By Jan Walsh, Photography by Beau Gustafson
Little Savannah is located in the heart of Forest Park. Entering through the bar side, the awning protects us from the shower that is pouring down on this winter night. Inside, we are welcomed by Clif Holt and his friendly staff. Two crushed velvet banquettes line the golden walls leading to the bar, flanked by an oversized magazine cover story that I wrote many years ago. Opposite the bar is the hostess stand (a former church pulpit) and semiprivate tables. Through the door is the original Little Savannah, before the bar expansion was added. Since we last dined here, the Holts have removed some of the tables, making the space feel larger—by making more room between tables—all the while seating fewer guests in French bistro-style chairs. We nestle into our intimate table along the banquette. From both the dining room and the bar, large storefront windows provide a huge view of Clairmont Avenue.
The Holts opened Little Savannah in the fall of 2003, shortly after marrying. Maureen typically runs the front of the house. Tonight, however, she is in San Francisco attending a culinary school. Clif is the executive chef and co-owner. He first dreamed of owning a restaurant when he grew up cooking with his grandmother in Cullman. Together they baked loaves of bread, pecan tarts, and chocolate candies for friends and neighbors and delivered them in her old brown Oldsmobile, which she had to keep running during deliveries so the chocolate wouldn’t melt.
The couple pride themselves on their incorporation of local ingredients. In fact, they have a list of the Alabama farmers, whom the restaurant supports, on the bottom of the menu. During dinner, Clif drops by the table and sits down for a visit, just as he does with his neighborhood regulars.
Demian, the bartender who brings our drinks to the table, lingers to educate us about the cocktail menu. The front side lists warmer weather drinks, including cocktails invented by former bartenders, such as the Queens Colony developed by Steva Casey, who currently tends bar at Veranda on Highland. Inside are more wintry drinks. We select a Bees Knees and an Old Fashioned. The Bees Knees is a light, lemony drink served in a champagne coupe with a touch of lemon peel. The Old Fashioned invites slow sipping as it boasts Basil Hayden’s Bourbon and a huge ice sphere, orange and aromatic bitters, and an orange peel garnish.
While we sip our cocktails and munch on what has long been my favorite fare at Little Savannah–the hot, buttery cornbread muffins–we look over tonight’s dinner menu. The minimalist menu is well-focused with six little vittles, six grand vittles, six $6 sides, and four dessert options. From the little vittles list we share the Artisan Cheese Plate. Three excellent cheese selections—an Italian Grana Padano, a blue cheese from New York, and a goat cheese from California—are accompanied by slices of apple, pecan halves, a dollop of Alabama honey, and toasted slices of French bread. We enjoy sampling the cheeses while visiting with Clif.
For our entrees, we order Southern Bouillabaisse and House-Ground Ham-Burger, which is an example of the restaurant’s throwback to its simpler start-up days. The bowl of bouillabaisse arrives steaming hot, surrounded by toasted bread. A saffron fumet is filled with calamari, oysters, mussels, shrimp—all encircling a lovely piece of red snapper in the center of the bowl. This succulent mix of seafood is enhanced by the acidity of tomato-based fumet—highly recommended. The burger is one of Clif’s most recent dishes. From the bun and the house-made pickle to the thick patty of Angus sirloin and Berkshire pork, he worked for weeks developing and perfecting this recipe. Optional are cheese and bacon. We opted for the addition of an Irish Cheddar cheese. The tasty, hearty cheeseburger is accompanied by a small serving of delicious Truckstop Fries, which can also be ordered as a side as well. I would come here just for these fries.
For dessert, we select a bowl of bananas foster. A spoonful of ice cream tops the warm sliced bananas and sweet, rich sauce. We pair the dessert with a glass of Spanish Cava and one of Demain’s own concoctions, LS Figsco—a fig-infused pisco cocktail made with lemon juice, Grand Mariner, egg white, and Whiskey Barrel Infused Bitters. This foamy, festive drink is topped with a cinnamon stick.