Jason Starnes is even happier now than he was when I first met him back in August, just a few weeks after he had taken over as Executive Chef at The Alida Hotel.
That is saying something because back then he was over the moon.Get Savannah arts and culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and dining newsletters
This past Saturday, The Alida celebrated its first anniversary, and the time was right for Chef Starnes and his team to unveil several new dinner menu items for the fall season as well as an entire new menu of craft cocktails, courtesy of Beverage Director Cody Hinson.
Starnes took these past few months to learn his staff, to learn the local farms, to learn the hotel, and to fall in love with Savannah. Now was the time for some menu tweaks, keeping so many of the contemporary Southern brunch and shareable favorites while adding his new creations - like the skillet cornbread with country ham butter.
My wife, deftly appropriating a line from Fletch, said, “I’ll have the cornbread and...the cornbread.” If only everything we ate was topped with a huge dollop of country ham butter. (Audible sigh.)
The Southern spreads platter features immense quenelles of smoked fish dip and pimento cheese, razor-thin slices of homemade country ham, deviled eggs, pickled, and house-baked benne crackers. Though billed as a ‘for the table’ first course, this delicious medley would make a nice main for one. The same goes for the artichoke risotto, cleverly Coastal Empired with the much lighter Carolina Gold rice standing in for pearly arborio. Dressed with roasted mushrooms and laced with slivered artichokes, this is an ideal dish for a cool winter night and easily makes a meal.
Rhett’s new dinner entrées creatively hit all palates with a roasted half chicken, a pan-seared corvina, and a coffee-cinnamon-cocoa rubbed New York strip. The first of these especially lives up to Chef Starnes’ visible glee in giving diners massive portions, and the dish’s co-stars of beet spätzle, orange-fennel marmalade, and lemon crème fraîche make a would-be simple dish into something special. The dark coating on the steak look and taste great juxtaposed with a rarish center, the cut paired perfectly with roasted root veg and rapini.
Much like 1540 Room at The DeSoto and The Emporium at Perry Lane Hotel, The Alida Hotel’s Rhett deserves to be a dining destination not exclusively reserved to its own overnight guests and folks from Fresno, Florence, and Forsyth ambling along River Street. It is a place that should be on Savannahians’ list of ‘We’re Driving Downtown for a Nice Meal’.
“We really want to focus on the local community,” Starnes said during Monday’s evening’s celebration dinner, an event designed, as he put it, “to let Savannah know this is who we are and this is what we do.” What Starnes and his kitchen team do is make great food. He and Hinson and Food & Beverage General Manager Arthur Sertorio are so clearly proud of everything that Rhett - and all of The Alida’s dining and drinking venues - puts on a plate or in a glass.
Starnes is happy. Sertorio and Hinson are happy. Assistant F&B General Manager Suzette Heilman is happy, as is every server. At Rhett, the atmosphere is upscale cozy with top-flight, attentive service so unobtrusive that you never really notice that your water glass is always full. Sertorio said that the time was right for this celebration because the culinary “team is at its maximum.”
“It is an opportunity to have one night when we can showcase what we do,” he added, nearly echoing Chef Starnes’ words, essentially proving the cohesiveness of the food and beverage ethos at The Alida.
Starnes explained that he wanted to stay true to Rhett’s menu, replete with grandly portioned classic Southern winks and nods, while also adding items that would show Savannah diners that this is not a kitchen that is thinking only of the tourist trade.
Within the next month, two distinct menus will ‘replace’ the one comprehensive carte, and though there will be a fair amount of ‘crossover’ - of shareable plates and popular dishes - the dinner menu will herald the restaurant’s local focus.
Think of it this way, Savannah: if The Alida were in Charleston or Nashville or Asheville, you would be staying there, which means that you would be eating at Rhett or enjoying drinks at one of the hotel’s lovely bars.
What luck for you: all of that is already right here, just a short drive and valet parking away. Chef Starnes and the rest of the lovely staff cannot wait to cook for you.