I have to wonder: Does Uyen Pham ever feel like her life has turned into a culinary version of Groundhog Day? Since January, the tireless 44-year-old chef-instructor has been training graduating students to prep and cook all the dishes at Savor, the brand-new restaurant from the Culinary Institute of America, located in San Antonio’s Pearl district. At the beginning of each week, the students are assigned to one of several stations. Seven days later, when they’ve gotten the hang of those duties, bam! They all change places. The following week, same thing. When the semester ends in April, the drill will start all over with a new class.
Like Bill Murray’s dyspeptic character in the film, Pham is acutely aware she’s trapped in a time loop, though there’s a big difference: she’s happy about it. When I asked how it felt to run a restaurant staffed entirely by rank amateurs, she said, “I’m so lucky to have this opportunity!”
So how did I end up writing about a student-run restaurant operated by the nation’s most prestigious culinary academy? Pure serendipity. I happened to be in San Antonio the day it opened, and curiosity got the best of me. That evening, three friends and I slid into one of the simple, well-designed blond-wood banquettes near the busy open kitchen and ordered nearly everything on the menu: sixteen dishes served over four courses (two prix-fixe options are offered in the dining room, or you can eat à la carte in the bar). How did things go? To my astonishment, aside from a few nonfatal flubs, those rank amateurs knocked it out of the park. I suspended my rule about not reviewing a restaurant on opening night.
Chef Pham training students.
Photograph by Jody Horton
Curried carrot and red lentil soup.
Photograph by Jody Horton
Under Pham, who is executive chef for the semester, the menu is modern New American with an Asian and Mediterranean focus. One of the best of the four appetizers was a curried carrot and red lentil soup; Indian-inspired, the smooth brew was redolent of caraway and cinnamon, melded by a sinuous swirl of coconut cream. I almost didn’t recognize the potato salad, a deconstructed medley of white and purple fingerling potatoes; cut into fat coins, they lounged about under a drizzle of mustard vinaigrette alongside a perfect soft egg. But it was the roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower that surprised me the most. I had my doubts about the sprouts—they were midnight black—but a cautious nibble proved they were only deeply caramelized, the perfect foil for a shot of garlic cream brightened with yuzu juice.
The second courses are basically heartier appetizers. The steak tartare is close to classic (chopped tenderloin, Dijon, raw egg—in this case a petite quail one), but adobo sauce from a can of chipotles has been added to the beef for an earthy touch. After such a carnivorous dish, it was nice to share a terrific pasta, utterly straightforward pecorino-dusted tagliatelle glistening in Texas olive oil. The one thing among this group of small plates that veered off course was the diver scallop on risotto. The dairy-free treatment of the rice was surprisingly effective—in lieu of Parmesan, finely chopped fermented black beans added micro-pops of salt and umami—but the cooking times were off. The rice was overdone, and the scallop was underdone (and the poor thing tasted very near its expiration date).
If the first two menu sections are eclectic, the main courses zero in on serious, satisfying protein: a steak, a roast chicken, a nice piece of snapper, a breaded pork schnitzel. At the same time, they’re sensibly sized and even have some healthy tweaks. The young chicken, for instance, is half a small honey-and-chile-seasoned bird perched atop fried rice flavored with gluten-free liquid aminos. The thick-cut pork schnitzel is dusted with potato flakes, which, to my surprise, were just as crunchy as bread crumbs; it was perfect with homemade applesauce—so Sunday dinner.
As for the dessert list, it had my favorite and least favorite dishes of the night. First the bad news: the well-intentioned vegan semifreddo just didn’t work. Although this noble experiment involved a promising group of ingredients—frozen puree of cashews, coconut cream, and lemon juice—there was some funky mojo going on, and the final result just tasted off. But then came my favorite, an adorable disk of coconut cake under a lush cream-cheese icing, capped by toasty curls of more coconut and decorated with dainty dabs of tart avocado-lime mousse.
So what’s the takeaway from this effort by the CIA to operate a new teaching restaurant? I think they nailed it. The school’s previous experiment—a lovely Latin venue awkwardly named NAO—hung on in a nearby Pearl location from 2012 to 2018 but never really found a niche. Savor, by contrast, feels spot-on. The remodeled space is current (it was formerly the seafood restaurant Sandbar), and the name is pronounceable. So listen up! You have until April 11 to check out Savor’s present incarnation. After that the students will graduate, and it’s bye-bye for three weeks. On May 7 it will open again, with a new crew, a new menu, and maybe a new executive chef (the instructors plan to rotate). All of which is to say that everything will be different. And also the same. Cue theme from Groundhog Day.
Savor 200 E. Grayson, San Antonio 210-554-6484 D Tue–Sat. $$$ Opened January 22, 2019
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “This New Restaurant Makes the Grade.” Subscribe today.