By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
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Instead we choose not to think about such things too strenuously or too often. That is, until a menu like the one at two-month-old Savor -- an opulently tricked-out, global-cuisine emporium occupying a Central West End mansion -- is placed in our laps. Here we must wrap our brains around some 40 first courses, entrées and sides, categorized into four columns representing the geographic regions of Europe, the Americas, the Near East and the Far East. We must make sense of a bill of fare that allows us to begin dinner with an ostrich tostada before moving on to a main course of pasta e fagioli, with a banana split for dessert.
As diners we must be upscale and multilingual enough to decipher bits of foreign culinary vocab, like mushroom farrotto or acetaia-leonardi saba or banyuls vinaigrette -- and then, hopefully, figure out some cocktails or wine that balance smartly. In other words, we must build our own crapshoot. That the menu is physically clunky -- letter-size pages sheathed in a heavy portfolio cover, too large to put down on the table among the fine place settings -- feels downright allegorical: Mapping one's way through Savor's menu is like playing Memory and Risk at the same time. Maybe I'll try to move from Western Europe to Siam..... Aw! Choucroute and stir-fry?! What kind of match is that?
286 DeBaliviere Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63112
Region: St. Louis - Skinker/DeBaliviere
314-531-0220. Hours: 5-11 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.
A preamble to the menu -- crafted by head chef Kirk Warner, who quit his top-dog post at King Louie's a year ago to strike out on his own -- states that "while the compass for our cooking is what tastes great, we make every effort to ensure that it doesn't become yet another example of careless fusion cuisine..... We have taken liberties with many classic cuisines, making adjustments to appeal to our sensibility, but we are focused on keeping the dishes authentic at heart."
So Savor serves traditionally prepared ethnic foods, except when Savor decides not to. That seems to be the mind-set at play when "flash-fried calamari" appears under the Near East -- evidently because the squid's dusted with chickpea flour and served with a "Bombay" dipping sauce -- even though calamari's much better known as a staple in Asian cooking, Spanish and Italian dishes, and St. Louis bar-food appetizers (the Americas). Or when a mild and pleasant saag paneer flatbread, topped with spinach, goat cheese and a tomato-kalonji chutney, could pass in appearance and taste as a cute pizzetta from any number of New American-eclectic bistros in downtown Clayton.
There are very good things to eat among Savor's daily-rotating offerings. There is a vertically plated green papaya salad, a bracing yet cool dish complemented with cashews, crystallized ginger and bits of sweet pork. There is a mesclun salad of young, pungent greens dotted with red grapes and capped with a single medallion of breaded and warmed goat cheese, a trio that harmonizes as a vibrant, three-note masterpiece. There is dazzling trenne con il coniglio (triangular penne, asparagus, ramp butter, grilled rabbit sausage) available in first- or second-course portions and as perfect as any pasta dish around.
There are also just-okay things to eat at Savor, like crispy Vietnamese spring rolls with nothing green inside them, just some coleslaw-like hash, encased in a fried shell that does nothing to enhance the flavor. Halibut with basmati rice pairs bland with bland; neither is half as interesting as the tomato-celery mixture served on the side. Oaxacan chicken mole, named after a southern coastal region of Mexico, delivers less chile-fire than the mole at Qdoba and comes on a bed of jicama-chayote salsa cruda (read: more hash) that belies mole's peasant-love goodness.
In debuting his big coming-out affair, building it brand-new from the ground up, writing the menu himself and executing the concept, Kirk Warner has clearly set the bar astronomically high. And with such a grandiose philosophy propping the place up, it feels like Warner is chasing after Savor's lofty, imagined ideal rather than creating a restaurant that evolves naturally from his personal culinary strengths.
The results are puzzling. Under "Europe" is a main dish of sea scallops, served with "sweet and sour summer squash, Austrian pumpkin seed chantilly, spaetzle." How do you plate spaetzle with scallops? You don't, it turns out -- the German noodles came in a little bowl on the side. Sprinkled with poppy seeds, the spaetzle was another perplexing example of putting bland on top of bland. Considering it alongside a wide, shallow bowl of three delicate yet plump scallops standing in a sweet and summery whipped-cream sauce, I really didn't know what to do with that spaetzle, and I couldn't find any grounding logic in the whole thing: Was the spaetzle there to make the dish come off as more "European"? To justify the $23 price tag for three scallops (not highway robbery, but four would have been better)?
A staff of experienced, self-assured career waiters and waitresses could provide patrons with some direction, could guide them through unfamiliar ingredients and the dizzying array of choices. But so far, the staff seems green. When I questioned one server as to what "waxy potatoes," part of a wild king salmon entrée, meant, I was told what makes them waxy was that "they deglaze them differently."
On a previous visit, a waitress had pronounced caipirinha "caprani." Unassuring, and all the more so because our exchange owed to the fact that the caipirinha (a classic Brazilian, muddled-limes-and-rum concoction) tasted like cleaning solution and we wanted to send it back. Faring not much better was a Singapore sling that contained gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, club soda and a couple fruit juices, yet still registered as lax and lifeless. A glass of white-wine sangria was tart and uplifting but would have done better with some fruit in the glass, not just a slice of orange straddling its rim.
If we're going to globetrot through supper, whirl-winding our way through regions hither and yon, let dessert do what dessert was born to do: Bring us back home again. That doesn't mean every dessert must be all-American -- a nice little cannoli, or maybe some sweet-and-simple flan can always wind things down in comforting fashion. Many of Savor's desserts, though, appear hellbent on showing off for the sake of it, geography or simple pleasures be damned. Strawberry basil sorbet, a bacon-and-peanut butter truffle -- such items are just too smart for the room, really. Same goes for a red-wine gelato, which just tastes like somebody spilled some red wine in some gelato.
The menu's opening spiel reads, in part: "We at Savor hope to create a St. Louis neighborhood restaurant different from any other." Savor sure is different -- but striving toward such highfalutin aspirations while billing oneself as a "neighborhood restaurant"? That would require a little more cooking locally and a lot less thinking globally.