Flavor: Elevated co-op classics
Ambiance: Bustling coffeehouse
Where: 5 Broadway
Hours: Mon-Thu, 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri, 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat, 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Ketchup is usually the least of a new restaurant owners’ worries. While a few chi-chi eateries might muss with house-made recipes, the vast majority of chefs are perfectly willing to buy a case of Heinz ketchup bottles and call it a day.
If only things were so simple for Randy Talley, co-owner with Al Kirshner of The Green Sage, the aggressively green-minded, counter-service coffee shop on Biltmore Avenue. The iconic tapered Heinz bottle, which graces tables in greasy spoons and snuggles into condiment trays at high-end steakhouses, posed an unpardonable affront to Talley’s anti-waste sensibilities. “There’s no bottled water here,” Talley says, motioning to the beverage case. “We have two bottles: a diet cola and a nonalcoholic beer.” And although he doesn’t say it, it’s obvious he’s jonesing to get rid of those.
“People know we’re not some greenwash,” adds Talley, who’s helped steer nearly every earth-friendly grocery of note in North Carolina, including Earth Fare, Greenlife and Weaver Street Market in Chapel Hill.
So what to do with the ketchup? Talley and his partners debated the possibilities, every one seemingly fraught with earthly threats. “Do we use a stainless steel ramekin and wash them?” Talley asks. “Do we use a plastic bottle, God forbid? The word ‘dilemma’ comes up here a lot.”
Complicating the question was The Green Sage’s stated commitment to quality and customer service. If an eatery really wanted to limit the environmental consequences of ketchup service, it might encourage its customers to dip their Nalgenes into a giant ketchup vat, or propose they make the switch to tomato slices. But those strategies smack of a smug green-tinged elitism Talley hopes to purge from the sustainable scene. Talley’s bent on proving earth-friendly food doesn’t have to be inaccessible, bland or strange.
For the most part, he’s succeeded. Although there are some missteps at Green Sage, the short but balanced menu of salads, soups, sandwiches and breakfast foods—every carnivorous option has a meatless “equivalent”—sports a few highlights that are every bit as worth seeking out as the cafe’s strong Wi-Fi signal, an inexplicable rarity downtown.
“We want a wide range of people to feel comfortable here,” Talley says, recalling a recent in-house concert by local western-swing artist Sherry Lynn, whose Old Asheville fans generally like to keep a safe distance between themselves and soy. “Those people came in and they loved our food, and wanted to come back. It’s not all as odd as tempeh reubens.”
There is a perfectly good tempeh reuben on Green Sage’s menu, but—partly to prove meat eaters can build a better world, too—there’s also a bison burger. Ketchup’s on the table.
“We’re buying organic ketchup in Number 10 cans and putting it in plastic bottles,” Talley explains. Each squeeze bottle wears a slim printed label: “Organic.”
Look Ma, no waste!
The Green Sage isn’t shy about advertising its environmental credentials. Indeed, Talley sees the restaurant functioning in much the same way a sandwich board might for an activist with less business savvy: He calls it “letting the green cat out of the bag.”
“We felt there was no visible symbol of green living in Asheville, so early on we made the decision to put solar panels on the roof. It’s an opportunity to help Asheville live up to its own self-image,” says Talley, whose business plan calls for opening five more regional outlets in coming years.
Sustainable touches abound in the wooden-floored café: There are waterless urinals in the men’s bathroom, a vestige from the Chen family’s brief tenure in the former Beanstreets location. For all the updates Talley has made to the interior, including the installation of handsome salvaged countertops, visitors are still most wowed by the bathrooms that debuted with C.F. Chan’s.
Talley also took his green symbols to the street, positioning its extensive waste disposal system in its alley, where nearly every tenant of the BB&T Building can see it. The Green Sage organizes its waste into 12 separate bins, only six of which are landfill-bound. The method requires careful cooperation from diners, who are instructed to bus their own tables and sort their soiled whole-wheat napkins, ceramic cups and compostable waste into different containers. Talley says, “It’s neat to see people read all the signs.” Of which, of course, there are many.
Plain food, unadorned
Finishing a meal at The Green Sage can seem arduous to diners accustomed to leaving their plates on the table. Preparing it isn’t easy either. Considering all the self-imposed restrictions and high-minded philosophies governing the restaurant, the kitchen could almost be forgiven if it turned out over-thought, joyless dishes.
Fortunately for diners as hungry for lunch as environmental improvement, that’s not the case at Green Sage. The food is generally solid, if simple: It’s often difficult to discern the chef’s hand. The Green Sage presupposes its diners’ affections for the ingredients featured in its drinks—a major component of the eatery’s business—and dishes: If you don’t already connect with beets, say, or tomatoes, Green Sage’s lightly-manipulated offerings are unlikely to ease your introduction.
