The Dining Report – The Savoy Tavern and Bistro – Pardon Me While I Shove My Butt In Your Face – and/or the story of how a small restaurant does a nice job serving a party of 14 (unfortunately there were 15 of us).Thank you to everyone who attended the largest RR dinner ever, a big whopping 15, two weeks after our last dinner, with a big number of 3 in attendance. Those are the weirdities of Restaurant Roulette, from the diminutive to the gigantic all in a fourteen day time span.

Anyway, it was by and large a pretty fun evening with generally decent food, and while communication was brutal from table end to end (or even middle to end), the majority of those who joined us at the Savoy had at least a few good vittles and some lively conversation, often with someone they had never met/talked with before (a good example of this being Sara’s buddy JR, who just moved here from the Lone Star state and basically knows only one person in P-Town). It was also so nice to see our old friends Grace and Frank, restaurant samplers extrordinaire, we haven’t seen them since Marrakesh because of their always hectic work/home schedules, but it was wonderful to have them back, especially as they always order so many of everything.

As is often the case with the group, Frank and Grace, not having attended a dinner since early spring were met by a sea of strange faces, many which have becomes RR old timers by now, so they were more like the newcomers than all those people who have joined after them. Whatever the case, it was good to have them back, I just wish I could have actually introduced them to all the people at the dinner they didn’t know (all of us but four people). Because the bistro section of the Savoy is pretty small, however, we were sort of crammed in a long skinny area with half of us trapped against a wall, so mingling and introductions were pretty impossible. I definitely played a poor hostess on this evening, I didn’t even try to introduce people who didn’t know each other, it was just too awkward in this particular setting. I did notice that most people seemed to be having good conversations with those seated around them though, so everyone found someone to interact with, and occasionally I would screech down to people at a far end, or would hear my name called and field an occasional remark from a friend in the distance, even if their question did have to be asked 10 or 20 times before I could hear it (sorry Sara, I guess I’ve got old coot ears).

A little history on the Savoy. Several years ago, certainly over five now, a cool cosy retro bar opened basically across the street from the Belmont Dairy block. This place is the Aalto Lounge. About a year or two in, the owner decided he wanted to open a funky little neighborhood tavern and bistro featuring turn of the century midwestern fare, and selected the space on the corner of 25th and Clinton that formally housed burrito/margarita house La Cruda, a place that always seemed to garner both good and atrocious reviews. Soon after, one space east, Savoy’s retro living room style bar (check out those tapestry rugs on the walls and refurbished lamps!) started pumping for both cocktails and dining. Late this summer, Savoy also look over yet another space on the block, this a breakfast and lunch spot featuring Scadinavian fare called Broder, that place which is now always mentioned in comparison reviews when discussing the food in Ikea’s cafeteria. (Surprise, surprise, Broder always gets thumbs up, and Ikea, thumbs down). Perhaps someday the Savoy folk might actually take over the other end of the block, (housing the always rank and skanky Clinton Street Theater), and then the first really quality movie/food theater could be born, and that way when toast and hot dogs go flying during “Rocky Horror” people would actually want to eat them.

Oh well, just another pipe dream from a truly inventive mind (not really, it was just me and those brain farts).

Although the tavern side of the Savoy is certainly a nice enough place to have a drink (there’s even a comfy sofa), when it comes to dinner, I prefer the bistro side, all glass, old fashioned tile, stainless steel, and light fixtures supposedly salvaged from the old downtown YWCA. It’s modern, retro, and intimate all at the same time, dark colored walls, drapey velvetty curtains, and the bright and spotless looking open kitchen. The master of the kitchen, Alton Garcia, allegedly has a reputation for testiness, but so far I’ve never witnesses any temperamental outbursts from the cooking area, and in past visits have only noted simple, hearty dishes  expertly prepared at reasonable prices flying out of the kitchen, not cookware or obscenities.

