The one review of the new Turkish restaurant Savarona that my boyfriend and I read before making our reservation complained that it’s “farther east than anyone should have to go in Midtown”, but we’re well-versed on 1st Ave. and rolled our eyes at that person’s lacking sense of adventure. And then we found ourselves lost on eerily industrial 59th Street, practically walking into the East River under the Queensboro Bridge.
We spotted Savarona’s empty private room first and thought uh-oh, but then the rest of the place came into view, and it was lovely: entirely glass front with two sets of wide open doors, gold lattices on the walls, and a polished black bar. The beautiful hostesses greeted us genuinely and enthusiastically, which is one of those small but important details for me, and the one who led us to our table asked if we had any problems finding the place, which I naturally lied about. I hated that we were seated in the back away from the windows despite the place being only half-full, but I suppose they were trying to spread everyone out. Our waiter met with us immediately and was very friendly, and aside from feeling like he was forcing drinks on us in the beginning–”I don’t really like wine”, I finally had to say–he continued to be attentive and informative throughout the meal.
This is entirely faux-serious.
We went with the $70 chef’s tasting menu against my wishes, because there were two courses where the only choices were seafood-based, and I’m a total fish-phobe. My boyfriend, Kamran, guilted me into it, though, saying that he didn’t feel comfortable ordering it without me. Since each of the six courses had two offerings, we decided to share one of everything and got a few surprises along the way. The first was a plate of what looked like falafel and hummus but turned out to be a meat croquette and babaghanoush.
The croquette (a word that I’ve never in my life used before this moment, by the way) had a super-crunchy skin and this chili sauce that I want to eat on every meal from now on. I didn’t see it elsewhere on the menu, so if you don’t go for the tasting menu, find a way to finagle it from your waiter.
Our first course included a plate of jumbo langoustine with a little pile of mushrooms on one side and more babaghanoush on the other. I was wholly frightened by the word langoustine, let alone the actual sight of the big pinkorange shell, but after wrestling a hunk of it out with my fork and knife, I learned that it was actually very mild. And the ball of crab resting on top of it, covered in a tenticle-like crust that gave it the appearance of a tiny sea urchin, was even better.
The other plate, a modern mezze platter consisting of five small dishes, was much more up my alley: a cube of chicken salad with pine nuts, a very savory yogurt with mint garnish, grilled vegetables, a chilled red pepper salad with walnuts, and grilled cold eggplant. It was all delicious, but the chicken salad and the yogurt were real stand-outs. Kamran and I were using our bread to scoop out as much of the yogurt as we could, and I’m surprised we didn’t use our tongues to lap it off the sides of the bowl.
Our second course was a smoked salmon roll filled with sliced avocado and topped with feta, chives, and red caviar. Although I’ve found recently that I actually sort of enjoy raw salmon, smoked salmon was a little too fishy for me to eat without masking the flavor with a lot of avocado, and you know I plopped that caviar on the side of the plate and made Kamran eat it.
The second plate was a stuffed mackerel roll with a bready skin, a topping that Kamran referred to as “micro salad”, and fried pine nuts. The mackerel was much less fishy than the salmon–although my anti-fish brain made me scrape off the bits of silver that clung to its edges–and was flavoured with something slightly sweet that Kamran first thought was cinnamon but may have been from the currants mixed in. The red pepper emulsion was what really made the dish, though, just as the spicy mustard made the salmon plate. Even as a fish-hater, I was impressed with how well the sauces complimented the seafood flavor.
Our third course was the one I really dreaded, because one plate was a fish called umbrina that I’d never heard of before, and the other plate was a KING PRAWN. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to put the word king in front of anything having to do with the ocean? The waiter put the umbrina down in front of Kamran, and I thought I was going to have to throw a fit, but then I saw that prawn on my plate was really just a big shrimp and not at all the bug-eyed crayfish-like creature that I’d expected. I played it cool while Kamran dug around in the parchment paper bowl that the umbrina was cooked in
and took a tiny bite of the sole on my plate, which was covered in some sort of yellow sauce so bland that I can’t muster a guess as to what was in it. The sole was flaky and incredibly moist, just as Kamran said his umbrina was. But not really caring for the texture of it, I kind of pushed it aside and took a bite of the risotto under the prawn, which turned out to be wonderful. Al dente, mixed with chopped basil, with fresh basil leaves on the side. To really go for the gold, I chopped off the very tip of the prawn just to say that I tried it, and to my surprise, it was . . . delicious. It had a meatier, less chewy texture than a small shrimp, with a grilled flavor that I didn’t expect at all.
