It was about a year and a half ago that the former Restaurant 1620 reinvented itself, rebranding under the name "1620 Savoy." The name change was a nod to Harlem's first integrated jazz club, an inspiration for the restaurant's new (at the time) jazz-era decor. We visited that version of 1620 shortly after its opening, and left with the overall impression that we had a decent dining experience, but overall (especially for the prices they were asking) we would not be rushing back for more. In fact, until recently, we had not been back since this early visit.
But earlier this year, owner and investor Rush Harding (of RH Cuisine) recognized that something needed to be done with Savoy. If ever there was a time to bring out the culinary "big guns," this was it ... and that's essentially what Harding has done. Denis Seyer, a locally beloved restaurateur, was brought on as chief consultant for RH Cuisine to assist with menu development. Seyer, who was pulled out of semi-retirement, built quite a reputation in Little Rock with his work at the acclaimed, but now defunct, French fine-dining restaurant Jacques & Suzanne. He was later involved in Le Casse Croute and in the opening of the original 1620.
Clearly, another visit to 1620 Savoy was in order if, for nothing else, to see if Seyer's touch could mean great things for this floundering restaurant. A group of us made our way there recently and we sampled a fairly sizable chunk of the new menu.
We began with a smoked duck salad ($11) and the iceberg wedge ($9). The smoked duck salad was particularly good — tender and flavorful duck with a hint of smoke that came through with every bite. It was accompanied by almonds, spinach, parmigiano-reggiano and mushrooms — definitely one of the highlights of the night. Other appetizers included fried calamari ($12) and a warm goat cheese focaccia ($11). The limp calamari was less impressive. The focaccia was better — a flatbread smeared with tangy goat cheese baked with herbs and black olives, with a topping of fresh, peppery arugula. The bread was a little tough to chew through, but otherwise the dish was successful.
We had a difficult time choosing our entrees as several dishes were intriguing. Among the more noteworthy dishes we settled on was the eight-ounce "Filet Mignon Bearnaise," served with a side of "truffle scented" mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli and bell peppers. It was perfect. The steak was tender and cooked to a lovely medium-rare. The bearnaise sauce complemented the beef rather than overpowered it.
"Rush's Homemade Fettucine" ($24) with shrimp, crawfish and Creole cream was another winning item at our table. The pasta was cooked well, slightly al dente, and the cream sauce was spicy, rich and in perfect proportion. It's a fairly heavy dish, but something that should not be missed.
Less successful were the "Lemongrass Scallops" ($26). The scallops were sliced to about a half-inch thick and poached in a green curry broth with sweet potato curls and bok choi. While the description made us salivate, in actuality the scallops were a bit disappointing. We missed that lovely golden sear seen with many of the best scallop dishes, and the green curry broth was watered down, making the entire dish fall flat.
Desserts were probably the low point of the night. The Grand Marnier Souffle ($10) — such a hit at Jacques & Suzanne's — was nothing spectacular. There was a rather plain chocolate creme brulee and an ordinary mango cheesecake. Nothing we'd be particularly keen on eating again.
Compared to our last visit, 1620 Savoy's menu has definitely seen some improvements, and we left with an assurance that Seyer's talents for menu planning and restaurant development have not been entirely wasted here. But Savoy still faces obstacles: It's not cheap. And when diners are shelling out a sizable chunk of change for dinner, there's an expectation there that everything — from the service to the food to the decor — will be worth the extra expense. During our visit, the dining room was painfully empty ... and this was a Friday evening at peak hours. It was difficult to determine if the ambience suffered more from the empty seats or the slightly stuffy decor. Only time will tell if Seyer is enough to save Savoy.