Since I’ve been there a handful of times in the past, I knew the Savoy is not exactly the largest place in the world, so it was nice how flexible they were about table size and reservation time. (Most places don’t want that large reservation at 7:00).  Although I started by guessing a table for twelve, the Savoy cheerfully obliged me when I called back on two separate occasions to up my reserved seats. The second time I called I found out they had been trying to fit us into the tavern side (a curious decision, as it’s mostly four seater booths, but I’ve noticed that 20 and 30 somethings tend to gravitate toward eating in this section).  It seemed to make things easier for them, however, when I explained I would prefer a table in the Bistro. I knew from experience, though, that a large group like ours would probably take up most of the space in the bistro area, and sure enough, by the time all of our tables were maneuvered end to end less than eight other people had room to dine in this half of the establishment.

For a change, I was not the first to arrive. When Aruna and I entered, Brian had just sat down on the bench against the wall, and Glenda soon ventured in from the bar area with her glass of classy champagne. Soon, almost everyone was there, although it wasn’t that clear where we were supposed to seat everyone. As half the seating in this area of the Savoy is long wall mounted benches, the tables and chairs needed to go opposite, and one extra person had to jam their carcass on the bench, as there was no room for another chair. Also, as we wanted to be as close to each other as possible, large group or not, with the exception of one approximately 6 inch gap between my table and the table to my right, we pushed the tables totally together, this eliminating any exit for those people mid-table sitting on the benches. It was much like a jumbo jet window seat, whenever the person on “the end” got up (or in this case at the mid-table gap) everyone on the wall side jumped up for the opportunity of visiting the restroom before their chance was lost.

The Savoy has always been known for good strong drinks, and most people seemed happy with the cocktails they ordered. Having had my socks knocked off during previous visits to the Savoy, I decided to try something less potent sounding, that cocktail being the “Grapefruit Drop”. I was given the choice of sugar or salt rim (a nice deviation from the norm of one kind of rim only), and me being me, selected the sugar rim. This was actually the most pleasing drink I’ve had here, and next time I come back, providing I’m not in the mood for brain stupor, I’ll probably have another. A second popular drink was The Clinton, and while people seemed to like it, I did hear a complaint that it didn’t seem terribly potent (what can you really expect from vanilla vodka?) I’ll refrain totally from discussing a drink called “The Clinton” and its potency though. I never heard what cocktail Brian had before his Chimay, but I did notice that the ends on his tiny goatee were curled up when he finished drinking it. As always, David reveled in his well composed “Rusty Nail” (it’s amazing this guy hasn’t died of tentanus yet). Glenda enjoyed a Rose, and those crazy Texans were quaffing pints of Stella (perhaps in celebration of Sara’s great new job, which actually comes with a company car!) As usual, Lynne cut totally loose, sampling yet another restaurant’s version of lemonade. (If I was she, I would have died of Reflux about three dinners ago).

The Savoy took an unusual approach to service which I don’t remember another restaurant doing so far, we had two waitresses (I’ve always wondered why other restaurants have not tried this with our larger groups). The way they took the orders seemed a bit crazy though, starting with the back of the table then the front, and food glutton that I am, I kept thinking they were going to forget to take my order and I would remain foodless (hmm, an interesting precursor).

The Savoy, being a Wisconsin themed restaurant, features as its signature starter ” fried cheese curds”.  I don’t know about you, but there is something I’ve always found icky about the term “curd’, it just sounds so unappealing and lacking in edibility. I’m not sure if it’s that the name and shape seem to remind one of other distasteful items, but you generally won’t find me flocking towards “curds” anywhere I go. That being said, I’ve had the Savoy’s “fried cheese curds” before, and like them. I mention this because I know at least two out of three of the people who ordered them found them mildly disappointing. I think people have the impression they are going to be sharp and zesty and perhaps crunchy. The reality of cheese curds, however, is that they are soft and creamy and mild. Everyone seemed to like the stainless steel paper filled cone they were served in though. “Pumpkin Fritters” were a seasonal special, and in a much smaller portion than the cheese curds. For some reason, although the two people who ordered them were right next to me and right across from me, I didn’t hear if they were good or not, although Aruna wrote on here dining slip “good” underneath fritter, so I think she enjoyed them. Actually, looking through the dining slips, I now see that at least four people had cheese curds, but we were only charged for three orders. Justice rules!

