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Restaurant Mon Aug 19 2013

Absinthe-Inspired Dinner at the Savoy

rsz_dsc_0052.jpgAbsinthe is the Sweeney Todd of liquors: complex, misunderstood, and seductively dangerous. Distilled from three primary ingredients (anise, fennel, and wormwood), this green-fairy drink was maligned by the temperance movement and other liquor competitors as a psychoactive drug containing a dangerous substance called thujone. By the time scientists disproved such shenanigans, most countries (including the US) had banned it. But thanks to a little something called human perseverance, absinthe quickly made its way back onto the shelves of bars across the world. In fact, one of the largest collection of absinthe in the United States resides within a discreet restaurant in Chicago's hipster Wicker Park neighborhood: the Savoy.

Deirdre Darling is the mixologist behind Savoy's enormous absinthe and cocktail list, and she reminds me of a retro-chic Ursula with her swanky gadgetry. Bathed in dim bar light, Darling casually chats with drinkers as she whips up cocktails with absinthe fountains and balanciers. I arrive for an early dinner with a friend, and I'm in the mood for something fruity. After perusing the cocktail menu, I immediately settle with the white peach reviver (also Darling's favorite cocktail): Leatherbee Vernal gin, charred oak absinthe, Leopold peach cordial, imbue petal and thorn, and lemon ("To be taken before 11am, or whenever steam and energy are needed). It's Deirdre's play on the corpse reviver, and it's fucking good. It hits the tongue with citrusy sweetness before the absinthe's dark licorice taste seeps through and lingers on your taste buds.

The Southern-inspired cocktail screams New Orleans, a theme consistent throughout the restaurant. And I'm not talking about gator-Bubba-Gump 'Nawlins; I'm talking about plantation-French-bourgeoisie New Orleans, the type of shit that Paula Deen probably would orgasm over. The vintage, romantic interior, adorned with Picasso-Blue-Period art, made me want to don on a flapper dress and puff on a long cigar. As I sipped on my cocktail, I chatted with Darling about the history of absinthe, her transition from vermouth to absinthe, the growing cocktail culture in America. I'm admittedly a complete novice when it comes to alcohol ratios, production methods, and whatnot, so much of what she said flew right over my head. All I knew for certain was that my cocktail was delicious and that it was a perfect beginning for an indulgent meal.

rsz_dsc_0059.jpgI started with oysters on the half-shell, topped with smoked tomato cocktail, rhubarb mignonette, and tobiko. Like little colorful gems on top of diamond ice, these slippery suckers were perfectly briny and sour. I also had the Hamachi crudo: sashimi with pickled plum, mustard oil, watercress, grapefruit zest, tobiko, and purple yam vinegar. Lightly finished with sea salt, the fish finished incredibly well with the bitter watercress and sweet plum.

For the appetizer, I had a giant bone marrow plate with herb salad, cipolline onion jam, pineapple vinegar, and cloves. As I gently ladled the smoky, buttery marrow (which tasted like pureed bacon) onto grilled toast, my taste buds wept just a little bit. My friend even experienced his first bone luge with bourbon, although the whole affair looked more like an awkward dental procedure than a cool restaurant fad. For the main course, I indulged in a Berkshire pork chop (with sautéed rappini, quinoa, cipollini onions, and apricot mostards) and a surf n' turf dish with pork belly confit and seared scallops (with cherry mojo, cider-braised kale, and date gastrique). The pork belly confit melted like nobody's business in my mouth, and the plump little scallops and bacony kale married well with the sweet date gastrique. But to be honest, the real star was the pork chop. Combined together, the sweet onion and apricot, tangy mustard, and savory moist pork formed an explosion of heaven.

rsz_dsc_0064.jpgAnd finally for dessert, I had a lavender panna cotta topped with oat and hazelnut cookies, and a fruit tart with ricotta cream, basil, and peach gastrique.

If I had to encapsulate my overall meal into one word, it would be: subtle. And I mean subtle in the best way possible. The integration of alcohol into the food elevated average proteins into something extraordinary, and the fusion of various cuisines (often poorly conceptualized and/or delivered) tasted natural and unforced. The flavors were powerful without being overwhelming, and unabashed use of bacon, butter, and salt was spectacular in its own right (although can you REALLY indulge with seafood?).

After my feast, I chatted with executive chef Cecilio Rodriguez--a 28 year-old with raging tattoos and black gauged earrings. He reminded me of your badass Hispanic cousin who drives you around on his Harley (much to your mother's dismay and horror). But Rodriguez has an adorable 3-year old grin, and his passion for food clearly shines through so he timidly watches me consume the fruit tart. His culinary background includes Nellcote and Purple Pig, but he seems right at home at the Savoy (and getting paid way more too!).

rsz_dsc_0076.jpgAnd he runs a relaxed kitchen, too. None of the video-camera-on-the-ceiling, panting-around-the-kitchen bullshit. With the restaurant's open kitchen concept, you can actually see Rodriguez searing swordfish or garnishing a plate with freshly picked jalapenos and herbs from the Savoy's outdoor garden. The staff is being treated well, and that's important to me as a consumer. Maybe it's because I was a critic or because it was a lazy Sunday evening, but everyone seemed remarkably relaxed and friendly, which I found particularly refreshing given that the restaurant industry hardly operates as such.

Needless to say, if I ever find myself back in the hipsterdom that is Wicker Park, I'll be back at the Savoy. It's a little microcosm of New Orleans in the Windy City, it has great seafood, and hell, if you're not gonna eat anything or enjoy the ambiance, at least it's got great booze.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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