By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
David Miller gets antsy. Lucky for us. His tiny Savant Fine Dining in Clearwater opened in 2004, garnering kudos from publications far and wide (including a full-page story in Southern Living in April). Then he began planning a restaurant on Scrub Island, a private resort in the British Virgin Islands, which will open at the end of this year. On April 1, April Fools' Day, not inappropriately, Miller annexed the large space next to Savant and started Cities.
The 150-seat restaurant celebrates the cuisine of a new city each month. First up was Las Vegas. But get this: City No. 2? Whoville. As in the city from Horton Hears a Who and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
I tried both cities' menus. The Las Vegas menu was luxe and high-roller suitable, with plush cranberry-dusted foie gras medallions ($16) and ingenious Gorgonzola-wrapped green grapes rolled in crushed nuts ($12). The Seuss menu: In a word, wubbulous. Sure it's not a real city, but dishes had Seussian garnishes and fanciful names (he was out of the Diffendoofer Nizzards of the Sea because his sea bass shipment hadn't come in) that lent the experience a sense of whimsy and play.
But what I really like about Miller's restaurants is that you can see and taste what goes on in the mind of the man in the kitchen. There's a signature style that tracks through all the dishes, regardless of city.
Miller's style has a classical foundation (he graduated at age 19 from the Culinary Institute of America), but brings audacious and unexpected juxtapositions to it. What would happen if you smoked boar tenderloin and then served it with a tomatillo-curry reduction ($26)? Nothing bad, I'll tell you.
The space at Cities is essentially a big empty canvas, each month's city determining the walls' artwork (oversized black-and-whites of Sin City for Vegas; colorful, cartoony canvasses by Clearwater graphic apparel design company David and Goliath for Whoville). The Cities staff is shared with Savant, as is the kitchen and the kitchen talent — thus, on a busy night for each restaurant, pacing can have little fits and jerks. But there can be benefits, too: On our first visit, Savant was featuring a fancy prix-fixe re-creation of the last meal served on the Titanic. Over on the Cities side, we got to try a few surplus Titanic dishes (poached salmon with mousseline sauce, cold asparagus vinaigrette — delicious).
I don't know how he does it, but Miller himself spends a lot of time in the dining room. Only 28, he's got a wry wit and a personal style that shifts between cocky and self-deprecating: He's both color-blind and dyslexic and has embroidered his old chef coat with the moniker "Idiot Savant."
A jest, sure, but he certainly has focused areas of expertise. He's a chocolate magician, making the lushest, most flavorful and prettiest chocolates ($10 or $12 for eight) I've eaten in Florida. That particular passion is not relegated to desserts alone. One of his signature dishes (which made it on to the Vegas menu) is an intense morel mushroom and dark chocolate cream soup ($8). See, again with the audacious and unexpected?
From the Vegas menu, the best dish was a banana-leaf-wrapped steamed tilefish with black sticky rice and a sweet jus with a hint of kaffir lime ($28); from the Whoville menu we loved a dish he made that combined two menu items, a roasted corn risotto croquette ($18) and a wild mushroom strudel ($18), the whole thing capped with a kooky lotus chip skewered on a spray of fried buckwheat noodles.
For upcoming cities at Cities, Miller has some ideas. He's talking Paris, New Orleans, maybe Dubai (?!), maybe Oz (!!). What would the Wizard eat, exactly? Miller will figure it out. But I guarantee that it ends with chocolate.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.