Fishing with the Green Fairy at the Savoy 

With a lighter touch, the seafood and spirits at Wicker Park's Savoy might be worth returning for

Clams with chorizo and absinthe

Clams with chorizo and absinthe

Andrea Bauer

Fish and absinthe is the unlikely union at the heart of the Savoy, a narrow, nautically decked spot that replaced the ill-fated La Fonda del Gusto, a midscale, BYOB Mexican restaurant that enforced a bizarre restriction on the amount of booze one could carry in. The only things restricting a wide range of alcohol intake at the Savoy—even beyond absinthe—will be the size of your tolerance and budget.

The menu is from young chef Brian Greene, who, on either side of a stint at the Purple Pig, spent much of his career working in North Shore restaurants such as Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, Abigail's American Bistro, and M Restaurant. From an outside perspective nothing about that trajectory foreshadows the GT Fish & Oyster-style diversity of seafood options he's presenting here—from a raw bar to appetizers and entrees (which, unlike at GT Fish, are not explicitly not designed for sharing).

For now at least the raw bar, which includes composed standards such as ceviche, tuna tartare, and hamachi crudo, as well as crab legs and raw oysters, presents a few inauspicious beginnings. It's hard to pass on an unusual creature like a geoduck, a phallic-looking longneck clam, but the Savoy's offering, at $16, is an expensive and miserly portion of this gigantic bivalve, little flaps of flesh whose taste and texture are lost in the sweetness of pickled plum.

Even worse, on the Savoy's Facebook page there are photographs of cooks in the kitchen shucking an iced hotel pan's worth of oysters during prep, rather than to order. If this is standard operating procedure it would explain why three separate orders of east- and west-coast mollusks on the half shell—on two different occasions—were dry and devoid of the briny liquor essential to an enjoyably slurpy oyster. An unhappy proportion of these were also mangled by the shucker's knife. Greene's appealing accompaniments, such as a brisk ginger wasabi mignonette and a smoked tomato cocktail sauce, can't disguise executional errors this severe.

There's a lot room for improvement in the raw department, but there are also quite a few winning dishes elsewhere on the menu. The kitchen does much better with oysters Rockefeller, the spinach studded with guanciale and licked with anise-y Pernod. That's not the only instance in which the bar's collection of absinthes is put to work in the kitchen. There's an outstanding bowl of sunray venus clams in a chorizo, piquillo pepper, and absinthe-spiked broth. These are remarkable shellfish, which turn a vivid striated orange-pink when cooked and are as sweet and plump as they are beautiful. Individually portioned fish such as a pan-seared halibut with a multinational cast of Asian accents (black rice, Chinese broccoli, and blistered shisito peppers) or steaky grilled sturgeon with oyster mushrooms and dessert-sweet creamed corn sauce are accented interestingly. But a whole deep-fried snapper crisped up with rice flour batter and served with chickpeas and smoked eggplant puree spent a few too many seconds in the hot oil.

Overcooking also compromised a few tough, gnarly, Peruvian-style grilled beef heart skewers with black mint sauce, a bit of an oddball appetizer in the context of the rest of the menu. And as with the sturgeon there seems to be a tendency to oversweeten, particularly with the sauces and garnishes among the non-seafood-focused plates, which include a rib eye, smoked chicken, and coffee-rubbed pork chops. An otherwise delicious plate of pork belly confit and fat, seared scallops is just a touch too cloying with a date gastrique and a thick smear of jamlike cherry mojo.

The menu is augmented by a selection of robust salads, among them a plate of grilled sourdough cubes tangled among pea shoots with olives and a smoky tomato vinaigrette, served with sheaves of char-grilled romaine sprinkled with blue cheese and candied nuts.

Even though a cocktail list like the Savoy's—one totally tied to absinthe—is a commercially risky gambit, fish does in fact go well with that spirit. The Green Fairy (unfairly) carries loaded but fascinating historical baggage, and its comeback—like the recent popularization of "moonshine"—is dependent on its mythology of danger and illicitness. But unlike white whiskey, absinthe actually is a complex and often delicious spirit, and bartender Deidre Hays, who is a talking library of its lore, makes it accessible.

On the other hand she measures her cocktails by eye, without the aid of a jigger, which is unheard of in this time of enlightened cocktailing. On one visit she told us a mathematician drinking at her former job at Benny's Chop House diagnosed her with a "calibrated eye." That may be true, but I couldn't help but wonder if it also threw off a few of her own creations (there's also a selection of classics), which skewed far too sweet. This is particularly true of the Corpse Revival (a take on the eye-opener known as the Corpse Reviver #1) dosed with fortified wine, and the Mezcal-based "Sweet (sweet)" Jane which, as advertised, is far too treacly to finish, with a cherry-flavored liqueur obviating much of the main spirit's smokiness. But beyond the overwhelming collection of nearly 50 absinthes there's an interesting if smaller selection of Spanish and French ciders, sherry, and other fortified wines, as well as craft brews by the bottle and Penitence Rye Stout on draft, specifically meant to drink with oysters.

In general the food at the Savoy could use a lighter touch: less overcooking, oversweetening, and overmanipulating. But the restaurant does execute well in the way its employees relate to its customers. The staff seems an engaging group, all the way on up to Greene, who takes time for genuine interaction with his guests. It's that kind of personality that endears regulars—who will forgive a place its wrong turns long enough for the staff to straighten them out.

Related Locations

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Mike Sula

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories

Follow Us

Sign up for newsletters »

 Early Warnings
 Food & Drink
 Reader Recommends
 Reader Events and Offers