I fell in love last week. With Savannah.
Just the name of Georgia’s oldest city has always conjured up so much mystery and intrigue for me. Is she a girl with golden curls who ran away from home? Or the last place a unicorn was ever seen? Actually, the word savanna refers to a grassy wooded area where the tree canopy doesn’t close out the light – which is most peculiar because my favorite feature of the “southern host city” are the abundant live oak and magnolia trees whose limbs are draped in silvery moss that hang like Christmas tinsel forming an almost endless umbrella along the grid of smart avenues, interrupted by 22 green squares. Some of the locals refer to her affectionately as Slow-vannah on account of the unhurried pace of life which unavoidably permeates the culinary scene as well. Many of the must-try spots like Mrs. Wilkes, Atlantic or Cotton and Rye refuse to offer reservations, and instead feature long lines of hungry (yet patient) diners who don’t seem to mind wasting an hour or more along the leafy sidewalks as they wait and wait and wait. My inner New Yorker (just the one) prefers to rely on a table waiting for me rather than the other way around.
One of the stalwart establishments, Elizabeth’s on 37th occupies a magnificently illuminated colonial house built in 1900. This proud recipient of a James Beard Foundation award has been serving low-country classics for 37 years. The dozen menu items range from soup to steak (with nowhere to hide if you happen to be a local shrimp or a half-moon clam).
I got stuck into a Corn and Parmesan Basket of Shrimp with bits of crab, green tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms resting on a puddle of green goddess dressing. Everything was there: sweet, sour, salty, crunchy and sensational.
The Fresh Scallops were seared to perfection and then layered over a soft bed of split peas and tart chives with the odd nugget of bacon for a whiff of southern smoke. But the heat from the Spicy Savannah Red Rice sure done popped my hood ‘some.
This utterly delicious southern-styled paella of Carolina rice, grouper, shrimp, clams, sausage and okra was as fresh and bright as a sweet tomato bisque, before diving into the depths of a dark and dirty gumbo.
I know one shouldn’t compare the two, but Charleston and Savannah are often thought of as sister cities that some say despite their geographic proximity haven’t spoken to one another for years! And so, it’s not surprising to discover that a great many dishes are shared and borrowed across the state line. I know I might have mentioned in a previous blog that Sean Brock’s Shrimp and Grits at Husk had sent me home starry eyed, but that was before I was ruined by Brian Gonet’s version at The Public Kitchen and Bar. (Please indulge me as I borrow a little inspiration from “Gone with the Wind” here), I do declare, that as God is my witness, I shall never order Shrimp and Grits anywhere else again! Chef Gonet spikes his grits with cheddar and bacon and then he sears chorizo sausage to extract all those piquant and peppery flavors before adding tomatoes with local shrimp before finishing everything off with sweet sherry and heavy cream. Suuuhth’n heaven!
You’ve probably been wondering why I haven’t mentioned the plethora of pecan-inspired pies, cookies, cheesecakes, bruléés and puddin’s that are as plentiful as horse-drawn carriages. That’s because I was saving room (daily) for a southern mainstay known as Leopold’s Ice-cream, where you’ll find yet another ubiquitous line of congenial Southerners snaking out into the street. My fave’s? Caramel swirl, Tutti Frutti and, of course, Butter Pecan! The 23 flavors were perfected by the original 3 Leopold brothers, and have remained unchanged since 1919.
But don’t presume for a slow, southern second that this old city can’t do anything new. The abundance of artisanal bakeries like James Beard nominee Back in the Day or hip trinket-eries that serve coffee, cookies, candles and soap like The Paris Market, Australian salad-aries like Collins Quarter or even a counter-style South African sausage-erie called Zunzi know how to harness flawless quality and authenticity with a unique and distinctive charm.
But the proverbial cake has well and truly been taken by former Prune (NYC) toque Mashama Bailey. At The Grey, a meticulously renovated art deco Greyhound bus terminal from 1934, Bailey will forever be remembered as the chef who vaulted Savannah into a new era of destination dining.
Every inlaid wood and brushed chrome detail, every bronze and white glass lamp sconce, every section of custom curved windows and a religiously seasonal menu that changes daily, makes this the scarcest table in town. Showered with acclaim as Eater’s “Restaurant of the Year”, one of Time Magazine’s “100’s greatest Places” and a James Beard nominee, Bailey and her energetic team work hard to deliver big city dishes that would easily become house favorites – in any big city. The menu is categorized by the location of the ingredients (pantry, water, dirt and pasture) and the constant blur of the gingham-shirted wait staff creates a lively, expeditious and electric atmosphere in direct contrast to Slow-vannah.
The earth-shatteringly wonderful Steak Tartare is butchered from an entire hind quarter, aged for about a month before being chopped and dressed with lemon, a spectacular home-made Worcestershire sauce and pickled quail egg. The house-made buttery Buccatini with Clams was inspired in its simplicity, as was the addition of salty Halumi cheese into an amazingly caramelized tumble of roasted delicate Squash and Spring onions.
And the only menu item that will hopefully remain a fixture into the next decade is the triumphant Chicken Country Captain, drenched in a sublime and memory-making curry sauce with slivers of crunchy almonds and pocks of sweet currants. I must have blacked out, as I don’t remember lifting the plate to my lips and licking it clean.
I’ll go out on a limb and predict that within the next five to seven years Savannah will compete handsomely in the nation’s food scene, luring the next generation of celebra-chefs to crack open a brand-new cuisine called sophista-soul. But before anyone gets too far down the line, no more walk-in’s without reservations y’all!