We're not prayerful people, but Sage General Store put us in mind of religion. This restaurant in Long Island City, done up to look like a country store in Anywhere, USA, definitely venerates objects, displaying a phalanx of folk art from bowling pins to artfully molded skewers to portraits of people no one knows, tags discreetely describing the thing's purpose and cost. In the corner, there's a huge oven that only kicks on during brunch, like an organ that hulks about moodily until a spinster comes to caress it into a cacophonous blossoming. Lastly, the simple regional American cooking resemble the dishes one might find a family gobbling after services.
Unlike the antsy atmosphere of a family meal, however, the general vibe feels low-fi. Water arrives in handled jugs, "country fairs drinking jars" etched into the glass. Sides get scooped from a steam table, and the nightly specials are far fewer than what's available for breakfast, lunch, brunch, or the busy catering business. Occasionally someone wandered in for an early evening sandwich, but we mostly had the narrow dining area, with its gingham-cushioned chairs and little vases of flowers, to ourselves.
The pasta of the day ($12) involved penne tossed with pancetta, broccoli rabe, roasted tomatoes, and an herb white wine sauce. Some force--lack of love, perhaps, or lack of attention--rendered the noodles gummy, and the diced bacon was all fat. We can't even remember the sauce. All Moms and Dads have the dishes they do well, and the dishes that made you dread dinner. Not an epic fail, but getting close.
Our second entree pleased, big time: a half chicken with two sides ($14) that was, according to the menu, free of hormones and "weird stuff." The bird had been rubbed and rotisseried. A miracle, the skin stayed as moist as the meat, lending a skein of salt, pepper, and the 8 herbs, jam-packed with juiciness. And there was so much of it! We'd visit a shrine dedicated to this dish or, at the very least, come back with a few friends and get the 3-pounder ($20 with two sides).
As for the two sides, a static sea of bourbon sweet potatoes beckoned, as if the innards of pumpkin pie had been pulled out and further mashed, mixed with sugar, and then sprinkled with cinnamon. We also tried that day's mac-and-cheese, in our case tomato and spinach. It had gone soft and bready, with the occasional bite of tomato lending pungent zip. The spinach was negligible, a grownup's attempt to get a kid to eat some greens without knowing. Sides are available as standalones for $6 a pop.
For dessert, two takes on the past: a Hostess cupcake ($3), a chocolate cupcake with the tell-tale white squiggle, and a pink snowball ($3), a vanilla cupcake covered in a shaggy mane of frosting and coconut. Cream cheese elevated them both, lending a sharpness to the close-to-cloying sweetness. Nevertheless, it's hard not to eat these examples of baked nostalgia and not remember your first time. We encountered these treats visiting our fathers at work, when they'd take a break at the coffee wagon (aka the "roach coach"). Sage's lacked cellophane as well as the chemical aftertaste of those long-ago goodies, thankfully, and encouraged us to add "call parents" to our list of things to do that weekend.
Among the goods adorning the walls we spied leather boots and riding crops, saddles and paddles. Nevertheless, this restaurant is more sweet than spice. With its decor and dishes steeped in innocent American domesticity, Sage General Store is best for: a date with someone you'd like to hold hands with.