THERE IS FISH AND THERE IS SEAFOOD. THERE ARE THE SCORES OF FRIED WHITE SOMETHINGS, THE STICK CRABMEAT THAT NEVER ONCE SAW A SHELL, THE GRAYED-OUT TUNA AND THE SUPERMARKET SALMON THAT’S DYED PINK. THEN THERE IS THE OTHER SORT. THERE IS THE GROUPER SO FRESH THE MUSCLES SEEM TO REPLENISH THEMSELVES AFTER THEY ARE COOKED, THE BOLD MEATY FLAVOR OF STURGEON, EVEN THE SALTY SWEETNESS OF A LITTLE LOCAL OYSTER. IN SAVANNAH, THAT IS WHAT PEOPLE EXPECT.
Charlie Russo’s seafood on Abercorn Street traffics the latter category. Russo is a second-generation fishmonger who talks about Georgia fish almost like they were family. He can be found in the back of the shop, dressed in a purple rubber apron and a black University of Georgia hat, overseeing the deconstruction of loads of fish that were flapping on the deck of a boat just a few hours ago. Fish is in his blood, he says.
“It’s got to be in your blood, the fish business,” he says. “It’s a hard business.” Russo has an encyclopedic knowledge of the fish that run in the waters from Darien to Bluffton. He has many charts of fish species that line the walls of the store and his office. The greatest resource of coastal Georgia to him, however, is shrimp.
“The local shrimp we get in these waters, the greatest in the world – tastewise, the supply, the quality—we don’t fool with anything else that’s imported, no pond raised stuff,” he says. “The shrimp here is our biggest commodity.” The Russos are a fish family—Charlie’s father opened shop in 1946, and now even his grandson and great-grandson are working there. They aren’t the only ones. Savannah is filled with people who have a passion for fish. Here’s where the fish go next:
There may be no restaurant more synonymous with the image of Savannah’s mix of elegance and familiar comfort than Elizabeth’s on 37th. Located inside of a restored mansion, it feels more like going to someone’s house for dinner than going out to eat. Co-owners Greg and Gary Butch can be found waiting tables—and Gary has an archival knowledge of wine that rivals Wikipedia.
Dedicated to using fresh, local ingredients, everyone that dines in the restaurant gets a taste of a small salad harvested from their front and back gardens—in early February it had fennel, lettuce and small pieces of mint garnished with goat cheese. Elizabeth’s also serves fried Bluffton oysters served with a smoky tomato aioli over shredded Daikon radishes.
There’s no way to go wrong on the Elizabeth’s menu, but an especially stunning selection is a sesame-crusted grouper served with potatoes and an apple fennel hash. This three-act whirlwind takes you from a powerful, nutty fish to catch your breath on a crispy potato and then sink into your chair with a refreshingly cool hash. As for the wine, let Gary take care of you.
“People think it’s going to be fussy—it’s white tablecloth, in this big, beautiful mansion. But our food is very simple, very humble, I like to think,” says Chef Kelly Yambor. “I don’t like much fussy stuff on the plate, and I don’t like people to sit down and feel intimidated.”
In the past few years, using fresh ingredients from local suppliers has become a revolution in the country’s biggest cities, and both the minimalist decor and small delicate plates offered at Local 11 Ten give Savannah a taste of this haute cuisine.
One side of the restaurant is a long, banquet style seat, where people from different parties sit next to each other.“We wanted this to be a place where locals could come, and at the same time tourists could come as well, and eat side by side,” says Jamie Durrence, general manager. “The whole mantra is local—local people, local food.”
Their menu changes constantly based on the season, but on a Tuesday in February they were serving an elegant take on a Southern classic—creamy grits over brioche topped with butter poached shrimp and a single small quail egg.
Aside from staples like shrimp, the menu varies from shad in January and speckled trout in the spring to a brief appearance by king mackerel in the summer. At Local, each day is different because each catch is different—every day at around three, their supplier shows up with the freshest fish he has, and the chefs decide what to do with it afterward.
The Georgia coast isn’t the only culture that values fresh fish, and Garibaldi’s offers a menu of Georgia fish prepared in the style of Northern Italy. All the fish is personally purchased by head chef, Gerald Greene, who buys all his fish whole—looking at the gills and the eyes is the best way to tell how fresh a fish is, he says.
Some restaurants will stretch a fillet for a few days after its expiration date but not Garbialdi’s. Green orders in small batches to avoid extra food; he’d rather run out of fresh fish than have old fish left over. A highlight of the menu is the cornucopia of seafood: a scallop wrapped with flounder, topped with clams and crab. A light butter and wine sauce perfectly touches off the lingering taste of the rich, flaky fish.
Greene is an avid fisherman and will go out with his friend Vinnie Burns, the head chef from the Olde Pink House. Sometimes, a lucky customer may have a main course caught by the chef the day before. “You can say—the chef just caught that. It’s funny,” he says. “When people know that the fishes are fresh, they’ll always come back.
WILD GEORGIA SHRIMP
As a rule of thumb, one does not go into the heart of a city’s tourist district to find good food. Thereare, however, exceptions, and Vic’s on the River is one of them. Vic’s is a relatively new white linen restaurant that occupies three floors looking out over the Savannah River. They serve modern Southern cuisine that’s like mom’s home cooking transposed to an elegant dining experience.
Chef Dusty Grove grew up in Savannah, and cut his teeth as a chef at Elizabeth’s on 37th. After stints in Atlanta and Florida, he came back to Savannah to let his kids grow up with the special relationship to food that develops on the coast. “After I had a few kids I really wanted to move back to the water. I Grew up on the river and missed it. I wanted my kids to have that same value system that I grew up with here, being responsible for what they eat,” he says. “My kids love seafood and love crab, and there’s a lot of work that goes into picking crab.”
Grove says that when a tourist comes to Savannah, they’re expecting alot of food, and they’re expecting it all fried. He accommodates that desire for traditional Southern cooking, but with his own twists. Like Local, he offers his own take on the classic Shrimp and Grits this time with a barbecue sauce whose smoky flavor is accented by rosemary, providing a light floral taste that sits on top of the heavy Southern staple. The shrimp, of course, is wild Georgia shrimp.
Photography by Angela Hopper
Tags: Belford's, Eat, Elizabeth's On 37th, Fresh, Garbaldi's, Savannah, seafood, steak
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