By Todd Barron @ FoodieCuisine.com
The 1620 Restaurant opened in 1990 to success in Little Rock and continued the trend well after Executive Chef Evette Brady bought it in 1998. Evette started cooking at a young age, attended culinary school in Fox Valley, Wisconsin, and worked at popular restaurants in Little Rock such as Alouette’s. In 2012, 1620 closed. Behind closed doors, with nothing more than a blue dumpster to give away the work being done, chefs, carpenters and designers worked to create a brand new experience. In late 2012 it reopened as 1620 Savoy with a brand new look, menu, and staff. The new owner hopes to send Savoy to new heights in the Little Rock restaurant scene, and possibly even the entire South.
According to the General Manager Rick Qualls, Savoy is named after the Savoy Ballroom that started in the 1920s on 596 Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st Streets in Harlem, New York City. The design loosely follows the Art Deco style of the period with a makeover of current times along with hints of what is envisioned when you think of Jazz. The blue lighting along the ceiling’s edge, the waterfall glass, and the live band which is not loud but entertaining, all help realize the intent of the design. Savoy is not casual but has a light atmosphere to it and you are never pressed to feel formal. It does not feel “stuffy” or boring and offers an energetic mood without being draining.
As well as the building, the menu from 1620 has been completely renovated and the result is a fusion of French cuisine with the flavors expected of ever-progressing American cuisine. The experience of chefs Payne Harding and John Masching shine through with dishes featuring items such as pork belly, wyagu rib-eye, kurobuta pork, and crab salad. You can tell from their attention to detail that both worked and apprenticed at famous restaurants in New York and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
With dinner reservations at 7pm this past Saturday for four people, we arrived at 6:50pm and were promptly seated in the corner at a nice table with half of the chairs in a booth of sorts and the other two chairs out in the open. I would have preferred the booth seats but the couple with us were celebrating their anniversary and I am not about to impede on that experience. I could not see the live band but I could hear them and most importantly, they were not loud. The last thing I want to do is dine where I have to yell to have a decent conversation and Savoy handles this perfectly. I do feel on the edge of being dressed nicely enough, with a dress shirt and jeans, but am not uncomfortable.
Our waiter, Westin, arrives quickly and takes my drink order of iced-tea while the others look at the well populated wine menu. Savoy has just hired a Sommelier named Jeff Yant and he comes by to discuss the various wine options available. Everyone orders wine (except me,) and peruse the main menu along with the tasting menu that Westin has given each of us. Each week Savoy offers a different tasting menu that is designed by one of the chefs. This week they offer a menu of a crab salad, pork cheek ravioli, wagyu rib-eye, and some other items. You can order the tasting menu with or without a predesignated wine pairing or you can order from it a la carte.
For salads we order the crab salad and the wedge salad and for appetizers (small plates) we order the lobster risotto, the pork cheek ravioli from the tasting menu, the bacon & egg, the charcuterie, and the black sesame calamari. We sample the fresh bread while we wait and our waiter cannot be more attentive. He goes the extra mile by scraping crumbs from the table and replaces cutlery after each item is completed. The service is quick and not pretentious and I plan on asking for him the next time we dine there. While we wait, we are served an amuse-bouche to get our palettes started and it consists of a small crisp topped with herbed goat cheese and a single micro-green. The crisp is well toasted and the herbal notes of the goat cheese are not overpowering. It is tiny, as it should be, but does a good job of preparing us for the meal.
Our salads come out first and although the wedge looks good, my crab salad from the tasting menu looks even better. It consists of a large mound of fresh crab meat, topped with baby greens, and is sided by an avocado mousse. A cheddar foam sits at the bottom of the plate and pairs very well with the crab. The mousse is very light with the right amount of fresh avocado flavor and it also pairs well with the freshly-sweet crab meat. Altogether I really enjoy my salad and the refinement of it reminds me of other great restaurants around the country. I try a bite of the wedge salad and the lettuce is cold with just the right amount of dressing. It tastes good but is not nearly as inspirational as the crab salad.
