As we’ve covered before, Sava Lelcaj is the closest thing Ann Arbor has to a culinary Wonder Woman. Her company, SavCo Hospitality, is out to transform the way Washtenaw County eats, cooks, and lives through its maniacal focus on ingredients above everything. The philosophy is simple: when you know where your food comes from and how it got to you, you’re going to choose a healthier lifestyle by doing the things you already do. Sava started from a single namesake State St location (Sava’s) and has since expanded into a second restaurant (Aventura), a catering company (Tavolina), a grocer and prepared food line (Babo Market), and the world (kidding – but likely). Last week, I finally got the chance to sit down at the recently-renovated crown jewel of the SavCo empire: Sava’s.
If you’re an Ann Arbor foodie or a fan of the blog (they’re far from mutually exclusive), then you probably know the story of Sava’s. The original Sava’s location (then called “Sava’s State Street Café”) opened in 2007, and became a quick favorite for its great service and signature dishes, like Sava’s famous sweet potato fries. In 2009, the “State Street Café” moved across the street to become “Sava’s Restaurant”, expanding both its menu and its floor space to meet a growing – and returning – customer base. Then, in January of 2015, Sava’s underwent extensive renovations to update the 216 S. State St location’s interior to contemporary tastes.
The results speak for themselves: Sava’s is clean, geometric, balanced, and dressed to impress. The two-level restaurant and bar is a thoughtful mix of tonal walls and bold patterned floor tiles, a motif repeated throughout the main floor that seems more big city bistro than Ann Arbor favorite. A massive copper bar is accented by soft light pouring out from modern, geometric chandeliers and tasteful metallic wall sconces. Tables of all sizes line the center aisle, while tucked-away booths on the perimeter of the room allow for some privacy during even the busiest dinner rush.
I sat down at 6pm on a Thursday, just catching the tail end of the Happy Hour crowd - judging by the size and spirit of the crowd, Sava’s knows a thing or two about drinks over small plates. My friend and I took our seats at the back of the main dining room and poured over menus. I had just gotten off a long day at work; she was celebrating the end of a successful summer research job. In other words, appetizers were in order.
I started off with the house special Bombas. Bombas are delicately-formed balls of rice, chicken, sweet peas, and chorizo sausage served over a pool of romesco sauce and garlic aioli. Like any proper risotto, the structural integrity of a bomba is the result of its rice. When cooked for the right time at the right temperature, the starchy, short-grain rice from which bombas are made releases just enough of that gluey starch to allow sculpture. The presentation alone is worth the order – three bombas, a hearty serving of savory romesco made lively by the addition of a garlic aioli, and dusted with garnish. It’s almost a shame to eat them. But when each bite contains the boldness of the romesco, the savory flavors of the meat and veggies inside, and the hearty (surprisingly not overcooked) rice grains, you’d be remiss if you didn’t. Destroy something beautiful and chow down.
Since I had swung for the fences with the savory, robust bombas, my date ordered the Ahi Tuna Poke – lighter fare that would balance out Course #1. Did it balance the palate? Of course. But Sava’s Ahi Tuna Poke also stole the show. Sushi-grade Ahi yellowfin tuna is cubed into petit garnish that mixes and complements, rather than overpowers. When mixed into a sweet summer salad, garnished with apples, and served with lime on dried taro chips, it’s nearly impossible to place any specific ingredient. We savored; we compared; we smiled and enthusiastically grabbed another taro chip. There’s a famous quote by architect Oliver Reichenstein: “Good design is invisible.” Light, delectable, flavorful yet inoffensive, and refreshing. You are floored by wholeness of the taste profile – it is a tuna dish, but there’s no blinking signpost for your tastebuds telling you that THIS is a tuna dish. What it is, then, is the best amuse bouche I’ve ever had.
