Salmon at Savory, Malibu (All photos by Peden + Munk for Angeleno)
My first impression of Savory is the lively throng of customers gathered around the bar, which runs pretty much the entire length of the small, narrow dining room. Every one of the 15 barstools is taken. And off to one end, a few more drinkers are standing two and three deep waiting to pounce on the first vacated seats. What I don’t instantly realize is that these folks aren’t here to drink. The bar serves only beer and wine—no hard liquor, for now—and it’s a modest selection at that. Rather, it’s only upon closer inspection that I realize every person at the bar has a napkin in their lap and is eating dinner. I see an elegantly dressed couple, feet dangling from the tall stools, romantically sharing a bowl of mussels. I notice a surfer dude in a baseball cap digging into a salad of heirloom tomatoes with burrata and prosciutto.
The bar seats are offered on a first-come, first-served basis for anyone who arrives without a reservation—and tonight, apparently, that was a very popular idea. Everyone seems to know each other, mingling and tablehopping and passing bottles of wine back and forth.
There’s a small corner lounge just inside the entrance where a half dozen people are lounging on sofas, sipping wine and eating olives. A noticeably irritated man gets up from his spot on the sectional and pulls the hostess aside to complain, not so discreetly, about the unacceptable wait for his reserved table. His foursome should have been seated 25 minutes ago, and he’s starving. The hostess smiles and tries to soothe his nerves. She exudes the unmistakable calm of someone who meditates twice a day.
Savory is a modest restaurant. Together with the 15 seats at the bar, the dining room holds no more than about 50. And on this Saturday night—even though there’s a thick, cold fog pressing against the Malibu coast—another 20 or so diners are huddling beneath raging heat lamps outdoors on the sidewalk patio. The restaurant occupies the corner unit of the Point Dume Village strip mall in a space that formerly dished up Chinese takeout. It’s been transformed into a charming, sophisticated place wrapped with windows on three sides and decorated with muted grays and light-colored oak. Large wooden beams distract the eye from what is otherwise merely an acoustical tile ceiling. The art on the walls looks like it might be on loan from a local high school art class, which keeps the atmosphere from reaching its otherwise glamorous potential. Most of the customers are well put together—little black cocktail dresses, designer scarves, good shoes. But this is Malibu, so there will always be the occasional regular who traipses in wearing flip-flops and a skullcap.
The chef is Paul Shoemaker. Who? Well, that was my reaction. Prior to opening this place, Shoemaker was probably best known as chef No. 4 at L.A.’s original pop-up, Bastide, briefly succeeding Walter Manzke before the restaurant closed again for another extended period. By the time Shoemaker had arrived at Bastide, I had grown bored and weary of the West Hollywood restaurant’s perpetual revolving door, so I paid him no attention at all. I never sampled his food there, which I’m starting to think might have been a mistake on my part. I’m now realizing that Shoemaker came of age as a chef under the tutelage of Michael Cimarusti (my pick this year for Angeleno’s Chef of the Year), first at Water Grill and later at Providence. And since I never sampled his food at Bastide, I can’t compare what he’s doing here with what he was doing there. The food at Savory is very straightforward, focused on local products and classic techniques: crab cakes, steamed mussels, fettuccine with clams, steak and potatoes.
It’s been a while since I’ve ordered a crab cake, and Shoemaker’s reminds me what I’ve been missing. This is how a crab cake should be done—but rarely is anymore. It’s a big fistful of sweet, pure meat rolled in fine breadcrumbs and fried, served atop a silky smooth purée of late-summer corn, probably the very last ears of the season, corn that is as fragrant as it is tasty.
The butternut squash soup turns out to be the best I’ve had in years. It’s a super-fine purée with no trace of the gourd’s natural grain, accentuated with crème fraîche and sage. I reach my spoon into the soup and am pleasantly surprised to fish out a few toasted pecans hidden just beneath the surface.
There’s a predictable salad of frisée, endive and blue cheese that’s been tricked out with dried cherries and diced peaches. It’s fine. But the peaches get lost in the mix because they’re diced so small that I never actually get to enjoy that telltale sweet-tart sensation of biting into a good peach.
Pizza with burrata
The California-style pizza is a big, puffy affair whose crust tastes like a cross between focaccia and naan. It’s the polar opposite of my ideal crust (thin, wood-fired), but I’m surprised to realize that it doesn’t make me mad. It’s pretty enough, and it’s loaded with delicious burrata, olive tapenade and heirloom tomatoes. This thing is to pizza what San Antonio-style puffy tacos are to California taco-truck tacos—and it would be wrong of me to judge one against the ideals of the other. I personally wouldn’t order it again. But for anyone who likes this sort of thing, I feel comfortable recommending it.
The best thing on the menu is the hanger steak, brilliantly cooked in the sous vide style with smoked salt. This is one of the better uses of sous vide I have ever come across. Shoemaker uses the slow-cooking process to transform a sorry piece of
meat (which has become unjustifiably popular) into something rather special with the deft use of smoked sea salt—an ingredient that is almost never used intelligently. But like this, it’s genius.
After noticing the mussels at the bar, I have to order some for myself. The bowl arrives, and it’s an impressive heap of black shells tangled with an entire bush’s worth of tiny tomatoes in various shades of red, orange, green and yellow. Sadly, the mussels themselves are too anorexic. The payoff of mussels is directly correlated to the amount of work that goes into eating them, and in this case I’m feeling overworked and underpaid. I feel cheated, too, by the fettuccine with clams, which turns out to be a wee bit too simple. The freshly made pasta is admirable, and the light, buttery dressing is decent enough, and the clams seem fresh. But I’m left wanting something more. I’m staring at my bowl, craving a piece of bacon. Or more herbs. Or something.
As might be expected, I always struggle to talk (trick?) my dining companions into ordering salmon, so I take the bullet and order it for myself. Smart move. It’s excellent: two slender, cross-cut steaks with perfectly crispy skin and wonderful flavor—and I can’t ignore the wonderful carrots served alongside, seasoned with coriander seed. Halibut is always an easier sell, and this one’s perfectly cooked, served atop tender cranberry beans.
Chocolate bread pudding
I wish the desserts were stronger, but they’re just average: buttermilk panna cotta, a simple little cheesecake, bread pudding. The best of the lot is the bread pudding. Or, rather, it’s the ice cream, crusted with toasted pistachios and served atop the bread pudding, that steals the show. The pudding itself is unfortunately served at room temperature (bordering on cold) and oddly textured, a weird blob with a slightly rubbery quality—but the chocolate flavor is pleasant. With just a little reworking, this could be a very good finale.
And that’s how I feel about this restaurant in general. Already, this might be the best restaurant in Malibu. Maybe, for the folks who live nearby, that’s good enough for now. But with a little tweaking, Savory could become a true destination worthy of frequent drives from all across L.A.
29169 Heathercliff Rd., Malibu, 310.589.8997, savorymalibu.com
Beach house owners, empty nesters, surfers and an old character actor whom everyone recognizes but whose name nobody can remember.
Where to sit
Try for a large booth against the back wall. Without a reservation, take a seat at the bar.
About the view
There is no view. It’s just a strip mall on the highway.
About the noise
Energetic but conversation friendly, more or less.
What it costs
Appetizers, $12–$25; entrées, $23–$50; sides, $6–$10;???cheese, $20; desserts, $8. Corkage, $20. Free parking (no valet).
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, above average
3 = very good, well above norm
4 = excellent, among the area’s best
5 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail.
Reviews are based on multiple visits. ???Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.