An argument can be made that Savannah's hottest new restaurant isn't a multi-million dollar operation on Oglethorpe or something inside one of the fancy hotels popping up all over town.

No, the most buzz for a new restaurant in Savannah's Historic District belongs to a spot that was highly anticipated. It's called Fox & Fig, and it is a plant-based, full service restaurant. Yeah, this is the place your friends have been telling you about.

Talking with Clayton Ehmke, the man in charge:

How's it going?

It has been great. We opened Nov. 17. We've only gotten busier and busier. People have heard about us. We had a lot of hype before we opened. It's been a bit of a journey to get the doors open. The Foxy name behind it helped build some of the excitement. We were pretty strong early and we've only gotten busier. All word of mouth. It's been great.

A lot of people know you are associated with Foxy Loxy. You are, you aren't. Explain to those who don't understand the dynamic of how your arrangement works with Foxy Loxy?

The common denominator is PERC Coffee and the Foxy name behind it, which stands for a few different things. I managed Coffee Fox for a few years and got to know Jen [Jenkins, owner of the Foxy brands] and we collaborated on this. What we brought to the table with this is our first full-service restaurant vs. counter service cafe. As well as our first all vegan, all plant-based spot. We don't really use the "V" word; we used "plant-based."

Why is that?

Because we don't want to turn people away by the bad taste in their mouth that they may have by the word vegan. Potentially from the food, but also the other philosophies that may stem from veganism. We are not here to push that agenda. Or any agenda associated with veganism. We're just here to present that food in the best way possible.

So you're not selling T-shirts that say "Meat is Murder?"

(Laughs) No. Exactly. No. There is no activism. Our only activism is, "Here's the food. Eat it. And like it!"

Let's talk about that. I am not asking you to trash vegans, but with the development of concepts like this, here and elsewhere, is there becoming more of a middle ground with this lifestyle? Five years ago, it was more of a standoff, right?

Yes! It's huge. Huge. Huge changes in the market. I call it "modern vegan cuisine." That's opening the eyes and taste buds to non-vegans.

There were a few different directions we avoided with a vegan place. One of those was to be raw, pure health food. But that's boring. Or fine, if you're a yogi, I suppose. The other direction is what I call "old-school vegetarian," which is a bunch of tofu scrambles and it's very outdated, from the 1990s. Coffee shop vegetarians. We didn't want to do that. Now, there is a junk-food vegan. They are doing philly cheese steak, comfort food and it's all processed soy products.

We wanted to find a middle ground and do whole foods plant-based. As centered as possible. We want to serve fresh, vibrant dishes. But they have, for example, a maple-tamari glaze and they are seared on a flat-top. So there is some depth to it as well.

Who'd you bring in to chef? You don't just snatch someone off River Street for this.

We have two guys that are really leading the kitchen. Our executive chef is Anthony Banos. He was with The Collins Quarter for quite some time. That's where I met him. I liked his plating. I knew he was plant focused.

Sean Harrison brings to the table specifically vegan culinary skills. How to work with egg substitutes and stuff like that. Both of them are full-time in the kitchen.

There isn't a lot of experience out there with these concepts. A chef can't tell you he's been doing plant-based menus for 25 years. Does that lead to a lot of experimentation and taste testing?

I would say we have a pretty creative menu. I feel like we are trailblazing at times. Major cities have this all across the country. I can name them. I have studied the vegan restaurant market the last couple of years. There are 30 to 50 in the country that I look to for inspiration.

The three of us (Sean, Anthony and myself) wrote this menu. Some of these dishes, I played around with in my own kitchen four years ago. There's some trailblazing and experimentation. It's a playground, for sure.

What's the most popular dish?

The most popular would be the Fox Burger. That's a product we bring in house. The burger itself, it's yellow pea protein. Soy-free, gluten-free, 20 grams of protein. Caramelized onions, grilled pear, agave-dijon. So it's kind of like a honey mustard, on a pretzel bun. That's our most popular. Followed by the Breakfast Hash, which is a more traditional, straight up with vegetables and cashew hollandaise. My favorite is the Banh-Mi.

Safe to assume the coffees are flying out the door as well?

Oh yeah. We are using oat milk to default. If you say you just want a cappuccino or a latte, we are gonna make it with the oat milk. It's a pretty innovative product. The closest to whole milk of any non-dairy milk out there. Cashew milk we made in house, which is delicious, as well.

You guys have been talking about this for some time. Did you know years ago you would be this successful or have you outperformed your expectations?

It met what my highest hopes were. My beliefs? I knew it could. Some people didn't think it could. Too niche.

The thing is, we are able to write a menu that can feed anyone. It did what I had hoped. I believed it could for sure. I saw more people open to dining at a plant-based restaurant. Wednesday, we're going out for Italian; Friday, we're going out for plant-based. It's really just another cuisine. We're not trying to be a place for vegans at all. That's key to making an all-plant based menu work.

Have you converted any people? They came in to try it and now they keep coming back?

Yes! A lot. Yes! We've got a lot of regulars that didn't eat this type of food on a regular basis before. They are regulars now. Most of our customers are regulars.

It's surprising with the age demographic. We have a lot of people over the age of 60 that come in and love the food. This didn't exist 30 years ago. Male to female is largely female and ages 25 to 34. We have the guys come in and say, "I need my meat and potatoes," and they love it. I've heard people say this isn't just the best veggie burger they've had in their lives, but the best burger. Period. That's something great to hear from a non-vegan.

Reservations?

We do call-ins. If we get busy, we go on a wait list. We'll have 30 people on a list sometimes. Not reservations, per se. So if we are slammed on the weekend, you are going to wait.

Name one thing about this place that no one knows yet?

That we're a good spot to come in the evening for just dessert and wine. A great place to come relax, experience the music and the candles. Yes, we're a coffee shop in the morning. Yes, a brunch spot. And yes, we are a late-night cheesecake and wine spot.

FOX & FIG CAFE

Address: 321 Habersham St.

Info: 912-297-6759, foxandfigcafe.com

QUICK BITES

Congratulations to The Grey's Mashama Bailey. Last week she was named a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award, America's highest culinary honor. Winners will be announced in May.

Spent the weekend eating and liking at El Coyote, the brand-new Mexican concept going into One West Victory at Whitaker Street. A welcome addition to this city's food scene.

No plans this weekend? Join us for the 11th annual Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival at Honey Horn. It has become one of the best seafood events in the region. Find more now at hiltonheadseafoodfestival.com.

Statesboro! We will see you at 5:30 p.m. March 1 for Tasting Statesboro. More than three-dozen restaurants will be represented, along with live music, great food and more - all of it benefiting the United Way of Southeast Georgia. Find out more at tastingstatesboro.com.

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