At what price glory? 

Weighing the agony and the ecstasy of a meal at Seeger's

Cocoa-dusted marshmallows, apricot jellies and tiny chocolates sit in a military-straight line on a lithe tray. They have been offered as our meal's crowning flourish, but neither my friend Carol nor I reach for them with any enthusiasm. We've been eating and drinking for nearly four hours on this wintry Saturday afternoon. Our euphoric sense of satiety staggers ever closer to a state of overboard gluttony. At least the persistent myth that diners leave Buckhead's luxuriant Seeger's still hungry can be laid to rest once and for all.

We both rally to pop a final chocolate in our mouths. The first and only bite releases a floral somersault of lavender cream that mingles with the dark chocolate in a haunting waltz. Sigh. Ecstatic precision down to the minutest detail.

Then, a moment of terror: The check arrives. I make frantic calculations in my head before I crack open the discreet black book. We ordered the four-course option instead of the eight-course degustation menu, though if you opt for cheese service with the four courses -- which we did -- the price is the same as the eight-course. We asked for wine pairings. We each had a glass of champagne before the meal, and greedily requested an extra dessert.

"Hello, how much?" whispers Carol as I stare silently at the piece of paper. Our bill for two for lunch -- including gratuity -- tallies at $659.20.

Carol's eyes bulge in disbelief. She reaches for her mostly untouched glass of Moscato and downs a hefty swig. A fellow food adventurer, I had warned her that this meal would probably exceed the company's dining budget and we'd be pitching in dollars ourselves. But I don't think she expected the tab to equal a modest mortgage payment.

Neither did I, frankly, though as I reach for my credit card I realize that was a spate of willful ignorance on my part. This is Seeger's, after all -- the non plus ultra for fine dining in Atlanta. If we'd confined ourselves to a single glass of wine each, we still would have spent more than $300.

The valet -- a new feature at Seeger's -- has pulled our car into a tent pitched over the driveway. I'm pensive on the drive home. It's not the bill, though this lunch undoubtedly ranks as the most expensive I've ever consumed in my restaurant-centric life. It's the swirl of thoughts and emotions a meal here conjures: The cerebral, sensory glory of the food juxtaposed with the tense tenor of the service and the atmosphere. The state of Atlanta's dining scene and the role that Seeger's plays in it. The enigma of the chef himself.

Guenter Seeger was introduced to Atlanta during a nine-year, star-making turn as the executive chef at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. In the mid-'90s, Seeger was a one-man revolution. Atlanta had never been exposed to a chef whose cuisine appeared so minimalist on the plate but revealed such an uncanny layering of flavors on the palate. He single-handedly elevated the national culinary status of Atlanta. If the personality that produced this ever-changing array of wonders could sometimes come off as laconic -- well? The sumptuous luxury of the Ritz-Carlton sheltered diners from his gruff edges.

Seeger opened his eponymous restaurant in a converted Buckhead bungalow in 1997, and reactions by a significant contingent were pointedly negative. Besides the now anachronistic complaint regarding portion sizes, many labeled the behavior of the staff too formal, too chilly. Foodies and critics observed the frequent turnover of general managers and servers as proof of Seeger's challenging disposition. And instead of courting the dining public, Seeger remained largely defiant: His European vision of the restaurant would continue to be executed the way he intended it.

At a dinner last May, though, I wondered if Seeger wasn't readying to give up the fight. We occupied one of only three tables on a Tuesday night. The food arrived as exactingly prepared as always, but the usual spirit of experimentation and surprise was absent. Seeger himself sat in the dining room with friends. He never approached the other tables with a "Hello" or "Thank you." It compounded the discouraging sense of loneliness pervading the space.

I left that night questioning if Guenter Seeger still belonged in Atlanta. If he insisted on enrobing his exquisite cooking in such obstinate formality, surely New York, San Francisco or even Paris would embrace his ideology more fervently than this essentially Southern town. Should Seeger pack up his act and hit the road?

Not long after the meal in May, Seeger recommitted himself to the city by announcing he would close his restaurant in the early fall for renovations, and narrow the number of seats from 64 to a more intimate 32. Would changes in the physical space bring a shift in philosophy as well? Might this indicate evolution toward a warmer, less rigid tone in the service style?


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