By Emily Codik
By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
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By Carla Torres
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By Carina Ost
By Laine Doss
Eleven entrees isn't a large menu; dine with friends once or twice and you'll about cover the spread. Woods's job, then, becomes that much more difficult: He's got to make sure his recipes are a repeat draw. That said, I'd come back for the signature Savannah home-style fried chicken, half a chicken perched on mashed yams and moated with sauteed collard greens -- a Southerner's dream. The crisp, spicy coating on the chicken was perfection, as were the citrus-infused creamed yams, scented with cinnamon, and the collards, sweetened with carrots. What made this dish completely worthy of its seventeen-dollar price tag, however, was the labor that went into it -- the chicken had been boned before being fried.
Skip the preprandial cocktail if you plan to order the pork chop soaked in bourbon. Another stellar presentation, this inch-thick chop had been grilled to medium-rare as requested, and was delivered to the table sans steak knife. No matter. The meat was tender enough to be cut with a butter knife, and oozing with juice. An apple-flavored glaze and fried sweet onions garnished the meat; sides of fragrant mashed rutabagas and buttered, still-crisp sugar snap peas completed the satisfying plate.
Not quite as successful, a grilled ribeye steak was a generous cut of medium-rare meat that had been rubbed with spices that tasted like curry. Charred on one end, the steak was doused in a gingery gravy and topped with shoestring fries (a little soggy) made from white and sweet potatoes. A cornmeal-dusted snapper was more good fare that fell short of awe-inspiring. The flaky fish was ocean-fresh but bland, and at $23 too pricey for what amounted to local chow. The sturdy red lentil ragout that accompanied it was a standout, while a second side dish, herb-flecked Carolina rice, lacked even the subtle flavor of the grain.
One-dish meals were a challenge to finish, particularly a Low Country shrimp and okra pilau (West Indian pilaf). This casserole combined short-grained rice with wonderfully sweet jumbo shrimp that probably would have inspired Conroy's pen to new shades of lavender. Okra and corn gave the dish a bit of crunch. Ditto for vegetable gumbo, which was, surprisingly, less spicy than the pilau. Still, it boasted more of the South's special produce -- okra, black-eyed peas -- along with tomatoes and corn. A touch of celery lent the stew a wintery, snowbird kind of appeal, reminding less of the warm South than of the cold North, and the comfort of drinking down a cup of hot vegetable soup after a long day of shoveling out from under the latest blizzard.
Dessert is a hard course to handle, apparently. On one visit to Savannah we were left sitting without menus for so long that we lost interest in sweets. A second time we managed to order carrot cake (loaded with coconut and iced with cream cheese), only to wait fifteen minutes for it to arrive. Southern hospitality is very much in evidence at Savannah; every time I've walked through the door, even without a reservation, I've felt welcome. But the actual service, though extremely polite and well meaning, seems in need of improvement. Perhaps experience will even out the pacing problems.
Which is more than can be said, I suppose, of Pat Conroy.
Then again, he sometimes gets it right. In Beach Music Conroy's narrator speaks of a "new generation of Southern cooks who were both classically trained and dedicated to revolutionizing the fundamentals of Southern cuisine ... [and] who preserved their fondness for grits and barbecue despite their desire to sneak goat cheese into the tossed salad." Replace the goat cheese with blue and you've got an apt description of Marvin Woods, the most important culinary newcomer to our neck of it in a long time.
437 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 604-8080. Open nightly from 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Confit of duck salad
Bourbon-soaked pork chop
Shrimp and okra pilau