By Janis Turk
“No, no. That’s not enough,” says Chef Peter Russo with a wink as I stir a pot of grits in the gleaming cooking school kitchen of the Mansion on Forsyth Park, in Savannah, Georgia.
“Too much is just right in Savannah. This is the South. Now add more cheese!” chides the gregarious chef as he scoops large handfuls of grated Smoked Gouda into my grits and pours heavy cream into the pot—a pot to which he’s already added a pound of butter.
“Only in the South!” I think as I continue to stir the already rich dish, but then of course Chef knows best. The creamy smoked Gouda grits taste amazing.
My little foray into southern “Low Country” cooking is all part of a delightful evening of craft cocktails, shrimp appetizers and a smart little cooking class party my friends and I are enjoying at the Mansion on Forsyth Park’s 700 Kitchen Cooking School. We sip our Mint Juleps and keep cooking. Soon we will dine on a feast of Low Country crab stew, herb succotash with okra, green tomato cobbler and fluffy “Angel biscuits”—a spread that would make Paula Deen proud.
It’s my first time in Savannah, and I’m pleased to find this oh so civilized southern city exceeds my expectations. Of course, staying at the edge of a lush old fashioned park square, shaded with Spanish moss-laden trees, helps. Here I have found the Old South I’d always heard about and the Savannah I’d only dreamed could be. My large luxurious room in the AAA Four-Diamond Mansion on Forsyth Park only adds to the enchantment of the city. A privately owned property, this iconic 125-room Victorian Romanesque mansion in Savannah’s Historic District offers an authentic taste of Southern hospitality while overlooking the city’s largest and most historic Square.
Renovated and reopened in 2005 by Savannahian and avid art collector Richard Kessler, Mansion on Forsyth Park and its historic adjacent building housing 700 Drayton, an award winning restaurant, are works of art themselves and are proudly affiliated with the Autograph Collection of luxury hotels. Entering this grand historic property, guests are met at reception by an impressive space awash in onyx and Verona marble, with a Lalique chandelier and Versace furniture in the lobby. Equally breathtaking is the Kessler art collection of more than 400 original pieces on display throughout the Mansion, with its on-property Grand Bohemian Art Gallery with colorful modern art filling dark dramatic hallways and quiet alcoves.
There is nothing stuffy, old or ultra-Victorian about this 5-star hotel—it’s a tasteful and thoroughly modern space with good bones, rich polished décor and subtle nods to Old World elegance. Sophisticated but brimming with genteel Southern grace, rooms at the Mansion feature enormous ornate white-lacquered headboards, dramatic deep-tufted velvet chairs, soft silver/gray walls, oversized windows, faux mink throws, luxury bed linens and pillows, big thirsty towels and plush bathrobes, and the hotel owner’s own eclectic personal music mix CD playing softly on a Bose music system. A mainstay on Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure “best of” lists, the Mansion effortlessly blends haute style with timeless elegance. Extraordinary sea-inspired treatments in the Mansion’s Poseidon Spa are complemented by an authentic taste of Southern hospitality at 700 Drayton Restaurant and the adjoining 700 Kitchen Cooking School, which has been rated Trip Advisor’s most popular Savannah attraction.
Although I am reluctant to leave the quiet luxury of my hotel room, on Saturday morning I step outside and catch a Historic Savannah Trolley Tour taking me through the serene streets of Savannah’s historic district, giving me a front-seat view of the grand Southern mansions that line the city’s 24 park-like squares. Savannah was originally laid out in 1733 around four original squares, and the city’s elite built mansions surrounding them. As the city grew, more squares were added. These park-like garden squares, full of monuments, plaques, memorial statues, fountains and historical markers, have been named for prominent residents, Southern heroes, French Kings and other historic figures or events.
After my trolley tour, I walk back to a house along Lafayette Square, near the lovely Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and tour the childhood home of famous Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. Next, I stop into C. H. Brown Antiques & Fine Silver on Jones Street, nearby, where the friendly owner, Charlie Brown, welcomes me into his shop and soon offers me a private mini-tour of a neighbor’s mansion before offering me a ride back to my hotel—southern chivalry at its best.
Savannah is a Mecca for shoppers—and not just antique lovers. Clothing and jewelry boutiques, art galleries, elegant home furnishing and home décor accessory shops, cooking gadget spots, stationery stores and more fill Savanah’s streets near the city’s parks and squares. “SCAD,” the Savannah College of Art and Design draws artists in all mediums to the South and ensures that fine art remain an everyday part of life in Savannah.
And of course, there is the food. Traditional Southern home cooking treats are the toast of Savannah, so visitors to stand in line for hours each morning in order to have lunch in Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, a former 1940s boarding house turned restaurant. Each day, large communal dining tables are crowded with platters of fried chicken and cornbread dressing, sweet potato soufflé, black-eyed peas, okra gumbo, corn muffins and biscuits. My friends and I leave there so full that it’s hard to believe we will be soon eating again this evening, but we have reservations down on the Savannah waterfront at another Kessler hotel property eatery, Rocks on the Roof at the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront.
The Bohemian Hotel is an ultra-modern space housed in a historic brick warehouse building overlooking the Savannah River. Voted as a “Top 30 Hotels in the South” by Condé Nast Traveler, the hotel is one of the city’s most prized jewels and has become Savannah’s hottest hangout. A bit trendier and geared toward a tony young clientele, the Bohemian blends vintage allure with modern style, featuring smart British campaign furniture, driftwood and oyster chandeliers, brass and leather design elements and arresting views from oversized windows.
While down in the popular River Front area, the night comes alive with the excitement and fun of the Savannah Smiles Dueling Pianos Saloon and the sweet taste of treats at Lulu’s Chocolate Bar. Returning in the morning to visit the City Market and shops along the River, I am invigorated by the happy buzz of the bustling downtown area before I return to the historic district, where I tour the Mercer Williams House Museum, a historic mansion which was the setting for the true events made famous by the best-selling book and movie, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” This part of Savannah reminds me of New Orleans lush Garden District—another reason I like this town.
As the weekend comes to a close with cocktails and coffee in Casimir’s Lounge at The Mansion on Forsyth Park, I ruminate about my first Savannah stay and realize Chef Russo was right—sometimes too much of a good thing is just right.
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