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Photo by Sarah Lemon Chicken-vegetable curry is an attractive dish at Sauce restaurant in Ashland.

Sauce’s shine dims a little after expanded seating

For the past few years, I’ve counted Sauce among Ashland’s best-kept dining secrets.

Known, of course, to college students and health-conscious locals, the whole-foods restaurant in the Ashland Street Cinema complex steadily has gained a following since 2012. It quietly opened in the former space of Three Rivers Indian Cuisine with a casual ambiance and utterly delicious, globally inspired fare.

In a move to update its decor and expand its seating, Sauce underwent a makeover early last year with eye-catching results. The warm tones, natural-wood furnishings and organic yet chic aesthetic are perfectly in keeping with Sauce’s wholesome cuisine, which I couldn’t wait to try again after a couple of years between visits. A recent weekday lunch, however, caused me to wonder if all the focus in the front of the house has detracted from the cooking.

I recall that everything I tried at Sauce several years ago had a prepared-to-order taste. Flavors were vibrant and well-developed even before adding some of Sauce’s signature condiments. A friend and I formed the opinion that Sauce’s lamb curry was the best we’d tried anywhere, with a rich savor and just the right amount of heat.

This time, though, I got the impression that Sauce’s methods resemble many Thai and Indian establishments that prepare bases ahead of time and reheat them, adding diners’ choice of protein, rather than cooking meat in the sauce, which imparts much more flavor and moisture. The chunks of meat in my Tibetan lamb curry ($13.75) were lean but also on the dry side, and the dish verged on tepid, rather than the steaming-hot plate I recalled. The thin coconut-curry sauce seemed out of balance with the hefty chunks of potato, tomato and daikon.

My friend’s chicken-vegetable curry ($15.45), with its fresh basil garnish, was the more attractive of the two plates. But he and I agreed that Sauce’s lightly cooked vegetables are the real star attractions. We both loved our side-dish servings of braised kale, and he commented that the sesame cabbage, substituted at his request for starch, was the tastiest aspect of his meal.

Sauce’s simple, straightforward flavors inspire customers to add house-made, specialty sauces, many vegan or gluten-, soy- and sugar-free. A dozen sauces are available at 50 cents per order, if they don’t come standard with a dish.

Mango-tamarind sauce offered a bright pop of flavor and acid to my curry. My friend’s peanut sauce was a good match with his curry and vegetables. Other sauces include miso, sesame, teriyaki, tahini, “goddess,” “nirvana” and “sherpa.”

The build-your-bowl option plays up the variety of sauces, vegetables, proteins and extras on offer. For $9.25, diners get a choice of grain, squash, cabbage or spring mix; they add four cooked or raw vegetables and finish with one sauce. Additional charges apply to proteins and extra toppings, from dairy and eggs, to nuts and seeds, to butter and oils.

Sauce also boasts eight specialty bowls, ranging in price from $9.75 for the kale chip-topped Tuscan bowl to $15.75 for the Buddha bowl with toasted nori seaweed. Seven salads from $5.75 for organic mesclun to $12.75 for the “prana” complement seven soups, notably chicken and beef bone broths, starting at $3.75 for a cup garnished with cabbage, green onion and cilantro.

Sauce’s take on the Indian flatbread naan previously has tested my resolve to order conservatively. Pan-fried instead of baked, it was soft with a slight crunch and also savory from olive oil. A variety of toppings elevate prices from $4.75 for plain to $8 for caramelized onions, goat cheese and basil. Ordering the garlic naan for $5.25, I wasn’t nearly as impressed as I’d been on past visits. The bread wasn’t as tender as I remembered it, nor was the garlic as pungent.

I did delight in Sauce’s house-made chai tea ($2.50), mixed with whole milk and strong on the spices. In addition to kombucha on tap, beer, wine and saké are available.

I also plucked a gluten-free, vegan coconut panna cotta from the cold case in front of the register. The price of $4 seemed a bit steep for the small portion. But topped with toasted coconut, it was plenty rich and indulgent.

Located at 1640 Ashland St., Sauce is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Call 541-482-5863 or see www.saucewholefoodcafe.com.

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