The kitchen’s firm belief that fresh ingredients speak for themselves means the restaurant’s basic dishes aren’t radically different from what many self-professed environmentalists might make for themselves at home: Think rustic lentil soup or a gazpacho of pureed tomato and onion that might have benefited from more seasoning.
“I like that gazpacho because it’s super-simple,” says Paul Sellas, the itinerant chef who recently landed in Green Sage’s kitchen. Sellas, a Chicago native, grew up in the restaurant business and cooked under David Burke at the River Café in Brooklyn, among other gastronomic gigs.
“If you pureed it, you’d almost have the taste of cream,” Sellas explains. “If the tomatoes are good, the soup’s good. It’s just simple ingredients, so I kind of like that. Because of the way food cooking is done on TV, people feel now like you need 50 different ingredients.”
Sellas maintains most home cooks still couldn’t replicate The Green Sage’s dishes, which benefit from the “developed palates” at work in his kitchen. But some diners have already griped about the prices, wondering why they’re paying so much for a veg-and-cheese omelet that might have a spot in their own culinary repertoire. Talley’s ready with an answer:
“One of my favorite questions is, ‘Why does it cost more?’” Talley says. “The ingredients cost more, the fixtures cost more, the paint costs more. You can get paint at Home Depot for $20 a gallon, but we used EarthPaint that costs $50 a gallon. And then we painted three times because we couldn’t get the shade of green right.
“Every little ingredient has a story,” he continues. “So along that line, everything costs more. The meat’s more expensive, the potatoes are more expensive. But for the money, we’re still a good value. You can eat here for $10. My perception is we’re in line with other Asheville independents.”
When Green Sage’s kitchen asserts itself, the results are often laudable. The salad choices include a terrifically good sculpted mound of croutons, beets and Split Creek chevre, served atop a bed of greens and garnished with a sprinkling of honey-roasted pecans and a wig of wispy sprouts. I also adored the house-made veganaise that arrived with the bean burger, a tangy vegan fantasia of fresh cilantro, tofu, soy milk, tamari and agave nectar.
The burger itself, as Sellas readily admitted, is a work in progress. The current double-fried version, stinging with cumin, is passable, but suffers from inconsistent seasoning creating off-putting pockets of heat. “We’ve come a long way with that burger,” Talley says.
The kitchen’s also working out the kinks in its buttermilk spelt biscuits, which often accompany the more than 100 dozen local eggs served weekly. The biscuit I sampled was hard and dry, the result, Sellas says, of overcorrection.
“We’re trying to find the balance of durability and moistness,” Sellas admits. “We recently changed the biscuits to accommodate our sandwiches. We had the problem of sandwiches falling apart with flaky biscuits.”
I was served the evolving biscuit alongside plush, fried sweet potatoes—a highly-successful riff on traditional hash browns proposed by Talley—and a salt-scarred, yet tasty, omelet of feta, spinach and tomatoes. When I first pressed my fork to the folded omelet, a single grape tomato popped out of the concoction like a laid egg. The tomatoes and spinach were unerringly perfect, but the wonderfully briny feta rendered the dish’s added salt gratuitous.
“I routinely object to things that are too salty, and I wouldn’t have objected strongly to that, but it is salty,” Talley said after tasting the same dish. Turning to Sellas, he asked: “Did you add salt to that? Because you’re already adding a salt source…”
“Why don’t we try one with no salt and taste it?,” Sellas proposed.
“We could actually put on our menu that if you don’t want salt, we could do this without salt,” Talley added. “I do want to underscore if someone notifies us of a problem, another [plate] is on the way.”
Talley is looking to forge a friendly relationship with his customers, and has pointedly refrained from adopting a preachy posture. “I know a lot of gobbledygook nonsense and I’m not going to tell you any of it,” Talley says of health claims for foods served at Green Sage. “I’m not OK telling people ‘this is better for you.’ It’s not like we’re saying this juice is for your eyes, this one’s for your hair, this one’s for your skin.”
Although Talley has trouble containing his zeal for Green Sage’s matte lattes, which he loves to brew free for disbelievers, and delights in sneaking greens onto breakfast plates, he’s largely adopted the conclusion of Michael Pollan’s recent manifesto In Defense of Food as his nutritional guide: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
“What we’re trying to do is approach the whole thing more simply,” Talley says. “We’re not beating people over the head. We’re not saying that vegetarian is better. We’re simply trying to offer the highest quality available.”