I see from Grace and Frank’s dining slip they had three starters, a green salad, meatballs, and the famous curds again, and that they, like everyone else, wrote down that the curds were $7, but that we were only charged $6 a piece for three orders. No wonder the tip was over 20% at the end. I was sitting so far away from Frank and Grace I have no idea what they thought of their food, but it was nice of them to try out so many starters for us. I’m pretty sure I saw someone else eating a green salad (Lynne, was that you?) but we were charged for no green salads, so those must have been classified as side dishes that come with meals. I suppose this is a strength and weakness of my dining slips (although they are a hassle to remember to fill out), while they make us all feel confident that we are all paying only our fair portion, if servers are a bit out of it, we also end up paying for things we know we consumed but ditzy servers might have forgot to charge us for. There are no free meals in Restaurant Roulette (bummer!)

The other two appetizers selected were both platter sized with a variety of items. Glenda had the “Pate Platter” which had some nice looking sliced loaf pate that she said was quite good. Unusual for me (as we all know I really try to avoid anything of a healthy nature), I selected for my starter the “Smoked Trout Plate” which was a medium sized half of a de-boned trout, some Rye Crisp like Krisp Bread (this struck me as a weird choice, it must have been that Broder influence) some pickled onions, capers, tiny pickles, horseradish sauce, and some other aiolish sauce. I gave the pickles away (they were weenies) but piled everything else on my crunchy bread cracker and gobbled it down. I think some other sort of crunchy bread or something different would have been better with this starter than the dry Krisp bread, but the trout had a nicely smoked taste, and I gobbled every bite down nonetheless, and certainly enjoyed it.

Soon after this, the parade of butts started passing by. As previously mentioned, when we first started filling out our seating area we made the probably unwise decision of pushing all but two of the tables together, thus eliminating easy restroom access to those mid-table who were seated on the benches and trapped against the wall. So when one person decided to take ” a break” everyone jumped up for their restroom sojourn as well. As there wasn’t that much room left between the two tables where there was the small separation, people unfortunately had to shove their butts one way or the other to get out. As it happens, although otherwise tortured on this particular evening, I was sitting on the non-heiny oriented side, and had fronts rather than rears squeezing by my eating area. Brian and Glenda, polite sorts that they are, made no mention of their travails in the keister zone, but I’m sure it might have seemed frightening. Luckily Kimberly made it through in both directions without setting herself aflame with the small dinner candle she was leaning over (evidently there have been incidences in her past).

In conjunction with this topic, David asked me to mention how distasteful he found the restrooms. (Something about someone in the next stall thrusting their leg underneath trying to grab stray sheets of toilet paper with their foot. Wait, maybe that was a different restroom). Anyway, there were two of those oh so popular unisex stalls, and when I entered the one on the right, it didn’t strike me as overly unpleasant, a muted dark green color, adequate necessities, and relatively neat, but maybe he visited the WC on the left. Incidentally, despite my evil reputation I won’t mention who the person in our party was who was unfamiliar with the designation WC and stood outside the receptacles puzzled, finally deciding WC might stand for Women and Children. This individual really needs to leave our country more often, although whoever came up with a silly term like “water closet” certainly deserves partial blame. Who would want to enter a closet full of water?

