it's a full-fledged public forum and integral training component all students participate in.
O'Malley, who helped found Sage, says, "It moves the classroom into a working restaurant-like environment. It brings an enormous sense of realism without actually being the real thing. As an industry professional I saw the great deficiency in culinary school grads was knowledge without application, and here we've worked hard to move towards that application. We've added this very deep middle layer (between test kitchen and internship) of operating a restaurant in-house."
There's a fine balance at play to make sure students are challenged, not crushed.
"We want them to get their butt kicked, we want it to be tough and difficult and hold their feet to the fire but we don't want them to actually get burned," is how O'Malley puts it. "We're supposed to still be a safe place for a student to kind of push and grow and develop, so when they fall down it's supposed to still be quiet to the rest of the world." If missteps happen, and they do, he says "we kind of have to ask for your forgiveness."
An OpenTable poll recently named Sage the best overall restaurant in Nebraska, a recognition Solberg says "we don't like dwelling on" and he takes with a grain of salt given the small voter pool. Just as Solberg finds surprisingly few people in the metro know about the Institute, O'Malley says Sage is a best-kept secret on purpose.
"We certainly want to be known," he says. "I mean, there's a piece of the reputation of the school that rides on the quality of Sage, so we want it to be excellent, but we also don't really want it to be crowded. We're not trying to run Upstream Brewing company, we're trying to get our students ready to work at Upstream."
He says Sage does enjoy a regular following and business generally picks up as the quarter moves on and word gets out the bistro's open again (it closes when school's not in session). Thirty dollar prix fixe five-course dinners, resuming in October, have proven popular.
Sage is open Monday through Thursday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For hours and menu details, visit www.mccneb.edu/bistro.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.