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Legal Eats

Jonathon Calabrese and Joe Hickey are the men behind Savory--a tasty nightspot at Legal Grounds.
Tom Jenkins

A Savory warning was delivered not long ago. The warning was this: Savory's menu will change shortly, and when that happens you won't be able to get the chilled Moroccan tomato soup. Time it right, because missing the soup would be a blunder.

Forewarned, we slipped into Savory on time. The menu hadn't changed yet, at least not enough to delete the soup. But bad timing isn't the only cause of blunders. Overwrought ego, inattention, incompetence and recklessness can also spawn them. There may be other causes, too. (Scotch immediately comes to mind.) But this cold soup was not a looming blunder of missed opportunity. It was something else.

Fat chunks of tomato mingle with onion shingles and flecks of parsley and cilantro. Seasoning continues with cumin and cardamom. That's it, mostly: Except nothing gelled. There is no thick, blasting tomato zest; no tight focus from salt to compensate.

Yet an even bigger worry looms, the same humongous distress that currently haunts the New York Mercantile Exchange and Hummer fuel tanks: oil. Oil slicks are chilling things in chilled soups--translucent yellow dots that float like creepy dilated eyeballs. These soup pupils blur into an oily film that clings to the spoon and coats the mouth. But there was another blunder: a strip of thick paper, a label or a wrapper of sorts, woven between the tomato chunks.

And there was still another blunder here: beef short rib and foie gras ravioli. It's a single bulbous, lumpy pillow. Pearly white strips, peculiar things that looked like a well-aged European cheese, stretch across it. But this was not cheese. They were strips of celery root marinated in milk. It sounds clever, but it's hard to figure the purpose of it here. The pillow rested in an arrabbiata sauce (tomato, pepper). Foie gras presence was subdued. What is front and center is the short rib bits in the tough, chewy pillow casing--an undercooked sort of toughness. The pieces of short rib are stewlike chunks generously embedded with gristle and fat. This seemed somehow incongruent for pasta pillows, which are mostly stuffed with ground stuff, or at least minced stuff.

But this is the extent of Savory blunders. From there things mostly dazzle. This is a trick, because Savory isn't dazzling. It's rickety. The sound system dribbles dirty, craggy blues, the kind with throaty harps and guitar smears that sneer at showy deftness and instead try to moan their way into your attention span. As if to keep the restaurant in the same key as the vibe, Savory has a beer list: Czechvar Lager (Czech Republic); Cristal Lager (Peru); Abbey Double Ale (Colorado); Paulaner Thomasbrau (non-alcoholic). None of the gritty blues artists grinding through the speakers would be caught thirsty putting their lips to bottles like these, though blues has been scurrying upscale for at least 25 years, so it fits.

Savory simmers at night in the same space that is Legal Grounds coffee shop by day. It has concrete floors and reddish wood shelves that sag under the weight of legal volumes. One server asks if I'm a lawyer as I examine a painting near the stacks. Thank God they think I'm a lawyer and not a grub critic, though it's amusing to puzzle over who may be loved less.

The tables are draped in white cloth. Votive candles twinkle. Tiny vases hold rosebuds. Pennies are at the bottom of the vases. Is this some sort of bud primer? A server tells us that if you can get the penny out without spilling any water, you get a free appetizer. We prefer other spills.

The wine list is tight, speckled eclectic. Our waiter has a corkscrew in the back pocket of his denims. He pulls the cork out of a Flowers pinot noir and pours the taste. A drop rolls off the bottle lip and hits the tablecloth. "Whoops," he says. The drop spreads its lavender red into a perfect circle. On the second visit, our server pulls the cork from a Burgundy and the lip breaks off.

These moments, like the sagging bookshelves, bring down the guardrails. Sure, it's fine to dine with bow ties and choreography and polish, but somehow it's easier to taste when the edges are a little shabby.

The halibut felt that way anyway. It's been run through a dust storm of paprika. It flaked like cards peeled from a deck. The flakes weren't hard; they weren't mushy; they were near perfect from a textural standpoint. Seasoning punch was pulled, though, and salt and pepper shakers don't keep company with the votives and bud vases and wine drops on the white cloth.

The striking thing about the salmon roe and blini is that it's called a tower. It's more of a heap. Those plump peach pearls, sticky and glistening with tiny dents in the soft casings, rest in a mother's milk of "herb de Provence crème fraîche," which soaks a couple of blini to the color of bruises from a brass-knuckled slug. This low-rise was almost flawless, save for the temperature, which flirted dangerously with lukewarm instead of decisive chill.

More blues on the speakers; more cars pulling in and out of the parking lot, doors slamming, headlights going dark, people shuffling past. A woman holding a box of pizza examines the menu taped to the glass near the door. It's weird to eat foie gras like this; without velvet or leather or silk somewhere, either in draperies or on seat cushions or on a server vest (the law books are leather perhaps). Foie gras is something of a menu piety. Does it fit here? The four corners of the plate are tacked down with sliced grapes sludged in fig balsamic emulsion. The lobes are smooth, creamy--maybe a little too loose. But the flavors hold, streaking that nut butter finish across the tongue. It fits.

What glove-fits Savory, though, is the lemongrass marinated seared beef canapés: slices of beef that are fearlessly ruddy with edges roughened with sesame seeds. The beef is a bit chewy, stringy perhaps, but rich and juicy. The bright orange dots of a mango puree are good, and they beautify the plate, but it's best to keep them away from the beef.

Two men are responsible for Savory: Jonathon Calabrese and Joe Hickey. And they're poised to replicate the Savory template at Taste restaurant at State and Allen. Only instead of law volumes, taste will feature house-made pastramis and corned beef.

They could do something with chicken, too. Savory's pecorino-encrusted chicken was among the best of its ilk we've tasted, one that would work as fried chicken in a basket. The meat was juicy. The crust was nutty, rich, tangy, salty and crisp (the shakers weren't missed). Around the chicken is a swipe of orzo studded with apricot and sun-dried tomatoes: smooth, separate and well-sewn with rival flavors. A violet mustard thyme sauce added nuance--maybe where none was needed.

Still, the nuance worked with the beef tenderloin. It's odd to get a piece of meat that looks like a glass of milk was spilled over it instead of getting a medallion scorched and dripping red. The oddness of it was so formidable, it was necessary to feed around the edges, lifting forkfuls of whipped saffron potatoes until the timing was right to move in for the steak. Those potatoes were like cream; near scalding in temperature while lustily stained with saffron. The whip had just enough pungent bite, too; sufficient to brain-dead the carb-counting reflex should yours be wound tight and ready to spring on short notice.

The spilled milk was actually warm Brie sauce. And it is effective; while the meat is dank and well-seasoned, it needs that sauce humming in the background, emboldening its shy richness.

Dessert can be had in many forms: sweet sticky rice, lemon pudding cake and ice cream cookie sandwich with bing cherry ice cream. We stuck with the cheese board, moving from French Reblochon, to American white cheddar, to Spanish Roncal aged in brandy. There's even a bleu. It fits.

2015 Abrams Road, 214-887-1919. Open for dinner 6-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 6-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$


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