Chef Shawn McClain finds opportunity in spades at Sage

Shawn McClain.
Photo: Jeff Kauck

Some chefs find their niche and stick to it. They do Italian, crafting silken pastas and rich, earthy sauces, or opt for Japanese, plating slices of fresh fish in bright, sculptural displays. They become the masters of their chosen cuisine, and excel to the point of redefining it. Sushi is born again. French classics are transformed for 21st century palettes. But other chefs refuse to enter into a culinary marriage. You might say Chef Shawn McClain is a serial monogamist in the kitchen, exploring different flavors and ingredients in every restaurant he opens, but approaching each with the utmost commitment. Lucky for Las Vegas he isn’t ready to settle down just yet.

McClain’s name is new to the Vegas restaurant scene, in fact, in some ways it hasn’t even arrived yet. A San Diego native, best known for his three landmark restaurants in Chicago, McClain is preparing to open a fourth, Sage, at City Center in December 2009. This weekend the James Beard award-winning chef is in town to cook a course for the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America gala dinner at the Palazzo. As he describes his dish, a lamb saddle served with squash, brown butter rapini and hazelnut butter vinaigrette, I can feel my mouth beginning to water. Is it December of 2009 yet?

Each of McClain’s current eateries have a clear, stated focus – Asian-influenced seafood at Spring, seasonal vegetables at Green Zebra, artisanal meats and Mediterranean flavors at Custom House – and all of them have become destinations within the Chicago dining landscape, even garnering McClain a cherished visit from New York Times writer Mark Bittman. Sage, however, will be less tightly defined.

“I look at it as an opportunity to open up the boundaries a little bit, and to bring all the ideas together,” McClain says. The restaurant will tap into the chef’s menus across his current restaurants to create a more eclectic dining experience. “It will expose people to my cuisine from A to Z.”

Leach Blog Photo

Scenes from Shawn McClain's Custom House in Chicago.

Underlying the menu at all of McClain’s restaurants are themes of sustainable agriculture and seasonality, easy to accommodate in the Midwest’s ample farm country. Both will take on a slightly different form in the desert.

“I think it really opens up the West Coast, California being the number one grower of so many things and having an incredibly long growing season,” McClain says. “It’s kind of a new market, a new big farm to me out there. We’re going to cook seasonal and cook things that are at their best and peek.”

It’s a wider view of locally grown, the chef jokes, but he probably won’t be cooking a lot of cactus. Thus far those same basic principles have meant that most of the McClain’s trials end in successes. Catering to Vegas, however, may require some tweaks to the game plan.

“The menu will be a learning experience. I’m sure there’ll be some dishes that I really want to sell that will be duds. We want to be appealing to the whole spectrum of the market, not just high or low end.”

Today, the menu changes and the California produce are still more than a year away

“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” McClain says of opening Sage in the already saturated Vegas restaurant scene, but even as he marvels at being listed along side the likes of Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy, the chef sounds largely unfazed. “There’s always pressure no matter what you do. There’s an added spotlight being out there, but I’m just excited. My whole career has just been one of taking a day at a time and just concentrating on what I do on that day and seeing what opportunities arrive.”

For McClain, opportunity is here in spades, or rather, in Sage.

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