I kept saying to Kamran, “You can’t even imagine how good this is!”, and he kept saying, “The rest of the world has had good shrimp before, Katie.” It was so good, though, that it actually caused me to use the word tasty, a word that I despise almost as much as the word panties. I eventually had to cut off the tail and make Kamran hide it behind his bowl, though, because the moment I thought about it as seafood, I wanted to spit it back out.
The fourth course, which was clearly designed especially for my palate as a reward for making it through the previous two courses, was a plate of two different cuts of lamb and a plate of wild duck confit. I started with the lamb chop and loin, which were cooked just the right amount for me, and even if the chop hadn’t been as flavorful as it was, I still would’ve loved it just for its shape. The loin was little tough for me, but the dollup of young zucchini puree topped with fried potato straws beside it was delightful; so much so that I kept eating it long after I passed the plate to Kamran.
The duck confit was supposed to be caramelized, but Kamran and I didn’t notice it, maybe because we were too busy dipping it in the rich honey and black grape sauce smeared on the side. It almost overwhelmed the duck, but I don’t mean that as a complaint. There was a pile of mushrooms hidden inside a criss-crossed shell of potato fondant that Kamran said tasted like nothing and I thought tasted slightly like pound cake. We decided it was just there for looks.
Another little off-the-menu surprise arrived in the form of a saffron-flavoured jelly that our waiter referred to as a “sorbet”. The texture was somewhere between pudding and Jell-o, the taste was clean and refreshing, and the collection of nuts and currants on top was a nice addition, especially the pistachios. The presentation–a juice glass in what looked like a heavy brass measuring cup–was also very impressive, if you exclude all of the stains I made on the table cloth.
Kamran’s dessert was a cherry bread with an almost-savory vanilla cream, black grapes, mint leaves, and a wild sugar concoction on top that resembled the hair of a treasure troll. The bread was extremely moist, and the grapes were so delicious that I wished I’d eaten them one at a time instead of packing them in together, but overall, the dish was barely sweet at all if you discount the strands of sugar. It was perfect for someone like Kamran who gets easily overwhelmed by sweet, rich foods, but it would have been a let-down for me.
My dessert, on the other hand, was probably the most impressive one I’ve had in New York thus far. The bottom layer was a thick-cut slice of baked pineapple. Then there was a layer of THE most delicious vanilla cream I’ve ever had. Then a thin slice of dried pineapple. Then a scoop of peach sorbet stuck with a sprig of mint. Then that crazy sugar nest again.
It was such a positive experience overall that the things that let me down weren’t such a big deal, but for a well-rounded review, I should mention the following:
1) As someone who can give or take mushrooms, I was disappointed to see them in almost every dish. They were always done well and always looked nice, but I never felt like they added much to the plate.
2) The menu didn’t always deliver what it promised. There was supposed to be some interesting foams on a couple of dishes, for instance, and either they weren’t there, or we couldn’t distinguish them from what was happening on the rest of the plate. And there was supposed to be Turkish Delight served with our very delicious coffee and tea, and while the surprise saffron cup was welcome, we were really interested to see if the Turkish Delight was any different than the kind we buy in cardboard boxes at the candy store. All of this would have been fine, of course, if we hadn’t expected it after seeing the menu.
3) In a couple of cases, we felt like the chef had focused more on technique than taste. The potato fondant shell is the best example of this; it looked cool and probably took some skill, but it didn’t taste like a whole lot to Kamran, and I didn’t care for the stale cracker consistency.
The bill was outrageous by my standards–nearly $200, and I didn’t even have any alcohol–but I was delighted by something in every course, the portions were very large, and the dessert couldn’t have been better, so it was well worth the money for me. Especially since I wasn’t paying. (Thanks, Kamran!) I would definitely go back again for the atmosphere, for the service, for the risotto and prawn, and for that wonderful pineapple dessert.