Savannah's march toward culinary esteem
Sizing up two restaurants which prove it isn't all Grey in The Hostess City
Cities across the South gained more restaurants than they lost in the first two years of the pandemic, but Savannah didn’t just pick up a few new places to eat. In a turnabout that sounds like it was ripped from a teen movie script, Charleston’s Southern cousin went from quiet sweetheart to edgy diva.
Savannah is “establishing itself as a full-fledged foodie mecca,” Travel + Leisure declared in December.
Savannah is “one of the South’s most exciting dining destinations,” Robb Report announced this month.
And Brochu’s Family Tradition, the restaurant that Chicago bigwig chef Andrew Brochu reconceived for Savannah after a real estate deal up north fell through, hasn’t even revealed an opening date yet.
At this point, Savannah is drawing so much energy from the national spotlight that it’s a fun eating scene regardless of whether you approve of Big Bon Bodega putting kale on its Reubens and smearing pimento cheese on its bagels (I’m OK with the kale part.) The city is no longer reliant on hand-me-downs such as Husk and The Fat Radishto keep locals happy and visitors occupied.
Of course, The Grey—which recently opened two spinoffs of its own in Austin—remains the reason to book a trip to the Georgia Lowcountry. But since you’re bound to want more than one meal while you’re there, these are the two newcomers worth seeking out, one of which looks like the Savannah you’ve seen in glossy magazines and one of which tastes like it.
At the corner of Abercorn and East 37th streets, where Common Thread opened in January 2021, the restaurant is a tidy illustration of how the newly rich flaunted their wealth in 1897. The Victorian posh theme continues inside the former home, where diners are seated in tastefully lit rooms with broad windows and decorative dark brown woodwork.
But to make certain all that yesteryear refinement doesn’t leave guests thinking that there are a bunch of fuddy-duddies in the kitchen, the background music is electronic. The overall vibe is “My parents went to Mustique. Let’s party.”
That mindset carries over to the menu. Many of the dishes at Common Thread seem to have been designed by someone with just a short window of time to go crazy in the pantry. Sure, any old chef can roast a carrot, but it takes Common Thread—under the leadership of chef Brandon Carter, who’s also in charge at Farm in Bluffton, South Carolina—to embellish it with hibachi dressing and sunflower tahini and raisins and shallots, too.
Sometimes those add-ons cohere nicely, as with the five-spice powder and vinegary mushrooms which join forces to defend beef tartare from the charge of being unimaginative. But they also tend to drown out the ingredient you thought you were getting: The permit fish diced for crudo may have been lovely, but it was impossible to discern much in the way of raw vigor beneath thick strokes of spreadable sausage.
The best thing I ate at Common Thread was a starchy sweet potato tempura, expertly fried and accentuated by tart candied kumquats. Even though you risk getting bushwhacked by creativity here, the professionalism evident in the sweet potato preparation pops up in enough spots to make the restaurant feel special.
Solomon Krouskoff, the Prussian milliner who built the house, would be proud.
In Texas, The Grey Diner Bar and The Grey Market are located in Thompson Austin, part of Hyatt’s luxury hotel chain. But in Savannah, where their namesake got its start, The Thompson’s signature restaurant is Fleeting, with Rob Newton as its executive chef. (Although I did run into The Grey’s founding chef and partner Mashama Bailey in the Savannah hotel’s lobby, just to keep things on brand.)
Honestly, if I was better at recognizing people without nametags on, I could probably tell you about more celebrities buzzing about The Thompson on a Tuesday night. The hotel apparently hasn’t shed any hipness since opening last September in what’s being called the Eastern Wharf district.
Yet it would be a stretch to describe Newton’s cooking as hip. In fact, much of it is a delicious callback to fancy Southern food circa 2011, when Husk opened in Charleston.
Seven years later, expansion property Husk Savannah got off to a rocky start, with management apparently undecided whether the restaurant should strive to compete with The Grey or function as a rowdy sports bar for tourists. Whatever remnants of the original restaurant’s philosophy— “if it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door”—made it across state lines were lost in the mission haze.
But that guiding principle has been recaptured by Newton, who spent much of his career in Brooklyn. An Arkansas native, Newton embraces Southern ingredients with the fervor of someone who missed them.
On the starter menu alone, the spareribs are brushed with pickled peach glaze and the chip dip that comes with the caviar is based on smoked buttermilk. My grilled oysters were blanketed with buttery breadcrumbs that took their salt from specks of country ham.
Even though the dining room was rocking at a weeknight hour when workers at most restaurants would have long ago finished rolling silverware, my server was attentive and upbeat: She steered me to a Caesar salad disguised on the menu as “Little gems and collards,” a funky tangle of chiffonade greens that met its pork quota with pancetta.
Still, where Fleeting shines is in the menu’s entrée section, a strength which might qualify as stodgy these days. Even so, I bet the trendsetters who congregate at The Thompson aren’t complaining about thought-out plates such as grilled pork, accompanied by rich Jimmy Red grits and chromatic pepper relish, tasting bright as the running lights seen at night on the Savannah River.
Two fried spears of pickled okra crisscross the dish: They looked to me like the checkmark of a kitchen which has done what it set out to do.
Hi Girl--good --no, great article Thought I would mention this to you...Remember The Dairy Bar first on S.Main Street behind the Capitol and then on Main Street in front of the Capitol ? That was owned by Jack Provost--He was my partner for 17 years. We moved to Edisto and he opened The Ruby SeaHorse..Pimiento Cheeseburgers were served, using his Grand Mama's pimiento cheese recipe that I have not shared. He died 2 months ( cardiac ) after opening down here--I stayed in Edisto but health is going to drive me back to Columbia. ( no Medical, if needed here --am in planning stage and must get this damn log home clean before selling)...He and Phillip Bardin were buddies--along with John Windham. I miss him each day. Nor sure why I felt the need to tell you this, but I did. Fondly, Henny