It was a trip back in time, but with more of a hipster look. My wife and I visited the year-old Savoy Taproom on Albany’s Lark Street one weeknight last week, for which we parked in the nearby park and strolled the neighborhood where our decades-ago courtship took place. And once again we threaded our way past the busy bar to the dining-room entryway, where we were seated at one of the dozen tables that ring the small room.
It’s the old Justin’s all over again. Yet it isn’t. As co-owner Jason Pierce explained, one of his goals “was to create an atmosphere in which people of all ages and from all walks of life could come in and enjoy a drink and conversation and music and have a plain old good time.”
He partnered with Lark Street Business Improvement District chairman Dan Atkins to open the place. Atkins has been in the restaurant business all his life: “I used to be general manager of the Brown Derby, and I’ve been in kitchens since I was nine.” He echoes Pierce’s thought, saying, “You can come in in work boots or in your suit – there’s something for everybody. We get a nice, diverse crowd, and brunch has done well – we get a lot of families. We had to buy highchairs, which is something we’d never thought of, but we were happy to do that.”
They characterize the Savoy Taproom as an “approachable upscale bar and restaurant,” which starts at the bar with well-chosen wine and beer selections and an imaginative cocktail menu from which I sampled the Gates of Hell ($10) – a mix of Old Forester, amaro, and sherry that boasted uncommon smoothness.
Brian, our savvy server, was a discreet presence at all times, reinforcing our dinner selections with the kind of murmured praise that makes you feel like a dining-out genius. To which I always succumb.
The menu has been a group effort from the start. “When we opened,” says Pierce, “our consulting executive chef was Andy Espinola, formerly at the Wine Bar and Bistro, and he created the original menu with Dan and me. Riyonna Caswell, who used to be at Creo, is now our chef, and she has helped us further develop that menu.”
Dinner selections cover a lot of ground on one concise page, with baby back ribs ($22), grilled chicken ($21), and shrimp & scallop truffle risotto ($23) among the entrées and three varieties of strip steak (house spice rub with onions, smoked applewood and coffee rub ($30 each), or, for two bucks more, the latter with a cherry brandy pomegranate sauce. The descriptions were toothsome; I felt that it might be time for a steak. But then the pasta beckoned.
Four selections feature house-made fettuccine, and based on the one, the chef has a skilled hand not only at pasta-making but also that challenging entity called sauce. In this case, a black garlic cream sauce, using specially transformed garlic cloves as a basis. (Transformed, in fact, by a days-long heat-and-humidity control, resulting in something akin to caramelization.) Roasted tomatoes add to the flavor intensity, with the bitterness of broccolini to set it off. The $19 item also is offered with chicken, shrimp, or scallops for a few dollars more (and I overheard a customer asking for it with shrimp and scallops), but this is a rich, satisfying portion as it is, with an abundance of flavor.
Susan went for a pasta-free pasta dish: lasagna layered with polenta slices ($16), which encased a wonderful melange of shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, blue cheese, and intense confit tomatoes. And the tomato sauce on which it sits is sparked by chipotle peppers, their smokiness pervading the whole dish.
There’s also a page of starters and such, including cheese or charcuterie boards ($16 each), three approaches to clams (steamed, $9; with bacon and tomato and lemon oil, $15; and paired with chorizo on white wine, $15), three varieties of mac & cheese ($9-$11), salads, and such small plates as roasted Brussels sprouts ($9), vegetable fritters ($11), and brined and fried jumbo wings in your choice of sauce ($7 for five, $13 for ten).
Jalapeno popper deviled eggs ($9) caught my eye as an unlikely combination. It isn’t, of course, not when the eggs get a crunchy fried crust and the yolks are whipped with the spicy pepper, all topped with grana padano shavings. You’re served three, so there’s one to fight over.
The late-night menu adds burgers and other sandwiches to selections from the starter menu, and it’s served from 10 PM to 2 AM. There are plenty of gluten-free and vegetarian selections, and they’re marked as such on the menu.
Interestingly, the name brings the building full circle. As Pierce explains it, “The Savoy Ballroom opened in Harlem in 1926, and became the pre-eminent destination for jazz. The place was so successful that the name ‘Savoy’ became synonymous with jazz. Fast-forward to 1933, the end of Prohibition, and entrepreneurs across the country capitalized on this by opening Savoy bars and Savoy restaurants. In about 1935, this building opened as the Savoy Taproom. Over the years, the place changed hands a couple of times, and eventually became Justin’s. Now we want to honor what it was with the music we present, with not only modern jazz, but also a lot of different genres and new ideas.”
“Nothing makes me happier,” adds Atkins, “than to be on Lark Street, in my old neighborhood, and to add a positive direction for the street.”
We finished with an excellent vanilla crème brûlée ($8), its crust hot and crisp, its custard smooth and tart, and hit the sidewalk with a renowned appreciation of a neighborhood that’s been quietly anchoring this city for decades.
Savoy Taproom 301 Lark St., Albany, 599-5140, savoyonlark.com. Serving dinner daily 5:30-10, bar menu daily 3-5:30 PM, late night menu 10-2, brunch Sunday 10-2. All major credit cards.