In my Poke bliss, I had barely skimmed the dinner menu before the time came to order entrees. While my date raved about the tuna to our waitress, I hurriedly scanned the massive selection of main courses for the perfect complement to the distinctly Mediterranean bombas from before. My mind on “bold and spicy” auto-target, I chose the Lamb Kefta while she decided on the Steak Frites. I put in an order of Sweet Potato Fries for good measure – it just wouldn’t be Sava’s without them.
Twenty minutes of conversation later, two big plates and our friendly waitress signaled the start of Course #2. Sava’s Lamb Kefta is not so much of a single dish as it is a platter – lamb skewers, roasted carrots, barrel-aged feta, toasted pita, and a healthy serving of potato spears line a massive dish in an arrangement built to please.
If you’ve ever been to a neighborhood Mediterranean café, you’ve likely seen this ensemble forced together into a Styrofoam carrier and hurriedly eaten over a lunch break. But unless you’ve been to Sava’s, you haven’t tasted the dish to its true potential. Remember that “maniacal focus on ingredients” bit from before? Succulent, farm-to-table lamb is flavored by an incredible house spice blend (freshly-sourced and mixed cumin, cilantro, parsley, and fennel, just to name a few), then plated hot with local vegetables and whipped feta that’s made to order. Salty feta, tender carrots, and thick, flavorful potatoes balance out the bold spice profile of the lamb and combine to create a wonderfully upscale take on a regional cuisine favorite.
For best results, drop the utensils and fold lamb, carrots, feta, and potato onto a single pita. All the flavors – one big, juicy, dripping bite. Totally worth any across-the-table judgment.
Before I go into the steak, I have a confession to make: I lost this dinner. My middle school guidance counselor advised me that life isn’t a competition, yet I went 0-for-2 on the night. The victor? A beaming grin, a sublime appetizer pick, and now, a sizzling cut of beef sitting directly opposed.
Sava’s Steak Frites is evidence that there is good in the world. Foreign policy disputes are settled over steaks half this great. And I had to beg for a morsel. Either order the steak for yourself, or swallow your pride and promise your company dessert if you can have a bite – it’s that good. A monumental Sparrow Farms ribeye steak sits on a throne of haricots verts and house haystack fries finished with herb butter and savory ketchup.
Why ribeye? An even distribution of marbled fat and lean beef ensures that each hearty bite contains both sinful flavor pockets and buttery, choice-cut meat. Juice pours out of every slice the second your fork makes contact – a positive feedback mechanism that guarantees you clean your plate and savor every second of the process. If this steak had a Facebook, I’d tag our time together as a Life Event. Seriously. Go to Sava’s; order the steak frites; enjoy life just that much more.
The steak finished and kefta conquered, I was Thanksgiving Turkey stuffed. Yet even after two delectable appetizers, two superb entrees, and a food coma nearly requiring a gurney later, it was time for dessert. For the grand finale, we chose Sava’s house specialty: Rainbow Cookies.
A Lelcaj family recipe that is as simple in execution as it is delicious, a Rainbow Cookie is a 3-layer almond pound cake with a delicate coating of raspberry preserves between each multicolored section. Like any storied family dessert, Rainbow Cookies are best served with coffee and company. Thankfully, I had both - the perfect close to an incredible meal.
Amazingly enough, my Sava’s experience didn’t end there: all of our raving about the Ahi Tuna Poke had traveled through the grapevine, and Chef himself came out to ask about our meal and thank us for coming in! Chef Dan, my sincere compliments.
I was stuffed, contented, and most importantly of all, thoroughly impressed. A place like Sava’s (with a kitchen like Sava’s) belongs in the East Village, not suburban Detroit. As Ann Arborites, we are thoroughly spoiled to have such a great restaurant only a stone’s throw away. I may have been 0-for-2 in competition, but SavCo was batting 1000. Sava, if you’re reading this: open another restaurant. My record, my scientific curiosity, and most of all, my tastebuds, demand it.
~Alex R. -Men's Fashion
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