Restaurant Review: St. Cecilia

Ford Fry hits the mark, again

Here's the elephant in the dining room when it comes to Atlanta restaurateur Ford Fry: Can you buy success? Does substantial capital beget a winning concept? Money can buy a gleaming kitchen and chic interior design, but it can't guarantee a great restaurant. There are plenty of examples of wildly expensive flops in Atlanta. Fry is not one of them. His restaurants continue to be popular. The chef turned entrepreneur, whose Rocket Farms Restaurants group includes JCT Kitchen, the Optimist, King + Duke, and No. 246, has another hit on his hands with St. Cecilia.

St. Cecilia occupies a big, beautiful space in Buckhead's Pinnacle building. It opened in January in the former Bluepointe location vacated by Buckhead Life Group in 2011. The menu's focus is coastal Mediterranean seafood and is broken up into the traditional Italian categories of crudos, salumi, antipasti, primi, secondi, and dolci. Six months in, the kitchen has begun to widen its scope.

One of Fry's strengths is knowing when to make staffing changes. Case in point: Bringing in chef Drew Belline to replace chef Brian Horn in April. Belline, now "V.P. of Culinary" and executive chef at both No. 246 and St. Cecilia, joins chef de cuisine Craig Richards, who's been at St. Cecilia since it opened.

Belline says he and Richards are equally responsible for the menu. For the summer, the duo plans to bring in Moroccan and Spanish influences, add more locally sourced produce, refresh the crudos, and roll out a seafood charcuterie program with items such as monkfish mortadella. They're also overhauling the lunch menu, whose sad salads and unwieldy tartines have been the restaurant's weakest link.

At dinner, however, things are so well-balanced that you can plow your way through many dishes without feeling weighed down. I was thrilled to discover fresh Italian langoustines on the crudo menu one evening. You rarely see them in the States. The head and oversized claws are served intact and the tail stripped of its shell. The springy meat's sweetness was amplified with each swipe through the lemon oil drizzled on top of the accompanying hearts of palm, shaved fennel, and pink peppercorns. Yellowfin tuna polpettine are a whimsical play on meatballs and treated similarly with the addition of breadcrumbs, a dip in some oil for integrity, and a two-hour braise in a rich bell pepper-laden tomato sauce. Balls of homemade salt cod mixed with risotto made with the restaurant's ubiquitous fumet (seafood stock) are creamy and crunchy with a whisper of the sea.

Belline and Richards excel at pastas. At lunch, I had a version of the house-made squid ink spaghetti and clams dressed with a tangy sauce of lemon, wine, fumet, and butter that reminded me of hollandaise. I wanted to drink every last sip. During another visit, paper-thin pillows of agnolotti filled with red wine-braised beef short-rib were earthy and creamy thanks to veal stock and the slightest hint of mascarpone. I'm still reeling over the cappelletti stuffed with chopped sweet fresh Georgia shrimp. They were crowned with a blanket of foam created by emulsifying uni (sea urchin) with seafood stock. The cappelletti, like most pasta dishes, was not shy on acid. Each bite delivered a silky taste of the ocean.

The secondi could be updated, something Belline says he's working on. The restaurant sources interesting seafood such as triggerfish and wolfish and honors the ingredients with simple presentations. A recent whole loup de mer, served with brown butter, marcona almonds, and grapefruit segments, may not be groundbreaking, but it's nice when you want something uncomplicated for dinner.

Pastry chef Chrysta Poulos has an adventurous palate and makes some beautiful plates of food. Sometimes her gambles, such as adding candied circles of cucumber to a plate of raspberry cremeux accented with white chocolate and lime, don't work. But unorthodox approaches such as serving panna cotta in a thin layer at the bottom of a large bowl make the most ordinary desserts fun. Even her more straightforward desserts, such as the budino di cioccolata, arrive with a wink: The short and wide cylinder of silky chocolate custard is drizzled with grassy olive oil and accented with a sweet and salty corn crisp.

The design of St. Cecilia's bi-level, 11,000-square-foot space remains true to the polished industrial style Fry has perpetuated in Atlanta. Meyer Davis Studio transformed Bluepointe's dated late '90s décor into a bright and sleek interior complete with columns covered in shiny white subway tile and floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto Peachtree Street. Although the restaurant feels contemporary, there is something very 1940s about the glossy black paint finishes, glowing brass accents, and iron details set against the stark white environment. It's as if the designers took cues from a Paris brasserie, although the restaurant is too large and American to be called European.

St. Cecilia attracts all types, whether it's a mother/daughter pair sporting matching Tory Burch purses, a couple in formal wear ducking in for a quick post-event bite, or a gaggle of twentysomething girls in summer dresses and sandals. Although the restaurant feels upscale, I'd be comfortable in jeans here. And the prices are approachable for a restaurant of its ilk. It's the kind of place that you could take a first date or the in-laws to impress, but also go on a random Tuesday night.

There's an impressive O-shaped white marble bar that's just as busy as its predecessor used to be. It's backed by a tall set of shelves stocked with glassware, bottles, mixology provisions, and nautical knickknacks. I've had good luck grabbing a full meal here when I couldn't get a reservation.

Once again, Fry has tasked star mixologist Lara Creasy with the beverage program. She shows her breadth of knowledge on the wine side with a large — and awkward to use — leather-bound binder. The tome begins with a fun introduction where she likens wine to music: "Operatic Barbaresco is Queen" and "Super-Tuscans are Led Zeppelin." While there is an impressive range of bottles, including some values, I suggest ordering by the glass. It's more fun with this type of menu that encourages sharing. You can jump from a fruity 2012 Le Morette Bardolino Chiaretto Classico with your hamachi (yellowtail) crudo to a juicy, unoaked 2012 Tenuta di Nozzole Toscana Chardonnay le Bruniche with seared scallops with pistachios.

The cocktail program is strong. The Wooden Ships (on the Water) offers a peppy and summery mix of Solerno, Aperol, ruby-red grapefruit juice, Prosecco, soda, and orange. The Gallows Pole, a blend of Amaro Braulio, Fernet Branca, Coca-Cola, lemon, and mint, is like a grown-up root beer that sweetens as the ingredients relax and bloom.

Service has been excellent and surprisingly relaxed for such a prominent address. You can tell the staff is well-trained. Servers do a good job making you feel like dining here is something special. And it is.

It's not uncommon to see a proud-looking Fry seated in the restaurant. One eye stays on the conversation with the important-looking people around him as the other surveys the room. In a recent interview, Fry was asked whether he considers himself a chef or an entrepreneur. He answered chef. I respectfully disagree. Once again, he's created a restaurant that's one of the hardest tables to get in town and he has four more coming. He's in mogul territory now.

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