Review: Little Savannah

3811 Clairmont Ave., Forest Park
591-1119
www.birminghammenus.com/littlesavannah/

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By Deborah and Evan Lockridge 

littlesavannah.jpgMuch of Little Savannah's charm lies in its cozy atmosphere. Your living room may well be larger than the restaurant's dining room, where you can't help but strike up a conversation with your fellow diners, at least to ask them for their recommendations on dinner.

Because it's so small, Little Savannah doesn't take reservations. We suspect it would be very difficult to guarantee a table would be available at a specific time. They will, however, put your name on a "priority" list for a certain time, up to two weeks in advance, and our table was ready when we arrived at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night.

Warm yellow walls are graced on one side by a large painting of what we assume is the Savannah, Georgia, waterfront. On the other wall, an old window frame is filled with shiny, three-dimensional mosaics. Ceiling fans dot the green wooden ceiling, and the floor below is old black-and-white hexagonal tiles forming a flower pattern. White tablecloths and black napkins grace the small tables, and the leather-backed chairs are comfortable. There is a small but quite functional bar in the back with about three stools.

We started off with a glass of Albarino white wine from Spain ($7), and a pomegranate margarita ($9.50), served in a martini glass with crushed ice -- very tasty. The wine selection was thoughtful and interesting, both by the bottle and by the glass.

For appetizers, which Little Savannah's menu labels as "B-4 Supper," we chose fried apalachicola oysters and green tomatoes with toasted fennel coleslaw and grilled andouille remoulade ($11), as well as a salad of Jones Valley Urban Farms lettuces and baby radish with shaved organic carrot, farm egg, spicy pecans, "Belle Chevre" goat cheese and grilled Vidalia vinaigrette ($8.50).

The cornmeal breading on the oysters was a little too heavy for our taste, but the large oysters were nice and tender. The green tomatoes were slightly underdone, but the remoulade was absolutely delicious, creamy and just a little spicy from the andouille.

The salad was dressed very lightly, allowing the flavor of the local greens and spring radishes to shine through, accented with small amounts of creamy goat cheese and sweet-spicy pecans.

The folks at the table next to us raved about the New Hampshire crab cake with asparagus, frisee, red potatoes, Thai chile and wasabi aioli, and indeed it looked delicious when we saw it delivered to the party on the other side of us later. The Ceviche de Pescado, we were told, was deliciously light and fresh-tasting, featuring North Carolina black bass with avocado, red and poblano chiles, grape tomatoes, cilantro, lime and lemon olive oil.

Along with the salads arrived a small basket with quartered corn muffins, dense and dotted with bits of green and red peppers – just a hint of spiciness to those peppers. so perhaps they were the poblanos we saw elsewhere on the menu.

For dinner, smoked duck breast with duck confit and mushroom risotto with baby spinach, striped beets and brandy-peach preserves ($29) was a tad on the rare side rather than the medium-rare ordered, but had a nice flavor nonetheless. The risotto was delicious, but not al dente in the center as risotto usually is.

 The smoked venison chops ($30) were two thick ones that let forth their steam and smoky aroma when cut into. They were served with blue corn grits from McEwen & Sons, with a satisfying coarse stone-ground texture and creamy flavor. Early spring peas and baby carrots, cooked to firm-tender perfections, offered a delightful breath of spring when it was still rather chilly outside. I didn't see any sign of the shiitake mushrooms advertised on the menu, but there were some crisp-tender green beans instead. The slightly sweet sun-dried tomato pesto was a nice but unnecessary accompaniment.

 Some of the other "supper" offerings included pistachio-crusted Destin flounder with Savannah red rice pilaf, Niman Ranch natural pork chop with cannelloni beans and smoky turnip greens, a "fresh from the farm" vegetable plate, and "The Happy Cow" (natural Australian beef tenderloin with roasted garlic and Tuscan rosemary crust with Peruvian purple potatoes).

 With dinner, we had a very nice Syrah ($9/glass). We were a bit disappointed by the small size of the glasses, as we enjoy our reds in glasses that allow them to breathe. We saw such a glass at another table, so next time we'll ask.

By dessert time, we were actually ready to get out of the cozy surroundings. Dessert offerings were not as inspired as the dinner menu, consisting of vanilla bean crème brulee, Bananas Foster, and "Bad-Ass Chocolate Brownie" with strawberries, chocolate sauce and chocolate ice cream. There was, however, an interesting selection of after-supper libations, including "hot toddies" with names like The Garden of Good and Evil and The Savannah Irishman; muscadine and blueberry wines from local Morgan Creek Vineyards; and an intriguing selection of dessert wines.

 The service was good; when we got up to go the restroom, we found our napkins neatly folded for us upon our return. At one point, Maureen Holt, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband Clif, came by and introduced herself. We didn't get a chance to chat, but you can read the story of the Holts and how they came to open their dream restaurant at the Little Savannah web site. They also do catering and recently started offering cooking classes.

We were impressed by Little Savannah's support of local organizations, such as Jones Valley Urban Farm, a non-profit organization dedicated to reclaiming vacant urban lots and converting them to productive use; Blackjack Gardens, known for its greenhouse tomatoes; Morgan Creek Vineyards from Harpersville; and Wilsonville's McEwen & Sons organic stone-ground corn products.

Overall, while the atmosphere was charming, we thought the food was not quite as good as some other local fine dining options. We must note, however, that just days before our visit, Alan Potts, longtime owner of Silvertron Café next door, was found shot to death in the kitchen of his restaurant. We can't help but think that such a tragedy happening so close by would have a good chance of putting you off your normal game. Little Savannah has gotten a lot of good press and word of mouth and is a lovely addition to the Forest Park area.

(Editor's Update: Since we did this review, Little Savannah has bought La Reunion coffee house next door, which still operates as a coffee house by day, but offers additional seating for Little Savannah in the evenings.)

Published April 2006