Taking down-home Southern up-market is fraught with tough decisions: how much to change, how much to leave the same. Fried chicken, black-eyed peas, bread pudding - "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" isn't a bad credo.
Edyth James and John Warren have made mostly good decisions at their new Savannah's Cafe in St. Petersburg. First off, they've been blessed with some seriously good bone structure in their restaurant space, most recently site of Hampton House of Jazz. The 1926 former Pinellas Auto Sales building on Central Avenue has a high, pressed-tin ceiling (now painted a deep eggplant purple) and gleaming stone tile floors. They've added booths with a retro mosaic-tile print, unclothed high-gloss wooden tables and two cheery tones of yellow paint. The overall effect: jovial and inviting but fairly casual.
Lunch is on the horizon, but for now James (formerly of Saffrons at Jungle Prada) has focused her efforts on dinner. The new copper wall sconces don't throw bright light, so the after-sunset dining room features a supper club's duskiness - not a bad setting in which to sample one of the bourbon-centric house cocktails. A classic julep ($7) showcases smooth Kentucky spirits with a balance of lemon, sugar and fresh muddled mint - but served in a martini glass, not the traditional sweaty metal julep cup. A potpourri of boozes renders the Long Island Julep ($8) less distinctively Southern. Savannah's wine program is a work in progress, so for now servers recite the short list of familiar offerings.
The best dishes sent out of the kitchen are the simplest ones. Crab and crawfish cakes ($9) win out over fried green tomatoes ($8). Two pan-fried cakes come with a simple, tangy remoulade. Their interior is a bit soft, but the flavors are good.
The fried green tomatoes, on the other hand, get lost in the shuffle. Only two battered tomato rounds appear atop a pair of huge grit cakes studded with tasso ham. There's no need for the sprinkling of parsley, the pecans or the bed of mesclun mix (the hot grit cakes immediately wilt these greens and make them unappetizing). I'd keep the drizzle of red pepper coulis, but I'd serve just half as much grits, nix the greens, parsley, goat cheese and pecans, then maybe offer three rounds of green tomato so they become the real focal point.
For entrees, too, simple wins out. Buttermilk fried chicken ($16) brings one juicy boneless chicken breast, a nice portion size, its breading flavorful and not at all greasy, more floury than cornmealy. It's paired with homey mashed red potatoes, skins on, and a tangle of collard greens. I'm a sucker for collards - one night they were perfect, another night the central ribs were a little stiff and twiglike.
The fried chicken gets a little pool of cracked pepper gravy, but it's not a case of too much going on. The pulled pork napoleon ($19) might benefit from similar restraint. A vol au vent-style puff pastry hides a heap of shredded pork bathed in a brandied mushroom ragout, the whole thing getting a frizzle of caramelized onions and side dishes of more collards and delicious black-eyed peas. It's hard to taste the pork through the mushroom sauce. Better is the more straightforward shrimp and grits presentation ($15), the tasso-spiked cheese grits a nice foil for sweet shrimp, and the accompanying basil cream sauce adds a little extra luxury (again, nix the wilty salad greens).
Vegetarians get their own entree, always commendable in a restaurant. The vegetable terrine ($15) is really just layers of zucchini, squash and tomato with a little Parmesan - pleasant but not likely to get anyone's motor revving. The array of side dishes, from the sweet potato fries ($3) to the black bean cakes ($4, served with sour cream and kicky green tomato salsa) cobble together a very nice meat-free meal.
Desserts are a lot like the servers at Savannah's: sweet, unpretentious and nurturing. Bread pudding ($5) is a table-sharer, big and filling, with whipped cream and a tasty fruited rum sauce. The pineapple upside-down cake ($5) is similarly portioned, a huge square topped with rounds of caramelized pineapple, a nice way to end a meal with a symbol of Southern hospitality.
Laura Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment. Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or email@example.com.
1113 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Details: American Express, MasterCard, Visa; reservations accepted; full bar.
Prices: Appetizers $4-$9; entrees $15-$27; desserts $5-$6.