Can the grande dame of Atlanta fine dining retain its reputation as the best the city has to offer?Monday November 21, 2011 09:00 am EST
Bacchanalia, the restaurant that is widely touted as Atlanta's best, exists in a kind of vacuum. As the restaurant landscape around it changes, Bacchanalia remains steady, a pure distillation of chef/owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison's vision. The bubble they've created for their flagship restaurant has done them well over the years. They were well ahead of the curve on many trends, the most obvious being the locavore movement. As other owners went through the rollicking waves of restaurant fads, from outlandish design to molecular gastronomy, Quatrano and Harrison steadily presented the best seasonal produce, often from their own farm, simply and elegantly. Even in the realm of über-fine dining, the pair was far ahead of its time, insisting on a more relaxed atmosphere, eschewing a dress code, and working to instill a sense of location in the dining room. I never ate at Bacchanalia's original Buckhead location, but the current one on the Westside, all vintage white tiles and mirrors and draped velvet, feels like a stately parlor carved out of an old Southern supply warehouse. Which is exactly what it is.
As I sit at the bar in the opulent room, the friendly bartender delivers the fish course. The plate before me is more mosaic than dinner. A line of diminutive bay scallops sits atop a jumble of sweet potato purée folded with salt cod, fennel, baby fingerling potato chips, sweet potato chips, and diced Yukon golds. A swoosh of roasted baby sweet potatoes arches up and around the vegetables, and dots of preserved lemon foam provide artful visual balance. It's a shame to desecrate such an appealing arrangement of food. My fork takes on the work of bulldozer, plowing into a creation that was put together with long tweezers in the glassed-in kitchen a few feet away. But the destruction is worth it — the scallops pop in bursts of oceanic sweetness, the fall-flavored medley of fennel and potatoes hums with the cod's subtle underpinnings. It's a dish created with heart and mind, and comes together so effortlessly, you barely notice its complexity.
Bacchanalia's rejection of upscale dining's higher pretensions may be one of the reasons that the restaurant is the last one standing of the three giants of Atlanta fine dining. In the last five years, both Seeger's and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton closed for various reasons. But the reason most widely agreed upon is that their style and expense were simply out of date in today's casual world. The tanking economy surely had an impact as well.
Of course, there are other names that loom large in Atlanta's fine dining realm — Aria and Restaurant Eugene the most obvious. But despite Bacchanalia's lack of certain pretensions, it still adheres to several trappings of fine dining that those other restaurants do not. The menu is an $85 prix fixe. A meal here is punctuated by a flurry of extras: warm gougères upon arrival, a tiny cup of expertly made seasonal soup as well as radishes with butter before the first course, bon bons and madeleines after dessert. Service is more formal, and traditional luxuries, such as the option of choosing a course from the cheese cart, still exist here.
So the question becomes, in a world where the two main things that drove Bacchanalia's success — casual elegance and careful locally sourced cooking — have become the norm, is there enough to set it apart to justify the expense?
The full experience at Bacchanalia is the most impressive around. Service verges on ceremonial, and every attention to comfort and pacing is made. The first course of the prix fixe nods to classic luxuries — there's a decadently smooth foie gras terrine; a lovely lobster in Meyer lemon over brioche toast. From there on through to the desserts, which employ the best seasonal fruits and the most rewarding combinations of flour, butter, and sugar (I especially love the ethereal cranberry soufflé with pink peppercorn ice cream), dinner at Bacchanalia is a ritual that's indulgent to the extreme. Many people, me included, prefer to eat at the bar where the menu is available a la carte, and service is necessarily less formal. The full menu with all its trappings leaves me stuffed and broke. Which is what indulgence is all about I guess, but I'm not 100 percent sold on that kind of meal's worth, especially given the absence of surprise or whimsy.
In the past year, both John Kessler at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Bill Addison at Atlanta magazine have made the point that Bacchanalia should perhaps go a step further in the creativity and excellence of its cooking. In response to those criticisms, Quatrano altered the menu's format, changing it from a four-course to a five-course prix fixe: appetizer, fish course, meat course, cheese course, and dessert. And where almost everything at Bacchanalia used to bear a striking simplicity, some dishes now toy with ambitious juxtaposition.
And although ambitious juxtaposition is what we've all clamored for, it's those dishes like the scallops that hold the most pleasure, in which an adherence to subtle technique rather than outlandish flavor combinations take precedence; the hum of sage in spaghetti squash under a flawlessly cooked piece of flounder, or the absolute mastery in a wood-grilled strip steak that manages to be perfectly medium rare, the consistent pink/red reaching all the way through the meat to its beautifully charred exterior.
I could see the ambition in a dish of wood-grilled octopus, an aspiration for daring in its mishmash of ingredients: squash, escarole, pecans, pumpkin seeds, and pickled sultanas. But the dish lacked counterpoints and instead seemed a tad schizophrenic. I loved a pork terrine with Indian overtones — ginger, cumin, and topped with lentils and slivers of rye bread crisps. It would have been utterly masterful if brightness were added, a bing of preserved lemon or other citrus.
Of the approximately 15 dishes I tried at Bacchanalia over the course of dining there in the past month, none is burned into my memory. The experience of eating here is largely exquisite, but hardly life-altering. While I haven't had a meal recently that surpasses the meals I had at Bacchanalia, I've had quite a few that were more memorable, and a fraction of the price.
The farm egg served with wild mushrooms was memorable, but for the wrong reasons. An obscene abundance of salt made the dish barely edible, a misstep that was frankly shocking in this setting.
Over time, I've seen Bacchanalia's wine list veer wildly, from small and curated to broad and encompassing. Currently, the list is at its most frustrating, both limited and prohibitively expensive. Most of the real estate is given to California wines, with a smaller selection of French and Italian. As a rule, glass pours are not available by the bottle, which is a strange policy but would be less annoying if there were a greater range of reasonably priced bottles available. There are zero rosés, and a total of eight whites that are not chardonnay. Those eight consist of one nonalcoholic wine, one King Estate pinot gris, and six California sauvignon blancs. It's easier to find something interesting and affordable in the reds (and by affordable, I mean less than $100), but across the board, this is a list built for show-offs, not regular wine enthusiasts, and it undercuts the sense of comfort the restaurant aims to achieve.
This is what I find most disheartening about Bacchanalia. I've encountered service there that was technically correct, but downright sniffy, and the wine list and the luxuries and the extra course and the reputation all meld into a restaurant that is damn near perfect for wrapping up an important business deal, but not as perfect for sinking into the silken embrace of hospitality. I can think of nowhere better to bring a distinguished overseas guest, but I can think of about 10 better places to propose marriage or celebrate an anniversary.
Sometimes I wonder if we aren't asking too much of this restaurant. If its owners and chefs hadn't made it so abundantly clear that they aim to be the best in the region, we might allow the restaurant to just go ahead and be what it is: the grande dame of the farm-to-table movement. Unfortunately, the ambition to be the best magnifies flaws and shortcomings, and forces comparisons. Bacchanalia has become a restaurant for transactions, rather than a place to revel in the sheer joy of eating and drinking. It's an irony, given the name, which a city's best restaurant can't afford.