The Savoy | 1408 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago |773-698-6925 | Hours: Sun-Thurs 11:30am-12am, Fri-Sat 11:30am-1am
In one of those moments causing me to ponder the possibility of my relationship with God being not distant but weirdly close and strangely personal, two men approached The Savoy’s executive chef Brian Greene and asked to see a geoduck clam. Yes, this is my life; two men walk into a bar…and instead of a punch line, I think of God.
I was wrapping up a lengthy sit down with Brian as he walked me through the menu, fed me and shared hopes, dreams, insider info and dirty jokes—all typical due diligence when prepping for a restaurant feature, I suppose. What didn’t come up, though, was me asking to actually see a geoduck clam, pre-prep. (And damn me, by the way, for accidentally memorizing the pronunciation of “geoduck” with a soft “g” along with the phonics indicating “economy compact car” versus something edible. Gooey-duck. GOO-EE. Like “soft and sticky” or “mawkishly sentimental”…or delicious.)
Search as you might, the geoduck clams are not on the menu. The Savoy’s Facebook page blithely acknowledges this adding that the geoduck clams are a “secret menu item” that are prepped for all sorts of culinary adventures each and every day.
Verbal features are a great way for a kitchen to fly by the seat, cook on a whim or riff on special ingredients. The geoduck, however, seems to hold a more permanent fixture in the realm of not-on-the-menu-ness. Instead, like a sacred truth deemed too holy for print, it lives on the breath alone. Bring up the geoduck to Brian, and you can see by the sparkle in this man’s eyes; he’s wild about this clam. It’s a little bit sacred to get to see this affectation.
The men, clearly under the influence of this same geoduck and its trappings, cooed when Brian didn’t hesitate to fetch what turned out to be a still animated critter. Penis jokes inevitably followed as we looked at what resembled a dismembered elephant trunk sprouting from a rather homely looking shell. A little faster than the sun moving across the horizon, the creature squirmed in Brian’s hands.
And so, I marveled even more at the theatricality—no—beauty of it all. Harvest, cleaning, knife work, egg wash, rice flour, fried, a sprinkle of Spanish salt and woo lah! Battered so lightly and with such delicious salt crunch, the meat so sweet and toothy yet delicate—I understand the subterfuge like I understand why gifts are wrapped.
It makes even more sense after learning that when owner Ricky Moore happened upon the current location—a very long and empty railroad-apartment-style space—he had sandwiches in mind for the restaurant. Then he walked around a bit and something else happened. I’m quite familiar with the idea of geography contextualizing everything that happens in a place. But a building feeling more like absinthe and seafood than sandwiches?
It’s such a wild-eyed notion, I began to reassess everything. I returned to the menu anew, this time imagining how each dish was determined to be there under circumstances having more to do with fate and feng shui than market price and Ockham’s Razor. Admittedly, I’m veering into doe-eyed, romantic, naive territory here.
On the other hand, there’s the housemade beet ice cream, an homage to how Brian ended up at The Savoy (Ricky was so impressed with a beet salad Brian made that he approached him with helming the ship (aka. The Savoy), as it were). And you can only make sense of the Anticuchos de Corazon (marinated beef heart with huacatay dipping sauce) being on the menu if you know that Brian’s wife is from Peru. Things are personal and risky here.
Lit votives dispensed in every nook and cranny do what candlelight does. Except in this space, the undulating shimmer of shadow draws your eye to tchotchkes you’ve never seen before. The site, “Fine Design Dine & Wine,” covered the panoply of interior moorings of The Savoy including a distinction helping to explain the entirety of owner Ricky Moore’s style: “although there is a ‘nautical antiquity that expresses itself’ in the design, ‘in-your-face nautical’ was disallowed.” There’s a Capacitrol on the shelf. I think of a Flux Capacitor when I see the name, but it looks more like something on the Titanic than in Back to the Future. More than that, you’ll never find something like this in any other restaurant. It’s nautical and novel, and it’s one of many unexpected details that well up the senses.
It reminds me that just as wine has terroir, so does food and especially the eating of it. Even Deidre Darling, The Savoy’s absintheur and overall mastermind behind everything that pours at The Savoy, admits to the importance of the ceremony behind the absinthe. But why does ceremony have to stop at absinthe? Why not seafood? I don’t think anyone would disagree with what I’m saying, but I feel like when you’re dealing with a restaurant owner who walked into a room, looked at the beams of wood like cairns marking This way to…seafood and absinthe and Beware of…just sandwiches, there’s something extraordinary going on.
The Savoy is open for lunches. There are no lobsters in display tanks. And of all the amazing food experiences I had, I’m still, without a doubt, craving their ice creams and gelatos more than anything else. Mezcal gelato with its campfire smoke amid honey lavender vanilla bean ice cream, bourbon brown sugar, mint chocolate chip with so much mint you feel like you just bit into a bouquet of the stuff, lemon ginger gelato with the ginger spice as potent as if you ate the real thing and the beet ice cream. Yes, even if you don’t like beets, you’ll love this.