Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Kicking and Screaming, Soho Standby

Is Dragged Into New Millennium

What has happened to Savoy? A few weeks ago, when I walked past the charming 1830′s red brick Federal house the restaurant has occupied in Soho for the past 12 years, I did a double take. An old barber’s pole had been placed outside the front door, which is on the corner of Crosby and Prince streets, and picture windows had been cut into the walls. Had Savoy been turned into a barber’s shop? I peered through the window, but instead of getting haircuts, the people inside were perched around a bar placed smack in the middle of the old front dining room, having drinks and snacks, piles of shopping bags at their feet.

Then I remembered that Savoy had had a makeover. It has been dragged, as they say, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. You’d hardly recognize the place (any more than you’d recognize this neighborhood-which has come to be known by some as a shopping mall-if you hadn’t been here in the past 10 years).

Savoy’s owners, Peter Hoffman and Susan Rosenfeld, observing the endless influx of tired and hungry shoppers tramping past their building, saw an opportunity to broaden their horizons beyond the three-course dinners upon which they had built their reputation. They have created a storefront, so the dining room is visible from the street, and it’s open from noon to midnight. You can come here for a plate of serrano ham, a platter of barbecued duck with corn cakes, a bowl of pasta or bean and barley soup. There are exotic cocktails too, and they aren’t the sickly concoctions you find in trendy bars, but grownups’ drinks like Calvados sours with Macoun apples, and sidecars made with Lustau sherry from Jerez.

Architect Larry Bogdanow was Savoy’s original designer, and he has renovated the restaurant once again. He moved the bar down from the upstairs dining room and gave it a stone top. He painted the red brick walls white and blocked up one of the old fireplaces with marble, leaving the others in working order. The room, which is done in gray, brown and silver tones and hung with giant photographs, retains a lot of its former charm (he’s kept the lovely copper-mesh ceiling), but it’s less cozy. It still feels as though you’re going to visit someone’s apartment when you climb the narrow flight of stairs to the second floor, but the new setting is less intimate and more corporate. It does have a working fireplace, though, which throws a welcoming glow when you walk in.

My first visit to the new Savoy was a bit of a disappointment. It was a Monday night, and we sat upstairs (half the dining room was closed off for a private party). I didn’t see the chef in the kitchen, and after a while I wondered if he’d gone home. I had high expectations for Mr. Hoffman’s cooking. Before opening his own restaurant, he worked in the kitchens of the Quilted Giraffe, Huberts and Union Square Café, and he had studied in France and Italy. He was one of the first New York chefs to place an emphasis on ingredients, using local produce and green markets. The food at Savoy is eclectic, interesting and unpretentious: It’s “art cooking as opposed to haute cuisine ,” my husband once put it-fancy but very much downtown.

I began with fried fluke, which was underseasoned and overcooked. It came with a pleasant apple and celery-root remoulade. My guest had perfectly good sardines, served with an unusual combination of warm sweet potatoes, capers and a chili-lime butter, but the dish lacked the sparkle I expected from Savoy. (A good waiter would have warned my guest that the next course he’d ordered, pork chops, also came with sweet potatoes). The chops were tender, flavored with rosemary, and served, in addition to the sweet potatoes, with peppered pears. I had roast chicken with fig butter and roast vegetables. Both dishes were perfectly good, but, as my companion pointed out, nothing better than either of us could make at home. When we were brought the dessert menu, the upper half was crossed out in red pencil. Coffee arrived before the sweets.

But another night, when I showed up with three friends after a movie, we had an altogether different experience. When we sat down, Mr. Hoffman (who had recognized me) sent out a plate of house-made sopressata and skordalia (a Greek potato spread with garlic and almonds) to accompany the toasted peasant bread. The dish was wonderful. It’s on the café menu, as is the serrano ham (which is also great), and is served with roasted cauliflower and a salad of parsley and black olives. The sopressata and skordalia is another typically offbeat Hoffman combination that really works, like his roast pumpkin salad with turnips, peppery arugula and an acerbic tomatillo and pumpkin-seed dressing.

Mr. Hoffman also has a sure hand with pasta. His potato gnocchi were light, airy pillows that were served with braised duck, Swiss chard and spiced dates, which added an unexpected sweetness. Whole-wheat penne was given a Sicilian accent with roasted eggplant, raisins and pinenuts.

There are two kinds of fish I have never liked much: monkfish and mahi mahi. Mahi mahi, which is on Savoy’s menu, I typically find stringy and damp. Savoy’s was no exception-it was stringy and damp. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar failed to rouse it from its torpor, though mashed celery root and broccoli rabe did perk the dish up. The roast cod, on the other hand, was delicious: perfectly cooked and served on a wonderful shellfish chowder made with bacon, mussels and scallops, and sprinkled with fennel pollen. The beef too was superb, a grilled loin served rare and a smoked shoulder with chickpeas and arugula.

Desserts include dark molten chocolate cake with malted milk-chocolate ice cream, and a dark chocolate pudding (sounds like Henry Kissinger wrote this part of the menu) with espresso ice cream, both of which are so good they should not be tasted before you try to squeeze into that Prada dress. The apple-brandy bread pudding is surprisingly lackluster, but the pear upside-down cake is excellent, with a delicate little cardomom panna cotta on the side.

Since Savoy opened, Soho has seen an influx not only of chain stores and boutiques, but of restaurants, too. Many of them are excellent, but Savoy holds its own with the competition. It’s still one of my favorite places in the neighborhood-up there with Fiamma, Thom and Mercer Kitchen-and it’s good to know that you can now drop in at any time, if only for just a taste of Mr. Hoffman’s splendid cooking. Come back for dinner, too.

savoy

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70 Prince Street

219-8570

dress: Casual

noise level: Fine

wine list: Good, with unusual choices, fair prices

credit cards: All major cards

price range: Main courses, lunch, $9 to $12, dinner, $23 to $28

lunch: noon to 3 p.m.

dinner: 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; café, menu and bar, noon to midnight

[ good

[ [ very good

[ [ [ excellent

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no star poor