SAVANNAH — Chefs have lately reset the boundaries of Savannah’s sophisticated dining district, planting restaurants on avenues where tourists previously didn’t tread. But The Wyld is way out there, located at the end of a rutted gravel road so unprepossessing that my dining companion wondered if the GPS had misunderstood the restaurant’s name and directed us to a hideaway strip club.
Locals know all about the creekside venue, a zippy boat float from the coiled Herb River. It was previously occupied by the Bonna Bella Yacht Club, a restaurant so adored that nobody cared much if the food was meh. Chef Tony Seichrist, an industry veteran with a sterling Georgia resume that includes stretches at Hugh Acheson’s Five and Ten and Linton Hopkins’ Holman and Finch, opened his first restaurant on the site in April.
Without fundamentally altering the flip-flop vibe, Seichrist spruced up the surroundings, stringing hammocks over the cropped green lawn; furnishing the deck that functions as the main dining area with teak tables and slat-back chairs and redoing the restaurant’s color scheme to match the marshy mud flat landscape. Tellingly, he tore out the cornhole pit and installed a bocce court, a pretty good indicator of the more polished fun he had in mind.
Judging from a single visit to The Wyld, Seichrist has been wholly successful in his aims, creating a restaurant that nonchalantly takes the concept of vacation cuisine to the hilt. If you haven’t finagled a beach house invitation this summer, you’ll want to consider grilled shrimp decorated with Old Bay and a plate of sliced and salted tomatoes at The Wyld, perhaps bookended by Dark and Stormys around the fire pit. New Englanders can keep their lobster rolls; Californians can have their tri-tip steaks: This is summer in the Lowcountry.
What’s especially compelling for Charlestonians is The Wyld is the first entry in the current wave of Savannah restaurant openings that doesn’t have an obvious parallel on this side of the state line. The Florence is fantastic, but Indaco or The Obstinate Daughter are just as likely to quench a craving for wood-fired pizza or pasta that melds an Italian understanding of dough with Southern enthusiasm for grouper and greens. Yes, everyone should see The Grey, but the roasted meats and vegetables are just as delicious at The Grocery. The Wyld offers something altogether different.
Despite all that’s great about The Wyld, it’s still very much a new operation, as the service hiccups demonstrate. With its below-deck kitchen and obscured sightlines, the restaurant’s layout doesn’t favor expediency. And in a setting so synonymous with relaxation, it’s hard to fault the friendly servers for refusing to get uptight about timing. Still, you may have to wait a few minutes too many for anyone to notice you at the host stand, or deal with food runners unsure not only of a plate’s destined diner, but unclear on which table they’re targeting. (The upshot is you can preview most of the small plates on the menu before a server arrives to take your order.)
Presumably, The Wyld will sort out its service methodology as soon as it gets a moment to recover from its immediate popularity. In the meantime, the best coping technique is a cocktail. Unlike many new restaurants which try to fake fluency in spirits by passing off a grab bag of liqueurs, savory ingredients and differently shaped glasses as a cocktail list, The Wyld mixes drinks with the certainty of a practiced host.
The bar’s emphasis is refreshment, resulting in selections ranging from a Hemingway daiquiri to an excellent Painkiller slushy that might be a mite too gluggable for drinkers with plans for the next day. An Old Cuban, a contemporary classic that’s essentially a mojito made with rum, is garnished with mint leaves plucked from a planter hanging above the service bar.
That kind of ingredient integrity is central to Seichrist’s cooking, which is at its best when there’s fish involved. Seared flounder is as masterful as it is uncomplicated, relying on crushed cherry tomatoes to shine a sunbeam of acid on a fish that possesses a lively freshness rarely encountered outside of a sushi bar. A crisp-skinned snapper is perched on a wallet-sized bundle of braised cabbage, soaked with the familiar Asian funk of soybeans and bite of ginger.
Of the dozen dishes I tried, only one disappointed: The grilled skewers of pork presented atop tortillas were so tough and overcooked that it was impossible to pry the wooden sticks free. Other equally approachable dishes were executed with aplomb, though: A garlicky Caesar, liberally showered with parmesan, makes smart use of smoky bacon and red onion, elements that helpfully usher the steakhouse icon into summer rather than throwing it off stride.
Seichrist’s menu is so perfectly aligned with the season that I’m curious to see what happens when winter comes along. Crostinis topped with little patties of mustard-dabbed quail-and-rabbit sausage, which taste like the forest’s answer to crab cakes, offer some hint. But for now, there’s a slew of exceptional fruits and vegetables emerging from the kitchen, including a cooling salad of cucumbers and charred onions, topped with feta, and roasted corn-on-the-cob, restrainedly brushed with sugared mayonnaise and dusted with cayenne pepper.
At The Wyld, the dishes that aren’t classified as “tapas” are called “sides,” but it may be best to think of the right side of the menu as the ultimate picnic spread. There’s succotash and salted watermelon and a buttery warm red potato salad that’s on the cusp of becoming mashed potatoes, garnished with green beans that haven’t surrendered their snap and itty bits of bacon.
Among the most memorable dishes are a tart berry crisp, its dark juices mingling with nutty sweet crunch beneath melty vanilla ice cream, and skillet-roasted okra. The most civilized eaters will no doubt go after the pods with a fork, but it feels perfectly right to use your fingers at The Wyld, where casualness coexists beautifully with culinary achievement.