Whether vegetarian, diabetic, gluten-free or "cleansing," customers of Ashland's Sauce restaurant think the menu was "made just for them." And whether they order superfoods or ethnic-inspired comfort foods, eating at Sauce doesn't feel like eating at a restaurant, they say.
"I think that's one of the biggest compliments," says co-owner Tara Boucher. "People leave saying they feel well."
The success of vegetable bowls served over a scant seven months at Sauce has bowled over Boucher, 41, and 47-year-old husband Brad Boucher. The couple made the "counterintuitive choice" to open a restaurant in an inhospitable economy. Cooking their home recipes for the public, however, was an obvious opportunity.
"I always felt like I could get anybody to eat anything," says Tara.
Sauces, appropriately, are her secret weapon. The restaurant offers numerous, homemade condiment choices: toasted sesame, spicy peanut, mango-tamarind, zesty green goddess, green chutney, cilantro pesto, tahini, miso gravy — even ginger teriyaki that Boucher says she doesn't do "uniquely well." But all are so popular that the Bouchers are considering retail sales down the road.
"We're still wanting to really refine," says Tara.
Since taking over Three Rivers Cuisine of India in November, then quietly unveiling their own restaurant in January, the Bouchers have made several menu revisions. Summer brought lighter, Mediterranean-inspired dishes such as quinoa salad, lettuce wraps with roasted vegetables and peanut sauce, and the "Athena" bowl of greens, tomato, cucumber and feta. Soon all of the restaurant's brown rice will be sprouted.
Yet Sauce's most popular dishes are the originals: the Tuscan bowl of slow-roasted vegetables topped with kale "chips" and the Bodhi bowl of ginger-glazed squash and garlic-braised greens. Like all Sauce bowls, each comes with either rice or quinoa. The latter is hands-down the top seller, say the Bouchers. And while entrees — priced between $7.40 and $13.75 — will evolve with the seasonal availability of produce, organic kale will be featured year-round.
"We felt really committed to kale and quinoa being a cornerstone," says Tara Boucher. "Between the two, you're covered nutritionally."
Staff of Hidden Springs Wellness Center, an Ashland alternative medical clinic located nearby, apparently agree. They've designated Sauce as a source for food that complies with the center's semiannual, 28-day cleanse programs. Organic lamb, Thai vegetable and coconut-chicken curries; red-lentil and ginger-butternut soups, kimchi, roasted Brussels sprouts and preparations of kale and quinoa constitute the 10 items on Sauce's menu marked as "cleanse-friendly" for clients of Hidden Springs.
"Their food is healthy enough to begin with — and a lot of it is organic," says Hidden Springs co-owner and program director Rod Newton. "People come to Sauce, and then they come right over and take the class."
Several other Ashland eateries — Greenleaf, Grilla Bites, Pangea and Sesame Asian Kitchen — have devised cleanse menus for clients of Hidden Springs, says Newton, but Sauce has the added appeal of proximity to the clinic on Lit Way, just a few steps from the restaurant in the Ashland Street Cinema complex.
"For us at Hidden Springs to be able to go over there for lunch, it's fabulous," says Newton. "It's our favorite lunch place."
The ambiance, say the Bouchers, has a way of putting even solitary diners at ease, or it "challenges" them a bit, depending on their perspective. Brad Boucher, a woodworker by trade, fashioned all the tables and interior trims. He selected local sugar pine for its "sunshiney" tone and finished it with teak oil. Single-party tables ring the dining room, but two 12-seat tables in the center are Boucher's favorite, more for their message than aesthetic.
"There's an energy, there's a language to the communal table."
Versed in the philosophies of Tibetan Buddhism, Indian ayurveda and macrobiotics, the couple have lived for 15 years on the original Colestine Valley site of Rising Sun Farms, now in Phoenix. Immersed as a teen in the local Tibetan Buddhist community, Tara Boucher traveled through India and Nepal and, after apprenticing in those cultures' cuisines, worked for several years as a private chef for Buddhist leaders traveling between religious events. Sauce's traditional Indian dahl and organic bison broth echo Boucher's years of simple cooking for a health-conscious audience.
"We've been doing broths for like 25 years," says Boucher. "Now, they're kind of fashionable."
Sauce's version, first prepared as a special until it became a popular fixture, is one dish credited to Brad Boucher. The other is kimchi, house-fermented from organic bok choy, Napa cabbage and daikon. Just a small serving for $3 is chock-full of desirable "flora," he says.
"Just a little bit every day is where you get your benefit from it."
Such superfoods are offset by pan-fried flatbread, beignets and crepes, which even gluten-free customers often can't resist, says Tara.
While the restaurant's official motto is "Sauce makes it tasty," Brad says it really should be "simple food well prepared."
"Simple food, well prepared, becomes special."