Georges' Beach Music
Art of the Meal
Once upon a time, Tybee Island was just a sleepy little beach for Savannahians. Only a few hardy souls lived there year-round, gathering around the Breakfast Club's sizzling grill on winter mornings as if it were a pot-bellied stove in Maine. For years, you wore flip-flops, cutoffs and a sunburn to the best restaurant on the island, the Crab Shack - essentially a freestanding screened porch at the marina. You threw your empty shells and beer cans into a hole in the middle of the table.
My, how times have changed. Well, everything but the Crab Shack, thank heavens - although that's been spruced up a bit recently, too. Some may point to the recent influx of movie stars (Sandra Bullock, most notably), but the real Tybee turning point came about when George Jackson and George Spriggs opened the North Beach Grill almost a decade ago.
It wasn't much fancier than the Crab Shack, but the Caribbean-influenced menu - crab cakes, jerk wings, creamy slaw, chilly Red Stripe beers - made you sit up and take notice: When the heck did a real chef move to town?
The North Beach Grill was such a hit that the two Georges teamed up again for a much more ambitious project: Georges' of Tybee. This time, George Jackson would be in charge, just as Spriggs had taken the lead for the North Beach Grill.
Neither Savannahians - who had great restaurants like Elizabeth on 37th back in town - nor newly arrived celebrities demanded more ambitious culinary endeavors on Tybee. Like a lot of new, incredibly good restaurants in tiny, picturesque Southern hamlets, Georges' is the wish fulfillment of another kind of new resident: moneyed big-city retirees who've purchased their sunset homes and want a slice of foie gras with their rusticity. The decor fits. Lightly color-washed walls, ceiling fans, hardwood floors. You might want to wear a nice sundress, but shorts and flip-flops are fine.
Still, Georges' isn't stodgy - the menu is that kind of eclectic American thing that can so often fall on its face, but here succeeds as bracing, energetic and as unafraid of risks. Local ingredients (Davis Killer Tomatoes, Vidalia onions, yellowfin tuna, black grouper) give it a Southern tinge, although it's hard to nail down a dish like sauteed duck livers with curly endive salad, dressed with raspberry vinaigrette and toasted pecans. Except, of course, to say that it's wonderful - served rare, with the warm sweet dressing and bitter greens, the crisp pecans playing see-saw with velvet duck liver. It's a kind of culinary Calder mobile - airy, capricious, perfectly balanced.
That's the mark of Georges' most successful dishes, like the signature crab bisque, with sweet corn, leeks, artichokes and flecks of thyme. Or the grilled lamb with sautéed spinach, black olives and mushrooms, tossed with big, Israeli couscous in an apricot-fig chutney. But generally, Georges' does the simplest things best, like the lightly crusted grouper, with smoked tomato relish and corn-Vidalia puree over a little heap of mixed grains. When a dish flops, like the fresh fruit napoleon, it's still clean-tasting eye candy, but suffers from muddled focus. The trio of sorbets in blood orange juice melts into a canvas of vibrant abstract shapes - and the juxtaposed flavors are just as arresting.
Jackson selects the wines, and it's a highly individual and intriguing list, with most bottles under $50. You'll find several good selections in the $20-$30 range, including a lightly sweet Viognier (Yalumba "Y" from Southern Australia). It's ideal for celebrating the last days of summer from your newfound sunset home.
Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.