On to those entrees…

The rule at the Savoy is that with the standard entrees you can select two side dishes from a list of things like french fries, green salad, garlic bread, mac and cheese, braised greens, bread and butter, butternut squash, tomato bisque, or deviled mushrooms. This always changes, and in the past I have had some delicious blue lake green beans and sauteed carrots. A special of the evening was “The Whole Hog” which two people selected, since for one thing, it sounded gigantic. When it came is was actually a relatively modest portion of a sausage, a rib, and some other cut of pork, all roasted. Brian said his was good, but not outstanding, as a non-barbecued rib is  really not a rib at all (my words, but our common thought). Grace and Frank shared this as their only entree, and once again, I unfortunately had “gigantic table blindness and deafness” to their opinions. Aruna had the fish special of the evening, the “Wall Eye”, which was nicely breaded and fried, and came with sides of cole slaw and fries. She had requested tomato bisque as her side dish, and when french fries were delivered, she tried to send them back. Luckily they left them at the table and everyone seated around Aruna made a point of gobbling them up ASAP, as they were excellent. When her tomato bisque arrived she enjoyed it more than anything else she had sampled (“excellent”), and was somewhat disappointed with the preparation of her “Walleye”, as she had preferred the way my smoked trout had been prepared. My motto, never trust a fish that can’t look you squarely in the eye.

I think the most well-received entree was the “Pork Loin”. Julia, Mello, and Kimberly all had it, and both Julia and Mello said they loved it. I think Kimberly found hers decent, but strangely, she was the only one of the three who received a steak knife with her pork, and the only one of the three women whose pork was tough. What are they doing, tasting each portion of the meat in the kitchen to see how chewable it is, then handing out knives where necessary? She really liked the butternut squash though, and every person at the table I talked to raved about it as the best thing they had. Several “NY Strips with Horseradish Sauce” were ordered, probably because people were baffled by the mere $15 price tag (it’s a serious indictment of the price of Portland dining when $15 for a steak is dirt cheap). I’ve had this steak before, (of course), and while the meat has good flavor, two people didn’t seem to like the sauce. And I know no one was wowed by the portion, about the size of a pocket comb (okay, I’m grasping for verbage here, who compares meal portions to hair implements?) Sara’s in particular looked liked it was just born. Sara seemed to like everything she had though, topping off her dining slip with the erudite comment of “yummy!” (You know those lawyers, you just can’t shut them up). She also had a favorable opinion of the very homemade mac and cheese, although at least three people around me were unhappy with the lack of cheezy flavor. I’ve sometimes found this an issue at home when making macaroni and cheese, the flavor of the roux (you know, paste) you make the sauce with overpowers more subtle species of cheese unless you put about six bricks of cheddar in. Bev thought it was too buttery though. There’s the second time that silly comment has been made in the annals of RR history, something is too buttery. How can things be too buttery? That’s like too nice or too good looking. Fat chance!

The other end of the table seemed to be ordering differently from the rest of us. Lynne actually had a mere Cheeseburger, something I would have never suspected from her. It looked very nice though, and she told me it was very good. JR had a “Vege Burger” with cheese, but I don’t know if he liked it or not, as he generated a “man of mystery” aura throughout the entire dinner. Those oddball writers! Glenda, clearly having her eye on the dessert menu, had a large dinner salad with tuna as her entree. This looked really healthy and delicious, large hunks of fresh tuna on the top, big tomato wedges, and split boiled eggs over greens. She said it was quite nice. Bev had the “Roast Chicken” with butternut squash and deviled mushrooms. She really liked the chicken with sage pan gravy, and was one of the legions who loved the butternut squash. She found the sliced deviled mushrooms a bit overwhelming though, as they seemed overly redolent of something similar to curry powder and cayenne pepper.

Which brings me to my entree, and/or lack of. I thought for having a tiny kitchen (we could see the four burner stove from the eating area) the Savoy did a really good job delivering starters and entrees on time to 14 people. Unfortunately, I was number 15. Just as all the entrees were served I was tapped on the shoulder and told by the semi-concerned waitress that only my selection (the chicken) had been delayed and would be served later than the rest of the food. They then gave me this weird mini-loaf of bread with about twelve mini-balls of butter jammed in a slice in the center to tide me over, perhaps hoping that I would eat all the butter, have a heart attack, and not complain about my missing entree. Oh, if only the Savoy understood the foolishness of not being able to deliver MY food in a timely fashion, the individual who had brought 14 other people with me, babied the reservation, and writes the reviews for the website. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

So I sat and waited, and sat and waited, and watched everyone eat their entire entrees while I still had no food being delivered to me, including Bev, who was eating the very same selection of chicken that I had ordered and was still waiting for, many, many moons later. Which is not to imply my co-diners were ungracious in any way, everyone was very sympathetic to my plight, and people were offering me bites of their food. I declined all temptations, however, as my starter had been quite large and I wasn’t exactly starving to death, I just didn’t want to be eating after everyone else had finished. Which is basically what happened. By the time my food arrived every single person had finished, except for Sara who was still kindly picking at her dwarf steak.