After another round of wine for everyone but me, our small plates arrive. Everything looks wonderful but my attention is promptly drawn to the simply named Bacon & Egg appetizer which sits before me. Although simple in name, it is complex in flavor, consisting of braised pork belly served atop a Havarti cheese fondue, with a wonderfully cooked egg on top. The egg breaks apart as expected and coats the pork with savory goodness. The apple cider braising shines through with a deep of flavor with acidic hints from the vinegar. The cheese fondue adds luxurious texture to the pork and it not overpowering. The pork belly is a bit chewy from the braising, but that does not prevent it from being my favorite part of the entire experience.
Tastes vary greatly with risotto and I prefer mine to be firm. Savoy’s does not disappoint as the lobster risotto tastes of the ocean is not too creamy. The calamari appetizer has hints of pepper but is a little too soggy for my tastes. That and I am still overwhelmed from the richness of the pork belly. Lastly, the charcuterie appetizer comes with duck prosciutto and several cheeses including a vibrant blue cheese which pairs well with the prosciutto and crackers. Every appetizer is well prepared but the pork belly is by far the best item on the table followed by the lobster risotto. Given another chance I would order either one without giving it a second thought.
Another round of wine is served along with a sorbet to cleanse our palettes. It is cold and tart and does the job of preparing us for the entrees. The entree show on-time as expected and look great. I had ordered the Duck Savoy which is maple-glazed and sided with braised collards, roasted turnips, and sits atop a Huckleberry Jus. It also came with the optional foie gras pairing which is served pan-seared and on the side. The duck was perfectly crisp with a beautiful maple glaze and had the internal color you expect from a Medium-Rare preparation. It went especially well with the Huckleberry sauce and the foie gras. The fruit flavor of the sauce helped offset the richness of the foie gras. I did not care for the tortellini served with the dish as it was a bit mealy and felt out of place but the collards made up for it. My only suggestion would be to add more sauce and get rid of the pasta.
My good friend Chris had the Pasta “Fourty-Four” which consists of shrimp, scallops, crawfish, a homemade fettuccine, and creole cream. The pasta was well cooked but not too firm and the dish had a generous amount of shellfish. I happen to really enjoy spicy food and can stand a lot of heat but found the dish to be right on the edge of too spicy for what was expected. I always tell people that if you do not cry it is not spicy enough, but given the rest of the meal I was surprised to taste just how spicy it was. Although almost too spicy, it was not and had a great amount of creole flavor and Chris finished it all. Had we been in New Orleans we would have felt right at home.
My wife ordered the tasting menu special of the coffee rubbed Wyagu Rib-eye served atop mustard greens. Savoy had removed all of the “bad bits” from the rib-eye, leaving perfect medallions of beef which were crusted with coffee grounds. You could see the marbling of the Wyagu and it tasted as good as it looked with a subtle coffee aftertaste. She had ordered it Medium-Rare but given the small size of the medallions it was almost too firm. In the future I would order it Rare but other than that small textural item, it was wonderful.
For dessert we had all ordered the souffles which you must order at the start of the meal given how much time they take to prepare. I had the Jamaican Chocolate Souffle and others at the table had the Grand Marnier Souffle. Apparently the chocolate souffle had exploded in the oven but the kitchen managed to serve me a “backup” souffle which was ready before they could pour the cream over my companion’s souffle. I do not know where they found it (or took it from), but I was happy to not have to wait thirty minutes or more for one! The souffles are light but flavorful and the St. Cecilia Creme served with them is very rich and oh-so-good. I put some in my coffee for added flavor and a few too many calories.
I have been waiting for a restaurant to open in Little Rock which rivals those I find in my various business travels around the country and Savoy has managed to meet my needs. It is not the best restaurant in the country but is one of the best, if not the best, in Arkansas. It is expensive but not more so than other places “out there” and is worth it. If you are going out with good friends or taking business clients out to dinner, Savoy is a great place to go.