Low Country Creole cooking is the focus of this Somerset restaurant.
By: Pat Tanner
SOMERSET I was certain, for two reasons, that I would like Savannah, which opened in the Quality Inn on Easton Avenue in Somerset last March. First, it features the Low Country cooking of Georgia and South Carolina you know: benne biscuits, hoppin John, red rice, catfish. Second, it is sister restaurant to Old Bay, the popular New Brunswick restaurant that features the Creole and Cajun cuisine of New Orleans.
Once there, though, I began to have mixed feelings. The 80-seat dining room looks like a corporate banquet room, or, worse yet, a newly decorated doctor’s waiting room. Pale gray speckled wallpaper tops pale gray beaded wainscoting. White linens and commercial carpet meant to hide stains add to the banality. Even the colorful paintings of Savannah’s historic homes and landscape that line the walls fail to cheer up the space. However, the chairs are comfortable and the tables are spaced nicely apart.
A perusal of the menu, however, set my spirits soaring again: Savannah crab cakes ($9), house-smoked oysters ($8), crawfish pot pie ($10), Southern fried chicken ($9), shrimp Creole ($14) it was going to be a tough but happy choice. Ultimately, though, almost every dish we tried disappointed.
The crab cake appetizer consisted of two large, flat, limp, soggy disks. Although, unlike purists, I like my cakes to be about half crab and half filler, these went way past the halfway mark with filler. Even the port wine-tomato mayonnaise couldn’t save them.
The soup of the day was winter squash bisque ($3), one of my favorites. But this rendition was bland, and I actively disliked the ragged texture of the shreds of squash it contained.
Dry-smoked baby back ribs ($9), a house specialty, was a generous half-slab portion. The flavor was there, but the ribs were so dry that repeated dippings into the accompanying mustard sauce was an absolute necessity. Our last hope among the appetizers was a special salad of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes.
Unfortunately, we were brought breaded mozzarella sticks ($5), in all their pre-fab, fried glory. Our waitress young and serious but not knowledgeable about the menu offered to take them back, but the diner who ordered the dish didn’t have the heart to try again.
Just when I was giving up on the meal, a ray of hope appeared in the form of a crawfish étouffée special ($13). Perhaps owing more to Louisiana than Georgia, the dish was wonderful nonetheless. A goodly number of small, tender, flavorful crayfish dotted the sauce, which, having been made from a properly browned roux, was wonderfully dark, thick and spicy. This was set over perfectly cooked long-grain white rice. Another appealing dish but also one Low Country in name only is General Oglethorpe’s shrimp and pasta ($14). A garlicky melange of bow-tie pasta and large shrimp in a shrimp broth flavored with watercress, it was marred only by too much salt contributed by too many Kalamata olives.
One entree we tried reflected the kitchen’s tendency toward sweetness, revealed in such things as grilled peach and hoisin-marinated pork chop, honey butter that came with a basket of sourdough rolls, and sweet, jalapeno-spiked cornbread (both breads were very good). We liked the flavor of the charred orange and port wine glaze that covered our pecan-crusted duck ($17 for half a duck), but it made the crust and skin limp and soggy.
Similarly limp and soggy was, of all things, the Southern fried chicken ($9), which didn’t have much chicken flavor either. Its accompanying garlic mashed potatoes were nicely chunky and home-style, but I could detect no garlic. A side of collard greens one of my favorite vegetables was bland.
Savannah has a short wine list that is full of familiar and comfortable bottles like Wente chardonnay ($19) and Ravenswood merlot (at $28, it is near the high end of the list). Its wine-by-the-glass selection needs some serious upgrading though: three of the 10 offerings are from Vendage. The restaurant was out of my first selection, Buena Vista sauvignon blanc ($5), so I settled for a Talus chardonnay ($4.25), another reliable lower-end brand.
Savannah bread pudding with peach Anglaise sauce ($4) was a mistake: two wet, solid wedges of indeterminable flavor, although the sauce was nicely done. Chocolate Amaretto sin pie ($5) was not at all sinful and lacked the rich flavor that only top-grade chocolate provides.
I can’t figure out why Savannah’s owners and manager, who operate the Old Bay restaurant so successfully, haven’t applied their know-how to Savannah. Is it that it offers catering in banquet rooms that serve up to 200? Or its location inside the Quality Inn that forces the menu to offer such things as mozzarella sticks, Caesar salad, fried calamari, and even a ground sirloin platter? I can’t help wishing they could raise the bar a bit and commit to giving the area respectable renditions of the wonderful dishes that comprise Low County cooking.