Midtown’s Savant offers a tour de France

Croque madame.
Croque madame. Tom Perkins

Savant Midtown

51 W. Forest Ave., Detroit
Wheelchair accessible
Free parking in the lot across the street 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Tue-Thu, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fri, Sat; 4p.m.-9 p.m. Sun
Food $9 to $39
Cocktails $13 to $38

Savant's September opening might've marked the first time anyone has mentioned a croque madame in the Cass Corridor or Detroit in quite a while.

The city has long suffered from a dearth of French cuisine, and Savant is billed as a modern French diner, though it might be more like what would happen if you dropped a lounge in a diner. It generated some buzz before its opening by offering caviar and edible gold "bumps," a dollop served on the customer's fist, in a $20 menu item called "The Finer Things In Life" that also includes a Champagne chaser.

But the chance to eat gold distracted a bit from the real news — croque madames, and what's arguably the most French-centered restaurant in the area, though it should be noted that chef Jordan Whitmore — formerly of the Chef's Table at Foundation — doesn't offer a purely French menu.

The croque madame is in essence a ham sandwich, though that's selling it short. Whitmore's awesome take is assembled with D'Artagnan ham imported from Paris stacked on a brioche with two layers of gruyere, all of which is grilled in butter in a panini. It's then pulled out and topped with rich bechamel and more shredded gruyere before the package is bruléed. After that, the sandwich is topped with chive, fresh cracked pepper, and a sunny-side up egg.

The croque madame is Savant's most popular dish, Whitmore says, which is a little surprising, given that it's not a sandwich that most in the region would know well from dining in Detroit. But he says it's a favorite of the restaurant's older customers.

The porcini-parmesan soup sounded, on paper, like a straight-up umami bomb, and it turned out to be even more of one than anticipated, which is great. The presentation is also notable. A server brings a bowl holding only salt-roasted rutabaga, parsnip puree, pea tendrils, and fresh shaved parmesan. The soup arrives separately, and is poured into the bowl. It's made with fresh and dried porcinis, along with whole button mushrooms and shiitake, and the stock is reduced with cream, shallots, and sherry vinegar. That's all hit with matsutake shoyu, which gives it even more of an umami burst. There's little like this dish out there, and Whitmore's intricate plating and higher level of tableside service are among the details that set it apart from most newer Detroit restaurants.

click to enlarge A Rattlesnake. - Tom Perkins
Tom Perkins
A Rattlesnake.

That also carries over to the bar service, where Rebecca Wurster has created a deep and impressive menu of highly technical drinks like A Rattlesnake — rye, apricot brandy, Averna Amaro, and maple syrup. The drink arrives in a hickory smoke-filled cloche, which Wurster notes not only makes for an intense presentation, but imparts hickory deep into the drink. Your hands will smell like a campfire afterward, and this is one that fits on a night when winter has come early.

Though there was a little less fuss in the ora king salmon steak's arrival, the plate was no less beautiful. The thick horseshoe cut is speckled with black sesame, adorned with a tangle of chives, and encircled by rings of micro shiso and green cauliflower. There's a Korean flair in the addition of its gochujang glaze, which is a sweet and savory red chili paste made with garlic, soy sauce, not-so-hot chilis, and other ingredients. The steak is then topped with espelette and shaved orange zest, and the combined effect is a pleasantly subtle flavor.

Savant's ratatouille confit byaldi is another French plate that Whitmore says is inspired by the movie Ratatouille. His version is essentially a casserole made up of yellow squash, zucchini, roma tomatoes, and Chinese eggplant, all of which is sliced up thin and slow-roasted in a combi oven. The package is chilled down overnight, then heated and served to order with champagne vinaigrette, micro basil, marigold, and truffle. It's a light dish and solid, though it lived in the shadow of some of the other hits.

Among those is the Escoffier scramble, which is composed of shirred eggs made with emulsified butter and egg yolk that's mixed in with fleur de sel, mignonette, gruyere, and chives. The package sits on a base of lightly toasted brioche, and Whitmore describes the eggs as "a vessel" for black truffle. Indeed, Whitmore is not shy with the black truffle.

Back on the bar menu, The Canton of Freeburg is an example of Wurster drawing inspiration from food pairings, and she likens the drink to a cheese plate. It's built around cave-aged gruyère-infused Liberator Gin with a nutty element from amaretto; Takaj, a Hungarian dessert wine; lemon; and a cheese crisp on the rim. You've never had gruyere-infused gin before? It's made by macerating the cheese in the gin, and the cheese's milk froths in the booze. Wurster's Up On The Hill comes from a different place — it's inspired by her camping trips to Kentucky and made with a lemongrass-cedarwood tincture that she says reminds her of the scents and tastes from those trips.

On the surface, Savant's modern lounge vibe, DJ nights featuring techno greats like Kevin Saunderson, support of local artists (we spotted paintings by Niagara and Armageddon Beachparty on the walls), dish names with references that mostly only people under 40 will understand, and a recently launched late-night menu suggest that it's explicitly geared toward Millennials with a few bucks to spend, but on a recent night all the other tables were filled with older diners. Whitmore says the restaurant sees people of all ages dining ahead of events at venues like the Detroit Opera House. Savant is likely drawing more than a young crowd because, when you get beyond the bumps, it's an original concept — and one that has filled a real void in town.

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