In 1980, shortly after it opened, I happened into a small, sophisticated-looking restaurant with an interesting-sounding menu on the Rue Duret in Paris, a few steps from the Arc de Triomphe. Called Guy Savoy, it was owned by a young chef of the same name. Born, appropriately enough, on the edge of France’s Savoy region, in the town of Bourgoin-Jallieu, 30 miles or so southeast of Lyon, Savoy started young: He was one of those kids who liked the kitchen more than the playground and once said that his proudest moment was when he first cooked a perfect omelet at the age of seven or eight. Savoy went on to apprentice at Troisgros, near Lyon; L’Oasis, on the Côte d’Azur; the luxurious old-line Lasserre, in Paris; and the posh Le Lion d’Or, in Geneva (where he was an assistant pastry chef). He first attracted the attention of French gastronomes in the late 1970s, when he returned to Paris as chef at La Barrière de Clichy, and then opened his own place, earning his first star from the Guide Michelin within a year.
In 1982, a group of investors talked Savoy into setting up a satellite restaurant—in Greenwich, Connecticut, of all places. The menu was slightly less ambitious than at his Paris establishment, but I ate there several times and it seemed to me that he was pretty successful in bringing his precise, modern but tradition-inspired cuisine to America. Mimi Sheraton, then reviewing restaurants for The New York Times, didn’t agree, finding “too many dishes … contrived and tasteless”; she gave it no stars—the kiss of death. “It was too complicated to have two restaurants then,” Savoy says today. “We weren’t set up to do both that and Paris. Anyway, cuisine had just started to become important in America, and it was hard to find good products and good staff.” He stayed for about two years, then turned the place over to one of his employees, Jean-Louis Gerin (who still runs it, under the name Restaurant Jean-Louis).
Meanwhile, back in Paris, Savoy’s original place was soaring. His food was confident and expressive, simple in conception but executed with great refinement. If he, like so many French chefs, was seduced a little too easily by nouvelle cuisine, he quickly recovered, reconnected with his country roots, and continued to hone his skills. By the time he moved to a larger, fancier location in 1987, he was on almost everyone’s list as one of the gastronomic stars of Paris.
Restaurant Guy Savoy—which won three stars from Michelin in 2002 but probably deserved them at least a decade earlier—has proven to be consistently pleasing and original. The service, like the décor, is sophisticated but relaxed; the tone is one of luxe with nothing to prove.
The wine list is immense—it is literally a tome, brought to the table with its own little stand—and includes many affordable discoveries, as well as the prestige bottles you’d expect at such a restaurant. Most importantly, the food is superb, eschewing pyrotechnics and chem-lab fantasies in favor of streamlined tradition with a dash of wit. (Among other things, Savoy is a master at interweaving “high” and “low” ingredients—black truffles with lentils or artichokes, lobster with carrots, foie gras with red cabbage.)
And now Savoy has returned to America, under very different circumstances. In May 2006, a second Restaurant Guy Savoy opened—at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
The obvious question is not whether he stands a better chance of success now than he did in the early ’80s—he certainly does, given the size and efficiency of his operation today and his own expanded skills as both chef and restaurateur—but whether he can successfully translate his casually high-class style to a town that values spectacle and excess above all.
The answer, clearly, is yes, as I found out when I visited the place recently when Savoy himself was in residence. (He comes three or four times a year for a couple of weeks, and he has installed his son and daughter-in-law, Franck and Laura Savoy, as full-time managers.)
The dining room, bisected by a massive, apparently seamless gray stone wall, has a serious, almost stately look to it (an effect interrupted only by the theme-park copy of the Eiffel Tower, at the Paris Las Vegas casino hotel, visible through a large window at the end of the room). Settling in at a comfortable table, I ordered a tasting menu, which began with a tiny toothpick-speared sandwich of thin-sliced foie gras moistened with black-truffle oil between squares of lightly toasted white bread. My first reaction (left unspoken) was “Ten more, please.” A second palate teaser appeared in a small white-china piece composed of a face-up demitasse cup and a facedown clochelike dome set into an elongated saucer (I couldn’t help thinking of some surrealistic cartoon cross between an eggcup and a tête-à-tête love seat). The demitasse held finely minced bits of fennel and red and yellow cherry tomato, over which was poured cold romaine soup, very leafy and clean in flavor; the dome, when I turned it over, revealed a smudge of basil purée on which sat a miniature eggplant tart.