Savoy Bistro is as much a pioneer of European fine dining as it is a tribute to its cultural and culinary heritage. Swedish chef Robert Lilja serves up that nuanced balance

HE SPOKE IN SOFT, deliberate tones – not quite what I expected from a Swedish chef.

Then again, I’ve never really met any true Swedish chefs. The only one that I know (and arguably one of the most famous, without even winning a single Michelin star!) is a Muppet, and a crazy one at that.

But then again, who says that Robert Lilja doesn’t have a bit of that Muppet-craziness in him?

This European-trained chef has years of experience, 24 of them on our very own shores. Right now, he’s the head honcho of a small but happening restaurant called Savoy Bistro.

It’s one of those places that you literally pass by all the time – blink and you’ll miss it. Their signage admittedly sucks, and it doesn’t help that it’s not a very big restaurant, found at the bottom of an art gallery. However, that’s exactly the way the chef likes the establishments he runs: low key, but storied and full of character.

Savoy, a region of France, was once a hotly contested area in Europe. Bordered by Piedmont in Italy, Monaco, and Geneva, you can imagine why some of the best food products in Europe can be found here.

Description: Savoy Bistro

Savoy Bistro

One look at the menu immediately tells you that it is fiercely European. It’s the real deal, the chef putting significant effort into providing modern-day Manila with the classic dishes of his part of the world.

Pinoys of a certain era may also be reminded of the restaurants of yesteryear; places like the influential Au Bon Vivant, which led us to taste snails in garlic butter for the first time, and the Mandarin Hotel’s L’Hirondelle, one of the best (and priciest) fine dining joints of its time.

And that is exactly where Lilja wants to take us, on a trip back through time. He has tried to remain as faithful as possible to what I call throwback dishes, some dating back to the 17th century.

I knew this when I spotted Tournedos Rossini, seared tenderloin topped with foie gras, and a classic French brown sauce of reduces Madeira and stock. I used to watch my logo eat this until he eventually fed it to me, and the memories of those childhood meals came flooding back. Their version is a decent one, by the way.

His “soft opening” menu (they are still the new kid on the block) is littered with such delicacies. A house-smoked gravlax – not the very salty kind you will find in a lot of places, but subtly flavored and tender – is a great opener for your meal. Ask for some pumpernickel, also house-made, to eat with it. His shrimp coctail, tossed in crème fraiche and dill, pays homage to his Scandinavian roots. Pâtés are great, too, especially the meltingly good chicken liver. And for all of you out on a hot each other.

Description: The Savoy Shrimp Cocktail

The Savoy Shrimp Cocktail

Mussels in white wine and cream most definitely beg for stomach real estate. You will not stop at just one mussel, and you will stop up wine and cream sauce with the sourdough bread that accompanies it. It is inevitable.

There are some nice fish dishes as well, like a Sole Meunière, topped with brown butter and mushrooms; or a hearty Sole Walewska, with a lobster and cognac inflected sauce and sitting on truffle oil-scented mashed potatoes. I really think that no one serves food like this in Manila these days, making these dishes ironically refreshing despite their ability to induce a food come.

For the carnivores (meaning most of us), apart from the Rossini, there are several choices that vie for tour attention: a killer plate of roasted lamb – young, tender, and unlike any other lamb dish I’ve had here, served with slivers of roasted vegetables and an eggplant stuffed with even more lamb. Yes, lamb on lamb – oh-so sexy. Slow-braised oxtail sits atop some risotto, all winey and decadent, the meat falling off the bone. A Delmonico steak, topped with flavored butter, is nicely seared to your liking (I say medium rare!) and served with your choice of starch. The chef will turn a blind eye if you want garlic rice instead of potatoes or risotto – he’s cool like that. And I know you want it.

Description: Chocolate Mousse and Passion Fruit Meringue

Chocolate Mousse and Passion Fruit Meringue

To end things, another throwback dish: an ancient cheesecake recipe from New York (circa 1735) served with candied berries is a happy ending, though I’m more inclined to their whole-wheat lemon crêpes – light and tart, and easier on the system after all that food.

The service is okay, wines are reasonable, and they have a great private room that you can reserve with no minimum. The only kinks they have to iron out are inconsistencies from the kitchen when Mr.Lilja is not present, but that will come with a little more time.

In the meantime, his brain is churning up all these new off-the-wall ideas, like a Chinese restaurant that serves French seafood. Go figure. So, yeah, Savoy’s chef does have a bit of crazy in him – and that, in my book, is always a good thing.

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