A Rich Inheritance

Art of the Meal

In 1981, Elizabeth and Michael Terry opened Savannah’s Elizabeth on 37th. Their mid-life experiment quickly became the smart, sensual culinary vision of the modern South.

Elizabeth (restaurant and chef) sparked the revival of an abandoned landscape, rehabbing both a classic Victorian home and a neglected cooking tradition. Terry brought national acclaim to Savannah, including a 1995 James Beard award. Today, Elizabeth on 37th still follows Terry’s original mandate: Honor the cooks who came before, and the bountiful blessings of local produce and seafood, with creative dishes that make the most of environment as well as heredity.

Elizabeth Terry won most of her honors in the 1990s, before she and her husband began exploring other projects once their daughters grew up. In recent years, I heard a few diners grumble that some dishes became museum pieces, and the restaurant a less-vibrant shadow of its former self. Last year, I had to agree that a meal wasn’t up to previous standards. However, a recent visit found the place at its peak, with clear, sharp interpretations of Terry’s now-classic menu fixtures, and clever new articulations of her traditions by chef de cuisine Kelly Yambor, Terry’s hand-picked successor.

Yambor still consults her mentor, but the daily specials are her own inventions. Managing partner Greg Butch and brother Gary, who came on to help the Terrys manage the restaurant in ’83, bought the place from the couple in 1998.

The space is as beautiful as ever, from the herb-lined walk to the porch, through the great room and into one of the intimate dining rooms, with cushioned banquettes along the corners and the reflection from coal-burning fireplaces gleaming against wood floors. The meal begins with a basket of warm, dense biscuits, served with housemade preserves. Two gifts from the kitchen follow: an amuse-bouche of salmon, sesame oil and peppers, and a sneakily hot roasted mussel with prickly tomato sauce.

Fans of Elizabeth’s can recite menu favorites by heart: Grouper Celeste, named after the Terrys’ younger daughter, with sesame almond crust, peanut sauce and roasted potato; Savannah red rice with Georgia shrimp; fried grits with grilled shrimp. Many of us have attempted these dishes ourselves, emboldened by the accessible, chatty recipes in Elizabeth Terry’s cookbook, Savannah Seasons.

As good as those recipes are, you will not be able to approach the dramatic contrasts of flavor, color and texture that emerge from Elizabeth on 37th’s kitchen. The fried grits with shrimp are one example: A combination so familiar it can breed contempt, these crisp-fried triangles of grits are paired with tender Georgia white shrimp. The red-eye gravy, flecked with browned cubes of country ham, has a fuse of coffee and chili sauce. Roederer champagne, at $45 per bottle, is a terrific accompaniment, brilliant as a sun-dappled brook. The house salad is flecked with the herbs you passed on the way in.

Grits appear again with an entre of roasted rack of lamb, their pecan-and-molasses crust counterpointing this creamy, sage-scented pool. Braised collard greens with ham anchor the plate. However, our table’s favorite was wild salmon, moist and tender under a browned, mustard-garlic glaze. Steamed mustard greens and rosemary potatoes round out the entre.

Yambor’s specials included eggplant soup, poured at the table over goat cheese ravioli, a complex net of hot and earthy flavors supporting the supple pasta. Oysters three ways simply expands Terry’s original recipe for Appalachicola oysters with licorice-scented Pernod, cream and country ham, adding another broiled with herb butter, cilantro and capers, and a third with champagne butter sauce and local caviar. (“Kelly wanted the feeling of a low-country oyster roast,” says Butch. She got it.)

For dessert, pair a tawny port with the blood orange sorbet on sweet, dry meringue, delicate as handmade paper, with fresh pineapple and strawberry glaze. It’s as good a symbol as any for this food — brilliant and beautiful, classic and excitingly fresh.

Krista Reese is Georgia Trend’s restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.

Categories: Art of the Meal