I guess that I should apologize for adding yet another verse to my tune “The Restaurant in the Hotel is Not Just a Hotel Restaurant,” but St. Neo’s Brasserie already deserves addition and a rousing rendition.
Get ready to sing it with me after you eat there.Get Savannah arts and culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and Dine newsletters
The signature restaurant in The Drayton Hotel opened a week ago yesterday, the same day the property welcomed its first overnight guests, and everything about the entire organization is polished, poised, professional, and propitious. Even the hotel and restaurant’s respective logos are clean and snazzy, symbolic of the fact that nothing has been overlooked in preparing Savannah’s latest boutique accommodation. “I have been hands-on with everything because it’s a more fun way to build a business,” admitted Raghav Sapra, a managing partner with hospitality and real estate firm Maypole Group and the hotelier-owner of The Drayton.
Thanks to him and his team, the corner of Drayton and Bay Streets is a long way from that old Outback.
The menu developed and executed by Head Chef Chris Meenan, formerly of New York City’s Blue Water Grill, is semi-French semi-Southern, “rooted in French technique with inspiration from local cuisine,” in the words of The Drayton’s Director of Restaurants and Bars Jake Brooks.
Some of the many dishes Meenan and his team create are obvious nods westward toward New Orleans if not eastward toward the original Orléans: duck charcuterie with foie gras and smoked duck terrine, an oysters Rockefeller salad with Pernod, lamb carpaccio dressed with dollops of cognac mustard, trout amandine atop haricots, steak frites, and poulet rouge with a tomate farcie. The rest of the amply thorough menu smacks of The South and features green tomato gazpacho, deviled blue crab, sea scallop with country ham and apple brown butter, crispy red snapper with blue crab and greens, blackened South Carolina swordfish with smoked shrimp butter, and spiced pork tenderloin on grits.
And all that makes up about half of the brasserie’s big carte.
The prices throughout the menu, wines and desserts included, are high but befit the sophistication of the hotel, the quality and creativity of the food, and the superlatively solicitous service, and also are on a par with downtown’s upscale dining stalwarts. Think of St. Neo’s as an updated culinary offspring of Circa 1875 and The Olde Pink House: The South meets France in a distinctly Savannahian restaurant, cleverly confirmed by a vegetarian first course called Midnight in the Garden. The raw bar serves the premium at a premium. Oysters hail from as close as May River and as far away as Pickering Passage, Wash., and Prince Edward Island, and the clams come from Sapelo. The Deluxe Plateaux of oysters, clams, shrimp, scallop ceviche, lobster, and crab legs is a fruits de mer feast ($125), but if your stomach or wallet is not prepared to go ‘whole ocean’, the ceviche, crudo, tartare, and composed oysters all run between $13 and $16, the same price range for the house-made desserts, courtesy of Pastry Chef Brittany Iannarelli.
Though every bite my wife and I ate was delicious, our meal could have begun and ended with Iannerelli’s jalapeño honey cornbread, a golden-crisp mini-loaf served with sweet potato butter drizzled with maple syrup. Amazing as a gratis starter, this sweet perfection could also appear on the dessert menu and more than hold its own. The buttery shell of the BBQ shrimp pie was another impeccable pastry, then filled with sweet potato purée and topped with lightly sauced sweet shrimp to make a special small plate, classically New Orleans and unmistakably Southern but also quite unique. The lamb carpaccio was ruby red and melt-in-the-mouth tender, even if the generous portion was a little overpowered by too much fennel slaw, a tasty topping acidic and peppery enough to suppress the meat’s flavor. The razor-thin shaved sourdough sidekick should be served by the dozen in a bucket.
This past Saturday, Atlantic char was a star substitute for trout in a classic amandine preparation, the skin snap-crisp and the flesh supple and flaky, partnered with charred cauliflower and bright green, perfectly done haricots.
If a high quality restaurant has a burger and fries on its menu, just go ahead and put my order in, and St. Neo’s renditions are superb. For $17, this is no ground chuck; instead, the kitchen grinds New York strip and short ribs, one of the best beef combos for a thick and schmancy patty. The fries look and taste like McD’s went up several notches, square and golden and perfectly cooked and served with garlic aioli. Even the brioche bun is thoughtfully different, topped with sesame seeds, dried seaweed, and salt.
All three desserts we tried would look quite at home in a Paris patisserie window: elegant and pretty and well-constructed if also a bit too stylish. Then again, the cheapest one is $13. For a dozen reasons, we would love to be frequent eaters at St. Neo’s, but it is pricey enough to be reserved for a special occasion, not unlike Circa or Cotton & Rye.
AN INSTANT HIT
By a quarter to seven last Saturday night, several other diners had joined us in the middle room while hundreds more gazed and gaped as they strolled along Bay.
