But when I called on a Friday for a reservation, the din in the background told me the joint was already hopping, and they couldn’t get us in until 9:30.
“You could eat in the lounge,” the voice straining over the music suggested. “And we have a late night menu starting at 10.”
Did this place ever settle down?
The days of the supper club, of dinner coupled with drinks and dancing, of well-appointed diners out for not just a quick bite but an entire night of fun, seems practically a throwback to the Darren-and-Samantha era when dining habits were just a little more refined. But Savoy is restoring this one-time cool-cat fad and making Indianapolis more cosmopolitan with New York-style free jazz, a host of local bands and Saturday night broadcasts by WTLC.
You enter Savoy (what used to be Gregory’s) on West 86th, under a long awning into a broad, dimly lit foyer. A drop ceiling of crisscrossed, dark wood planks cloaks a landscape of pipes and wires. Glass doors to the dining room let out occasional licks of smooth jazz. Rich gold and red banquettes flank an entire wall of the dining room. Mirrors in the “ultra lounge” obscure its size, but the roomy space is clearly separate from the restaurant. All of this glitz makes you hope you’re on the “A” list.
Just two weeks open, this place was packed, already a “destination” for Northside diners. Getting drinks took more than a little time, but staff kept checking on us and swiftly substituted a mistaken martini. With the flurry of parties coming in and tables being rearranged, our amiable waitress did all she could to take care of us. What she lacked in knowledge about the dishes’ composition, she made up for in enthusiasm and willingness to pester the chef with our persistent questions. We soon knew we could trust her.
The list of appetizers is one of the most innovative in town, ranging from pecan prawns to wild mushroom brochettes. This made ordering starters a bit of a challenge. But we took the waitress’ word on the crab cake napoleon ($8) and added seared crayfish ($8) to keep up the Creole theme.
The napoleon made excellent use of fried wonton skins filled with a generous crab salad, heavy on the crab, and bits of applewood-smoked bacon. The whole plate was bathed in a Creole honey Dijon sauce, the sweetness of which paired perfectly with the crab. The crayfish, though a somewhat more modest portion, came with another expert sauce, a lemon beurre blanc and a tall dollop of the same bacon mixed with bleu cheese. Regal treatment for a humble crustacean.
After this stunning start, salads were a disappointing afterthought. The Caesar was the most creative, served in a “bowl” fashioned from curvaceous cucumber strips snaking around the plate. But the dressing lacked any real bite. The Savoy salad was mostly limp baby lettuce with a little crunchy radicchio. “Cajun” toasted almonds tasted pretty much like regular almonds slightly browned. A red pepper vinaigrette just sat on the greens.
Clear confirmation of Chef Cory Black’s skills came in the most quintessential of Cajun dishes: gumbo ($5). Formerly of Lulu’s, the Glass Chimney and several San Francisco eateries, Black concocts his gumbo unlike the typical rustic stew. It’s a soup in the true sense, a smooth elixir of the most elegant character. Made from a rich chicken stock and a roux browned to the treacherous brink of burning, the gumbo has gentle hints of sausage and seafood with the perfect spicy finish.
Entrees, then, had a hard act to follow. But the Southern-style blackened catfish ($13) was moist and well-seasoned. Substitutions of the brown sugar mashed sweet potatoes and a fiery seafood dirty rice made great diversions from typical starchy sides. An unexpectedly sophisticated vegetarian option came in the form of a creamy potato, fennel and smoked gouda terrine ($16). Think of the best scalloped potatoes you’ve ever eaten — even better.
Of the desserts, three are made in house. We passed up more trendy tiramisu and crème brûlée for the homier apple dumpling ($7), which proved a comforting way to end the meal. The full Granny Smith apple wrapped in pastry might have been a touch crisper, but we finished every sweet bite.
It was nigh on midnight by the time we left, and merrymakers were still just arriving, ordering cocktails and coconut shrimp off the impressive late-night menu. If we’d had more energy, we could have danced until our appetites returned. But we knew we’d be back soon, the next time we wanted dinner to be more than just a meal.