Well, consider that untruth shattered. Grace 17.20, one of the finest additions to the metro dining scene this year, is in Norcross. In an outdoor mall.
Intowners, stay with me.
The Forum shopping center along Peachtree Parkway surprises first-time visitors. A tony hamlet of both staple and independent mall stores, it's a brisk jaunt from Atlanta -- about 20 minutes. Several small-chain restaurants, including Ted's Montana Grill and the South African-based Famous Fish Company, are scattered amongst the wide, inviting stretch of shops. But you'll want to keep an eye out for the conical turret a block or so down from Ted's. That's Grace 17.20.
Any skepticism about the restaurant's location begins to recede almost as soon as you step inside. Like Brasserie Le Coze at Lenox Square, Grace creates an embracing cocoon completely divorced from its surroundings. I was simultaneously relieved to see that the place neither tries to emulate the frenetic edginess of many intown hot spots, nor does it feel stuck in the '90s the way so many upscale suburban eateries do. The dining room soothes with a taupe motif that suggests California wine country -- not in a cliched way, but with an airy comfort that lets both the patrons and the food stand out more vividly.
If it's not immediately clear from the decor alone that Grace heeds its own rhythm, the first decadent bite of the mussels and grits seals the deal. Mussels and grits? Yes. A hillock of winey, briny, blessedly de-shelled mussels melds into a pool of buttery grits. Wow. The dish is so rich you need only a few spoonfuls to be satisfied, but the memory of the unlikely yet wholly compatible combination remains through the whole meal.
It quickly becomes evident that some major talent fuels this venture. Barbara Di James, the managing partner, was general manager at Sia's, and assistant general manager at Blue Ridge Grill before that. Charles Schwab (no money market fund jokes, please) graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and moved to Atlanta in 2001 to serve as chef de cuisine at Bacchanalia.
Remember how foodies used to refer to Roswell's sadly defunct Asher as the Bacchanalia of the 'burbs? I'll keep it in the family and nickname Grace the Floataway Cafe of the 'burbs. (Biblical references in fine dining OTP restaurants must be de rigeur: Asher was a reference to Genesis, and the 17.20 in Grace's name is from Matthew: "For truly I say unto you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you." That's some faith, y'all.)
Schwab's time at Bacchanalia shines through palpably at every turn of the menu. Pristine, seasonal ingredients are cooked with an intelligently light hand to coax out their essence. Sandwiches of roasted yellow and red beets are bound with fresh, tangy goat cheese. A truly lumpy crab cake tastes sweeter from the contrast of curry oil drizzled around its plate; the side of caper remoulade is merely a spiky gilding of the lily.
November's a chilly month to feature summery corn on the menu, but the kitchen must know a secret source: Sweet corn chowder arrives fresh and mild, and is extravagant with meaty morsels of lobster. A relish of corn and poblano chile encourages the oceanic qualities of plump scallops. A ginger glaze on the scallops pleasantly jolts the senses. Sneaking in a touch of fusion, are we?
Remarkably, the kitchen is as adept with the more experimental offerings as it is with the straightforward ones. I wait until my third visit to try eggplant bruschetta. Who needs another variation of toast with toppings? Turns out I do. The eggplant has been cooked to submissive tenderness and mixed with blue cheese, golden raisins and basil with a touch of mustard. A sharp palate came up with that combo.
But then I have a pork chop paired with collards and caramelized apples. Clear-cut Southern fare, but prepared with precision: The pork is moist, the collards porcine and dusky, the apples not too cloying. Grilled New York strip rings in at the hefty price of $36 (most of the entrees are much less than that). The handsome slab of beef is crowned with a melting pat of horseradish butter on top to add zing. Mashed potatoes alongside have an honest simplicity.
You can explore Grace's menu with confidence. Clunkers number few. An underdressed arugula and mache salad (with otherwise lovely ingredients, including ripe avocado and bracing grapefruit slices) and a disappointingly bland turkey potpie at lunch come to mind. I'd also rethink the mismatched shoestring potatoes that come with the Asia-accented grilled duck breast.
Lunch, by the way, is as smartly executed as dinner. Along with dependable luncheon salads, there's also well-crafted guy food, like a brawny flank steak sandwich with meaty potato wedge fries.
As vitally important as the food is, a great dining experience also requires someone who knows how to orchestrate the strategic details. And that's where Di James comes in. "Sorry to bother you, but you looked so happy, I just wanted to ask what you were eating," she says to my friend cooing over the pecan pie turnover. She sees the cheesecake, heady with vanilla and covered with a complex caramel, has been demolished as well.
Then she notices the barely touched cobbler. "Was there something wrong with this?" she asks intently.
"Um, well, I've had this before here, but this time the topping is a bit mushy ..." I begin.
Di James whips her red mane around and grabs the nearest waiter. "Please order me a cobbler for the bar," she commands with quiet authority. She nods to us politely and vanishes.
Minutes later, she returns. "You're right," she says. "I'm taking it off your check. I had the chef taste it, and I asked him, 'Would you eat this?' The pastry chef is so fired." I fear she's only half-kidding.
I'm certain it's Di James' eagle eye and attuned sense of hospitality that account for the wonderful touches during a meal here, like the simple syrup to sweeten your iced tea, or the way the hostess brings a black napkin if you're wearing dark pants. And she knows how to select a staff. One server, John, wooed us with his wine knowledge and his personable yet unobtrusive manner.
Perhaps the only detail that seemed out of place was the mouthwash in the men's room. Who wants to expel all the evening's lovely flavors? I'd rather let them linger as I drive back to Atlanta, wondering, as a matter of fact, when the last time was that I so enjoyed myself at an intown restaurant.
Oh, this is sad.
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