Just a day after the liquor license was ‘activated’, the bar in St. Neo’s was full, and up on the Rooftop, the hotel’s other bar was warmly welcoming nearly two dozen guests, though it was a bit too chilly to take advantage of the expansive outdoor patio and its stunning views of city hall, the Talmadge Bridge, and nightlights all the way to Hilton Head. Equipped with its own kitchen, this rooftop space can seat up to 275, inside and out, and easily rivals Peregrin (Perry Lane Hotel) and The Lost Square (The Alida Hotel) for stylish scenes that offer spectacular scenery and classy cocktails. Soon, the lower-level lounge will add another more intimate space for libations and leisure, with cocktail conversations as well as music.
All told, the beverage menu is a carefully curated book in and of itself with two pages of wines by the glass and a whole page of French varietals and blends, not to mention the comprehensive craft cocktails.
Before we left on Saturday night, Brooks explained the restaurant’s unique sobriquet by reminding me of the Middle Age parable of St. Neot - he with a ‘t’ - and tied the tale to the restaurant’s eco-sustainable ethos. Evidently, an angel once appeared to this monk from Cornwall and told him that if he never ate more than one fish of the three that lived in a nearby well that number would never decrease. When Neot fell ill, his servant caught two fish, broiled them, and offered them to his master. Seeing this, Neot prayed for forgiveness and returned the fish to the well. They miraculously returned to life. Now that’s what I call sustainable. In this kitchen, Chef Meenan adds usability to sustainability and is craftily dedicated to figuring out ways not to waste one bit of produce.
St. Neo’s is essentially divided into three dining spaces: the anteroom bar area that also offers high-top seating; the raw bar room, which seems like it will serve as the primary dining area; and an intimate back room, adorned with a verdant wall-to-wall mural, that looks perfect for a special occasion or private function. Each setting is handsome, shininess and warmth without fussy elegance. Caramel leather banquets line two walls in both of the main dining spaces, paired perfectly with honey wood tables and cane-backed chairs that sit on painted tile floors and fresh pale planks. Cadet blue walls appose brilliant white subway tiles, and huge foxed mirrors soften the reflections from every angle.
The rez-de-chaussée view out on Bay Street is far more charming than I might have imagined, the thick new windows altogether muting the steady streams of cars and people. In the near distance, the live oaks and Spanish moss in the Factors Walk garden are a still life. The translucent globe fixtures in St. Neo’s cast a gently bright light on the rooms and off of the windows, while just outside hundreds of folks walking by paused and peered in, plainly intrigued and probably thinking, “Maybe we should eat here.”
RESTORING A LANDMARK INTO A LIVING LEGACY
Raghav Sapra first stepped into the American Building in September of 2015, having been introduced to Savannah by his great friend and college roommate, Byron Cocke. “He took a very great interest in my hospitality career,” said Sapra, “and we were always looking for a project to do together.”
The opening of the entire property, the hotel and its drinking and dining spaces, is many things at once: the culmination of four years of work, the realization of a shared vision, and the dedication of a deep friendship that went beyond business. Not one of us could imagine what it must be like for Sapra and his team to be opening The Drayton Hotel and St. Neo’s without Cocke and his wife, Catherine, who died tragically in a 2017 plane crash. “Byron was the backbone. He really believed in me and what I saw in this building,” Sapra said, clearly wistful that he could not share in the grand opening moments and all the moments to come with his dear friends, though he immediately expressed his genuine gratitude for the Cockes’ extended family and their investment in the project, perhaps emotionally even more than financially.
What was created has a character all its own, quite a feat considering that this was Sapra’s first-ever ground-up project as a developer. He said that he began this intensive enterprise by asking, “How do we make this an amenity for the community and not just a hotel?”
The answer came over the course of the next four years.
“We did a lot more to this building than just a superficial rehab,” he explained of the total restoration job that included tearing off and rebuilding the entire roof, digging out a basement, and watching Hurricane Matthew rip off the cornice. The finished product is what Sapra lovingly called “a living room for the neighborhood,” a place that offers “an elevated experience but is still true to its roots and true to Savannah.” That goes not just for the rejuvenated American Building but also for his leadership team, each of whom, by design and demand, had to have a connection to Savannah with the hopes of tying them to the legacy of the venture long after the new hotel smell has worn off.
“People are the most important part of this,” said Sapra.
SAME SONG, NEW VERSE
Of St. Neo’s, this new hotelier could not be happier and cited the restaurant’s three guiding principles: “a place designed to facilitate comfort, a flawlessly executed menu, and exceptional service to fulfill the guest’s experience.” Adding his own riff to that now familiar tune, Sapra closed our conversation over dessert saying, “This is a destination restaurant in a hotel.” Put St. Neo’s on the ever-growing list of extraordinary eateries that just happen to take up some ground floor space in one of the city’s exquisite hotels: The Alida’s Rhett, The Andaz’s 22 Square, Brice’s Pacci, The DeSoto’s 1540 Room, The Marshall House’s 45 Bistro, and Perry Lane’s The Emporium Kitchen and Wine Market.
If only Bay Street passersby and guests of The Drayton Hotel eat at St. Neo’s, that is their gain and locals’ loss. This place is already very special because of the people who built it and who work here.