Art and fine dining have always been kissing cousins. One uses a palette of paints, the other one of vegetables and proteins, but both appeal to the eyes as well as the other senses. So if you’re headed to The Savoy at 21C, you shouldn’t be surprised to see art on the plate as well as the walls, as the boutique hotel chain is known for its dedication to gallery space.
But where some chefs are baroque or abstract, trying to get every theme and color on the plate at once, chef Joe West is Mondrian, using the simplicity of his ingredients to their best advantage through finely honed technique. Add in his signature humor in the menu writing and you have a surefire combination for a wonderful and whimsical dining spot.
West most recently started up the kitchen at Stock Hill Steakhouse. While the cuisine would be at home on any steakhouse menu in Manhattan, gobbled up by stockbrokers during power lunches, it never seemed to fit West’s style. When approached by the 21C group, he was given carte blanche to create a menu that reflects both his signature style and the past menus for which the historic Savoy Grill was known.
The blending of old and new is a theme throughout The Savoy—diners can see the original walls and ornate ceiling behind the sleek light panels and gallery walls hung with modern photographic art. And when a turquoise penguin visits your table, you can say that you’ve officially arrived at a 21C property.
But onto the main event—dinner. The Savoy is split up into two sides, with a spacious bar area complete with emerald green subway tiles and intimate booth seating as well as the more modern dining room with comfortable but close banquette seating on the edges and tables in the middle. There are a few different items available in the bar, including bar bites for $2 a piece. Pro tip—the sweet and spicy chicken wings are worth a trip to the bar, as is the creamy/tangy combo of a goat cheese filled cherry pepper wrapped in bacon.
The main menu is broken up into introductions, proteins, and accompaniments. Although the Savoy isn’t a steakhouse, it does feature proteins á la carte, with sides ordered separately. The sides are generous for the most part, and the ones that aren’t are worth fighting over, such as the freshly poached potato gnocchi finished in butter sauce with sautéed mushrooms and an oven-roasted tomato. Did I mention the crispy Asiago cracker to finish the dish? You’ll want that as well.
West’s vision for the menu is a reimagining of some of the original menu items from the Savoy in the middle of the 20th century. You’ll see dishes that you haven’t seen since the Kennedy administration—avocado crab Louis, baked Alaska, deviled lamb chops—and wonder why they disappeared. Under his tutelage, the kitchen at The Savoy is turning out dishes that had great bones originally but got lost in the shuffle of haute cuisine.
The avocado crab Louis is a great example. It is a simple dish that, executed poorly, becomes a watery mess of lettuce and shellfish. Here, the sweet and crispy bibb lettuces set the stage for meltingly soft lump crabmeat kissed with a champagne vinaigrette. Garnished with late season heirloom tomatoes, it’s a light and refreshing start to a memorable meal.
I’m a lover of offal, so I had to try the chicken liver mousse tart. Baked into a pastry shell, this creamy, smooth concoction was the perfect base for a tangy layer of Missouri peach mostarda. A bit of bitter frisée offered punctuation and crunch. My only request would be a slightly thicker layer of the mostarda—the rich unctuousness of the liver begged for a more robust acid to balance it.
For proteins, two stood out. The chicken française was a wonderfully light entrée. The chicken breast is pounded out thin and breaded with a light, crispy coating and topped with a citrusy gremolata. It takes all the flavors from chicken piccata and gives it a satisfying crunch. Paired with the sautéed greens, a mix of Swiss chard, kale and whatever else looks good from the farmers market, cooked in garlic, lemon and white wine and finished with crispy breadcrumbs, it’s a perfect duo.
The deviled lamb chops are another throwback dish making a comeback based on West’s version. Braised leg of lamb is fork tender and accompanied by two lollypop lamb chops, cooked to a perfect medium rare. The golden vadouvan curry spice is an accent rather than a focal point and doesn’t stand in the way of the beautiful sauceboat of warm mint jelly that is served on the side. Yes, it’s served with a sauceboat in 2018, and you’ll be glad that it is.
There’s a sleeper dish on the proteins menu as well. Of course, you can go for the Steak Diane or prime rib in the $30 range, and they will be perfect examples of beef. But for $13, you can also get the best double steak burger in town, plus a side of steak fries.
Yes, I know that those are fighting words in fine dining these days—many of the restaurants that have opened in the last year have featured burgers alongside their more precious dishes and most are inspired by the same place—Town Topic. At the Savoy, West keeps it simple—no veggies, no aiolis, just classic dry-aged ground steak fried with crispy edges and doubled up with Wisconsin American cheese. There are only three components needed for a great burger—beef, cheese, bun—and this one nails it on all counts.
If you can imagine eating dessert, you must try the Baked Alaska. It’s a dessert whose appeal is based on the juxtaposition of textures. The creaminess of the French lavender ice cream melds with the dense lemon cake on the bottom. The softness of the fresh meringue, lightly toasted with a blow torch, encases everything, and it all sits in a pool of piquant lemon sauce. It’s a classic for a reason; everything works together in a symphony of balance. It’s not too sweet, not too sour and the beehive presentation is adorable.
The bar program accents the menu well. Dominic Petrucci, fresh from a stint at The Monarch Bar, lends his expertise on the craft cocktail side of things. He offers three cocktail levels—Heritage (the classics), Vogue, and Contemporary. Drinks like the Mer-tini take a humorous look at classics, in this case, replacing olive brine with seaweed and clam. The Contemporary menu, which when we dined featured all cocktails made with Angel’s Envy Bourbon, took one spirit and interpreted it in three ways. The Memento Mori translated as “remember death,” may seem more serious but the blend of Angel’s Envy Portwood, honeycomb Angostura, and oxidized wine demerara belie positive look at the end of it all.
Baked Alaska comprises a creamy French lavender ice cream melded with dense lemon cake. The fresh meringue is lightly toasted with a blowtorch, encasing everything so it sits in a pool of lemon sauce.
West will gradually add new dishes to the menu, like the rainbow-hued beats on a cloud of yogurt foam that appeared in late September, but he isn’t keen to do substantial menu changes. He’s happy to continue doing the simple dishes that people have loved for decades exceptionally well.
The Savoy at 21C lets Joe West do what he does best — infuse humor and fun into fine dining.
Each meal ends with a copper mug filled with fresh cotton candy, a sweet ending to a memorable meal. Who can say no to such a lovely reminder of childhood? I know I can’t. I’m sure I’ll be back for more.