But it's January 2004 and I'm at Canoe. Since moving to Atlanta last year, I've heard little other than raves about the 9-year-old restaurant, its stunning Chattahoochee-side setting and its connection to famed Chef Gerry Klaskala. Along with Aria, Canoe is part of Klaskala's We're Cookin' restaurant group. Gary Mennie is at the helm of Canoe's kitchen, with Carvel Grant Gould as chef de cuisine. While Aria dazzles like a well-polished gem, Canoe wants for a bit of care. Its menu is as dated as the servers' uniforms, and the wonderfully attentive service doesn't make up for lackluster food.
Starters and main courses teem with top-shelf ingredients, busily listed on the menu. Grilled ostrich is served with a brown butter apple and walnut conserve, thyme roasted onions and celery root puree. The dish's presentation is most unfortunate. The medallion is cut roughly, its pieces scattered across the plate. The ostrich, however, is intensely meaty and rich. Its light gaminess is offset by the apple's sweetness and the puree offers a contrasting, creamy feel to the meat.
A salad, like an apparition from the '90s, offers pistachio-encrusted goat cheese paired with young spinach and frisee and is dressed with a rosemary shallot vinaigrette. I can't find fault with the salad, other than its having become hackneyed more than a decade ago.
An innocuous-sounding Peekytoe crab fritter wins the appetizer race. Its tennis-ball size recalls the Ladies' Home Journal croquettes of the '50s, and nestled on a bed of watercress with sweet pickled onions, it is a simple delight. The fritter is everything a crab cake should aspire to be but rarely is. Crispy to the last bite, the breading is thin and delicate, yet substantially crunchy to the yielding crab.
Canoe's kitchen is heavy-handed with the truffle oil. I adore truffles, but overusing their derivative oil degrades their sinful luxuriousness to a commonplace, even slightly unwelcome flavor. Roasted pheasant with a red wine-apple sauce and crispy croquettes sounds delicious. A white meat portion is served, with the dark meat made into lovely croquettes. The white meat is unsurprisingly dry and the accompanying mashed potatoes reek of truffle oil, but the croquettes are absolutely wonderful. My friend and I thumb-wrestle for the last forkful. Slow roasted rabbit is stringy, and the sweet corn tortelloni served alongside are upsetting. Shaped like potstickers, the filling is overly sweet and encased in gummy dough.
Grilled duck breast is dominated by nutmeg and cinnamon, and its accompanying sweet potatoes ratchet up the sweetness, turning the entree into a near-dessert. Pan-roasted sea bass is dainty, buttery eating, but the wild mushroom risotto with which it is served is gluey. Again, the dish's flavors are unbalanced with an overdose of truffle oil. The entree is overwhelmingly brown in color, with just a few snap peas providing a shot of green.
A lamb shank with lemon-poppy seed spaetzle is gorgeous. The lamb is quite possibly the tenderest hunk of meat I've ever eaten, so soft it barely requires chewing. It is deeply, darkly rich, almost intoxicating, and the spaetzle are light, toothy delights. Dressed with a bit of rosemary-mint puree, the plate is all nuances and essences. This dish is proof that the kitchen wants not for talent but for inspiration.
The departure of Canoe's longtime pastry chef, Sarah Koob, is taken into consideration when we find our desserts uniformly disappointing. Venezuelan chocolate cream manages the magic feat of being fluffy yet intensely chocolaty, and is brilliant with a crystal-clear passion fruit sauce and shards of crispy rice nougatine. But the mousse slice tastes as if it has been refrigerated uncovered for way too long. The composed "Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate!" plate shows promise with a frothy swallow of chocolate-Frangelico cream in a shot glass, but the caramel turtle's nuts are quite rancid. North Georgia apple bread pudding is homey, crusty, buttery and a satisfying wintertime dessert.
You'd expect a restaurant where dinner rings in around $150 for two (that total includes wine from the restaurant's thoughtful, strongly American selection) to be a bit slow in early January. But on a Saturday night visit, Canoe is so packed that I am hoarse the following day from screaming to be heard at the table. Despite upholstery that desperately needs updating, the dining room is comfortable and well maintained.
As we step into the cold night and then into the car, my friend begins singing his version of the "I Love the '80s" theme song from the VH1 show.
"I love the '90s!" he sings as we pull away. I loved the '90s when they happened, but warmed over at Canoe, I can only muster up a sincere like.
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