Although it's been open for more than three years, I've never eaten at Savant Fine Dining. Until just a few months ago, I hadn't even heard of it. The marquee outside the restaurant's Clearwater strip-mall location bears merely the name Savant, with no mention of what might be inside. It is reservation-only, can accommodate just 30 people for its prix fixe dinners and serves only one seating per night. Savant relies on word-of-mouth, and the word hadn't reached me.
Then came a nod from Zagat, which awarded Savant, along with a couple of other restaurants, the highest food ranking in the Bay area. And don't forget the mentions on a few year's-best lists.
Not what you'd expect from the first restaurant of a 27-year-old high school dropout. But when it comes to Chef David Miller, there are a lot of surprises.
Early on a Tuesday morning, I meet Miller at Savant, and we immediately head out to a local produce stand to start our shopping for the $20 Menu Challenge, planning on Publix for our next stop. He doesn't have anything in particular in mind, just looking for whatever is freshest, trying to peg my tastes. A few baby eggplants, some peaches and two sweet potatoes go into bags. He points out some golden mangoes — smaller than the typical Mexican variety found in most supermarket aisles — fondly remembering them from a stint as chef at the Angelus Resort in the West Indies.
He'll likely be reacquainted with that fruit soon. One of his former employers, Scott Ward, recently bought an island — yes, an entire island — near Tortola, just a few miles away from billionaire Richard Branson's private hideaway in the Caribbean. Ward is building a resort and convinced Miller to come and open a restaurant. "I never wanted to have more than one place," Miller explains. "I've personally plated everything I've ever served, but Scott doesn't really make offers unless he knows you'll accept." The deal was ultimately too good to pass up, so Antilia by Savant Fine Dining will open this December.
Miller plans on splitting time between the two restaurants. He'll mitigate the impact by installing cameras and monitors in both kitchens in order to keep an eye on the product going out to the tables. And he's not worried about our local Savant, since he "has the best staff in Tampa."
Miller has always been drawn to mentors, an attitude he fosters now that he's the one in charge. In his teens, taking cooking courses at Pinellas Tech, he was nurtured by Freddie Usher, who recruited him into those detail-oriented cooking contests you sometimes see on the Food Network. His performance earned him a free ride to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he graduated at the ripe age of 18. Then came stints at the International School of Confectionary Sugars and the Notter School of Pastry Arts in Orlando. He still speaks of the school's founder, Ewald Notter, with a kind of awe: "He's the best in the world."
Now he staffs Savant's kitchen and his Savant Fine Chocolates (yeah, he has a chocolate shop) with "apprentices" who range from culinary students to high school kids. One of his chocolate apprentices, who's been working for him for two years, is now 17. "She could go and open her own shop right now," Miller confides as we peruse the aisles at Publix.
"I never looked at the prices of things before," he admits, explaining that with a $75 price tag on Savant's prix fixe menu, he doesn't have to count pennies. He's willing to take a hit on his food costs if it means exceeding the expectations of his diners. By this point, our basket is barely burdened with just a few things: tarragon, pears, lamb shanks, chocolate chips, heavy cream. It's difficult to see a meal taking shape from these disparate ingredients.
In T-shirt, beard and tats, Miller drives a beater pickup and restores old muscle cars. He's laconic, opinionated and looks grim in every picture I take. When I mention as much, he starts flashing a big grin every time the camera comes out.
Back at Savant, the chef's coat goes on and he focuses on our purchases. He plans on five courses, including two sweet dishes that will bookend the meal. Poached pears, sweet potato soup, tomato salad, lamb in a peach gastrique with eggplant and sweet potato, and a chocolate foam.
Most of the sweet potatoes go into the cream to simmer, with a touch of cardamom, then get a hit of salt and pepper and a couple shakes of Tabasco, an ingredient he uses often more for the tart acidity of the vinegar-based hot sauce than the peppery heat. Blend and serve.
He grabs a biscuit cutter and stamps the remaining sweet potato hunks (which have been simmering with the eggplants) into perfect circles. He sears the lamb and puts it in the oven to braise for a few hours.
While melted chocolate and cold cream beat themselves into a foam in the mix-master, I ask Miller where he likes to eat. He mentions Perkins and Bennigan's, not as jokingly as I first think. "We eat at places like that because we have no expectations," he explains. Expectations are a bitch when it comes to fine dining, although he's a fan of Tom Pritchard's restaurants (Salt Rock Grill and Island Way Grill). Pritchard is another of Miller's mentors.
Miller also fondly remembers Arigato Japanese Steakhouse, a chop-socky teppanyaki joint in Clearwater. He says that his brother was super smart, and that whenever he got straight As their parents took them there. "As a kid, that's the only place I remember going," he says.
Miller combines a firm confidence in his culinary abilities with a self-deprecating streak that seems to come from his struggles in grade school and a hint of attention deficit disorder.
We could just spoon the mousse-like chocolate foam into a bowl or glass, but that's not Miller's way. "I got into food for the art of it," he says as he works magic with melted, Publix-brand chocolate chips. He makes a hollow tube of chocolate to hold the dessert and shaves more chocolate to garnish the pears. The rest of the dishes get a similar artful treatment, thanks to a bin of squeeze bottles filled with colorful oils, reductions and sauces, which Miller uses to create intricate patterns of dots and lines on plates and food. He balances meat and vegetables precariously against one another and meticulously arranges the tomatoes into a decidedly self-conscious pile.
It all looks much too good to touch, and certainly much more than someone should be able to coax out of a single $20 bill. Miller looks satisfied, but for me it's all about the eating, so I break into each dish and polish off much of the incredible meal.
When I make these dishes at home, and after tasting them I'm certain I'll be preparing every one, I likely won't be constructing towers of food to Miller's specifications. But after a few hours with the talented chef, I might stretch myself, adding a few curls of chocolate or balancing a lamb shank with an eggplant. It's the least I can do.
Savant Fine Dining, 2552 Drew St., Clearwater, 727-421-9975, savantfinedining.com.