Another note, Lynne had commented earlier that she thought it was very poor service that the waitresses were making napkin rolls while our table sat full of dirty dishes, but I really think the staff was just embarrassed to take away all the empty entree dishes before I had even gotten my food. Several people insisted I should stand up for my rights and decline to pay for my entree when it got there. But what can I say, I’m cheap and easy, so I willingly accepted a free dessert instead as a peace-offering. (After all, IT’S DESSERT for cripe’s sakes!)

When my food arrived, I did gobble it in record pace, and the chicken was quite good. It was juicy, tender, and expertly prepared. My garlic bread, although not as good as the previous time I had had it, was decent (perhaps I was eating it too fast to taste). My opinion of the mac and cheese is sort of in the middle, good homemade taste, and crispy on top, but not exceptional. As for what happened with my chicken, and why it was so late, I can only speculate. It seems most likely to me that they just misjudged their portions, or lost my order, and came up one short when it was time to serve the food and had to make more. Anyone who has ever roasted chicken knows you can’t exactly rush it, no one really wants a blood red serving of poultry, and I think they decided to bite the bullet and make me wait rather than compromise the quality of the food they were serving. And the chicken I had was perfectly cooked.

As for the desserts, the creme brulee went over very well and people seemed quite happy they had selected it. Also nice looking was a fruit tart (sorry, I forget the variety) that appeared yummy. Glenda devoured every bite of her interesting looking Tiramisu that came in a little rectangular ceramic dish, proclaiming it delicious and stating that if she was at home, she would have asked for another slice (no lack of appetite in evidence here). As for me, although I probably should have selected the most lavish dessert, since it was on the house, I instead decided on the pistachio gelato, which was a very large serving in a fancy stainless steel sundae dish that made it almost impossible to eat, as the gelato was very molded together. To be honest, although I love the idea of it, pistachio gelato and ice cream is just not something too many people do overly well, as it can be pretty flavorless and lacking sweetness. (For example, I find both Ben and Jerry’s and Hagen Das pistachio ice creams not at all desirable). On a scale of 1-10, I would give the Savoy’s a 6 or so, the texture was fine (although much more like ice cream than gelato) but it was somewhat flavorless and not particularly sweet. But at least it was free.

I know because of the gigantic service lapse with my entree, people probably think I was going to trash the Savoy in this review, or “make them pay until my dying breath” somehow, but I really don’t want to do that, I’ve always liked the Savoy, and continue to do so. It seems like serving a group of 14 is about their limit, but this is nothing to be ashamed of for a modest restaurant, I’ve seen far worse from big, fancy places, and almost all of the food comments I heard were favorable. Although the dishes are very basic, almost everyone around me said they would be glad to return soon. And by today’s standards, the prices are reasonable, all entrees (including the specials) are in the $10-$15 range. The service did have its lapses, obviously the big one with me not getting my food with everyone else, and the fact that they didn’t do those standard nice touches like bring extra silverware so all willing parties can sample the desserts. And they asked if you wanted clean silverware between starters and entrees instead of just bringing it (although this could be an environmental, save resources thing). I also didn’t see either waitress crying a million tears over my very late food, they were pretty blase about the situation. And it took FOREVER for them to pick up the credit cards for payment (this was another of those places with a no more than two credit cards per table rule, pretty ridiculous with a group of 15).

So service is a weakness at the Savoy. But the kitchen is really good. So for anyone who wants expertly prepared, non-flashy homestyle food at a reasonable price in comfortable decor, I would still wholeheartedly recommend the Savoy. Just don’t bring that 15th person along, they’ll end up with the bum end of the chicken, or maybe no chicken at all.