Chef Darin Harding mixes a dozen years of sous chef experience with fresh, organic ingredients and liberal pinches of love to serve up original culinary creations at his new Bishop bistro.
Since Sage Restaurant opened on Aug. 1 at 621 W. Line St., customers have been enjoying inventive “continental fine dining,” said Harding, a former Convict Lake Restaurant chef. “You can dress up or down; the emphasis is on the food.”
Server Shallee Smith describes Sage as having a serene, friendly atmosphere, where walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are recommended. Purple napkins add a splash of color to understated table settings. The neutral-themed interior is garnished with local photographer Michael McDermott’s art.
About the food: Kitchen staff José Xocua, also formerly of Convict Lake Restaurant, praised Sage’s menu, with its combination of “fantastico” specials and traditional fare. Xocua’s colleague, Brandon Betts, said he’s optimistic about Sage’s future. “It’s what this town needs.”
The restaurant got its name from the diverse meanings “sage” has for Bishop-native Harding. It’s a seasoning herb, of course, but the hearty sage scrub is also a major feature of the bistro’s picturesque Sierra view. Sage is also the name of Harding’s yellow lab.
Speaking of love, it is also one of Harding’s key ingredients. “I throw love in (everything). Love comes through the finger tips. And I’m all about slow. Braising. I like to play with marinades. Food shouldn’t just be ripped from the package and thrown on the heat.
“We like to create new things. I like to blend different tastes, fuse different cuisines,” such as French, Italian and Asian. Harding is continuously nurturing and perfecting his “meat and potatoes with a flair” fare, which includes veal osso bucco, pecan-crusted pork tenderloin, bison meatloaf, clam and mahogany-smoked bacon pasta, salmon wontons, veggie ravioli trio, homemade ice creams and macaroons, vanilla bean crème brulée and other delectables.
Harding plans to “use local meats and offer wild game specials as (Sage) evolves.” He favors organic ingredients, pinching herbs and harvesting produce from his personal garden. The restaurateur shops at the local Saturday morning farmers market. Whenever possible, Harding prefers to use organic chicken and grass-fed beef.
Originality has become increasingly challenging, though, Harding explained, with heightened public awareness through food channels and websites. Never plagiarizing, Harding said that his original creations come from an instinct borne of many learning experiences and environments that includes 12 years of experience at Convict Lake Restaurant.
After high school, Harding left Bishop long enough to attend Butte College in Chico. There, the future chef got his first taste of restaurant work when he went looking for a server job at IHOP. Cooking was in his stars because Harding was immediately offered the opportunity to train as a cook. He said he jumped at the extra $3 per hour and, as a bonus, discovered that the “fast-paced style” and creativity of restaurant cooking suited him.
Out shooting hoops at a Chico court one day, he met a fellow who needed a dishwasher and prep man, and Harding bounced up the next level of the culinary ladder. “I was like a sponge, I can’t explain it,” Harding said of his four-year tenure at Red Tavern where he was introduced to a new, broader cooking experience.
In 2001, Harding moved to Mammoth Lakes where, he was hired as a sous chef, or sauce expert, by Convict Lake Executive Chef Matt Eoff. Harding said his experience “deepened vastly” when Eoff left and Harding was promoted to executive chef for the last three-and-a-half years of his tenure there.
When he’s not whipping around his kitchen, seasoning, sautéing, sifting, sizzling, stirring, sprinkling and otherwise making culinary magic, the energetic, animated chef said he likes to go fast, whipping down the ski and snowboard slopes, tearing downhill on his mountain bike and jet skiing on Klondike Lake. “That why I love this area.”
Still, work-in-progress Sage has Harding’s whole heart right now. The menu is ever-changing. Soon, instrumental, classical and jazz sounds will be mingling with dinner conversation. A dining patio wants setting up. Live music nights are under consideration. While Sage is open for seating from 4:30 p.m. until closing, Thursdays through Mondays, it is also available for private affairs.
For more information or to make reservations, call (760) 258-1344.
Sage Restaurant kitchen staff (l-r) José Xocua, chef/owner Darin Harding and Brandon Betts prepare for the opening of the doors at 4:30 p.m. Harding worked with Xocua for three years at Convict Lake Restaurant and met former Holy Smokes cook Betts when Harding was renting a U-Haul to move kitchen equipment.