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Food & Wine Fest storms the floor in Savannah’s delicate culinary dance

Event seeks to infuse foodie mystique by way of Charleston and New Orleans

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“CHARLESTON’S relentlessly documented restaurant scene in every way eclipses the one in Savannah.”

So goes a 2015 Eater.com snapshot of The Florence, “Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson’s needle-moving Victory Drive eatery that recalls “the culinary gumption that’s been apparent since early last decade,” according to the esteemed reviewer, in that less-interesting city to our north.

The analysis was written several months before last year’s Savannah Food & Wine Festival, which by all accounts was a knockout success, attracting more than 15,000 people in just over a week.

In the words of Savannah’s noisiest foodie, Eat It and Like It’s Jesse Blanco, the festival’s culminating show was “the best food-related event this city has ever seen.”

This week’s return of Food & Wine Fest may have you salivating, too. Its best-value ticket: $59 for Sunday’s Taste of Savannah extravaganza at the Georgia State Railroad Museum, not far from the posh new chains on Broughton’s west leg, which increasingly and unapologetically mimics Charleston’s King Street.

Revenge is best served atop a slab of foie gras, apparently. But if the festival borrows a little something from the Holy City’s staid opulence, it’s by design.

“Culinary tourism is the hottest thing right now,” points out organizer Jan Gourley, invoking Charleston and New Orleans as cities that have done it right. “You become part of that national food scene by bringing in chefs from all over.”

Chefs like Acheson, whose Florence kicked off the festival with a dinner party Monday night ($125). Like Lauren Teague, formerly of 22 Square at the Andaz Hotel, whose new spot Atlantic just debuted at the corner of Victory and Drayton Street and who’s part of the festival’s Wednesday celebrity chef tour ($185).

In opening her own place, Teague has spoken of a desire to be “affordable and approachable.”

“What do they say? High tides float all boats,” Gourley says of Acheson’s influence. “It’s neat to see this happen because as a festival we want to be on the forefront so people can start recognizing how culinarily advanced Savannah is.”

At the same time, tides also have a tendency to sweep things away. Charleston can attest to that. One of its most celebrated restaurants, chef Sean Brock’s Husk, has made a name for itself in reviving and puffing up Gullah staples like Hoppin’ John and field peas to heavenly, perhaps pretentious heights, while the city’s renaissance has largely pushed out the people of color who originated those recipes.

Will the same thing happen in Savannah? An arm of Husk is slated to open next year on West Oglethorpe Avenue, half a block from the recently shuttered doors of Angel’s BBQ.

Is it happening already? With building moratoriums on city leaders’ lips, in an age when tasting menus show increasing fondness for the words “heritage” and “plantation,” such questions are worth asking.

“There’s definitely enough room when you factor in tourism,” Gourley says of the Savannah food scene in general.

“Our little city changes dramatically throughout the year. All those people don’t want to eat at really upscale places all the time. ... We’ve got the low end to the high end and everything in between, the Zunzi’s and the whatever.

“That sums up how Savannah is,” she continues. “Everybody’s getting into their own niche, and it’s exciting.”

In part recognizing those divisions, the 2016 festival is making a big point of giving back.

“Whisky at the Whitman is donating 100 percent of the proceeds to the Two Hundred Club,” notes Jackie Schott, a Food & Wine Fest volunteer for four years, “and Chefs + Vets is an event that was created to support The Tiny House Project,” which builds homes for veterans in need. Whisky ($150) takes place Tuesday night, while the new Q-Masters, Chefs + Vets ($59) is Friday and offers a military discount for Veterans Day ($49). The latter features Service Brewing Co. beers and “legendary pitmasters” from all over the South.

“Many people don’t realize there is a strong charitable component to this festival,” Schott says.

Praise should be heaped on those who can afford to set an extra place at the table and do. Still, in this economy, one wonders how many Chatham County residents have the luxury to budget $45 for a master class on “autumnal broths.”

For most of human history, eating was an act of desperation. In many Lowcountry kitchens, it still is.

Between craft cocktails and oyster slurps this weekend, those for whom eating has become an act of aspiration might look to our neighbors and ask, “What are we aspiring to be?”

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