There's a depressing lack of romance in Atlanta's restaurants these days. Sure, there's sex and shimmer, a kind of dining equivalent to the "Red Shoe Diaries." But where's the serious stuff? How to pull out the big guns? Take it to the next level? (And I don't mean just get some, you filthy-minded trollops, you.)
Fellas. Ladies. Here is a way to show that special someone that you ain't messing around. I'm serious. Book a bed and breakfast, and take your paramour to Le Vigne at Montaluce. This place says "special" on a grand scale, a 10-year-anniversary or marriage proposal kind of scale. First, you have to drive an hour and a half to get there. Second, it's surrounded by rolling vineyards, which stretch out beyond the dining room's huge glass walls, as if you were in the hills of some European country. Third, the food, service and wine list are on par with some of Atlanta's best restaurants.
Montaluce is one of the newer properties in the rapidly growing North Georgia wine country. In many ways, its aspirations are grander than many of the other Dahlonega wineries. Opened in April 2008, much of Montaluce's business model hinges on real estate. The owners (the Beecham family and Bobby Greenway) have built a small community that's modeled after a Tuscan village. When you drive up, two Tuscan-style residences sit atop a hill on the right covered with vines. On the left, a cluster of houses surrounds a central garden. It's a little odd, out here on a mountain road, to find this tightly packed together "village" in the midst of all this space. It's a new urbanist fantasy, along the lines of Serenbe (the sustainable community in Chattahoochee Hill Country), but with a viniferous twist.
The restaurant is down a few more winding roads from the village, in the building that also houses the winery. As one might expect, given the view and facilities, it's a popular location for weddings, which is the bread and butter of the operation. But Le Vigne is open to the public for lunch five days a week, and for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, baring private events, which take precedence.
The chef is Steven Hartman, who joined the restaurant in June of last year after a gig as chef de cuisine at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. His style is a crossbreed of upscale hotel dining and the more mellow influences of New Southern. While I'm sure the high emotional stakes of catering weddings creates plenty of stress for the young chef, the cook in me still envies his setup here. Huge facilities, access to the best ingredients, and a mostly quiet dining room allow him a great deal of room for meticulous cooking, without the nightly grind of high-volume service. Filling seats is not his job. Making the residents and smattering of visitors happy is. On that front, he's doing a bang-up job.
Dinner is served as a three-course prix fixe for $40, with cheese and charcuterie available for an extra cost. At lunch, a selection of flatbreads and sandwiches is available. Each day, the short menu changes. On a recent visit, it was obvious Hartman had access to a ton of chanterelles — they appeared on almost everything, from an appetizer of perfectly crisped sweetbreads with turnips and smoked blueberries, to a gorgeous entrée of crispy-skinned trout with cipollinis, artichokes and tiny bursts of tomato. In both cases, the woodsy mushrooms set off the dish's acidic components. These are beautifully composed, painstakingly thought-out combinations.
At lunch, the ham and egg flatbread is all runny yolk and smoky Benton's ham sliced super-thin, on a crackly crust. The dish's richness is mitigated by slivers of über-fresh asparagus.
The places I found Hartman faltering all involved questions of seasoning — levels of salt and sugar seemed off in a few dishes. A quenelle of chicken liver mousse had rich flavor and the glossy texture of clotted cream, but was oversalted. An appetizer of pork belly with fresh corn and blueberries tasted like dessert with pork in it. The pork had the exact right crisp to fat ratio, but the dish was overwhelmingly sweet. The same was true of a fluffy butternut squash soup with a garnish of graham cracker-like crumble on the side of the bowl. The flavors were spot on, but the sweet-on-sweet blend was overpowering.
When it comes to actual sweets, Hartman's touch is flawless. A thick and silken egg custard, served in a glass jar and topped with a substantial caramel sauce, seemed neither French nor Italian in spirit, but rather Southern in its simplicity. A blueberry clafoutis was served unconventionally, with the fruit and airy flan-like batter baked in a crust, sliced into a square, and served cold. It was nonetheless fantastically fruity, the accompanying lemon-tinged whipped cream creating balance and tang.
Let's not forget that Montaluce is also a winery. The wine industry in Georgia is very young, and has yet to find its own distinctive style, but Montaluce is producing some wines that should give us hope. Winemakers Stefano Salvini and Maria Peterson bring a European aesthetic to the production, and their 2009 chardonnay is made from Burgundy juice (apparently the birds ate the chardonnay grapes grown on site that year — at least that's what our capable waitress told us). Whites are, on the whole, slightly floral, but have enough acid and minerality to back up their fruitier characteristics. The Merlot I had was more disappointing, lacking structure and fruit. These wines are also far cheaper than many of their Georgia counterparts, with many bottles costing around $15. And if you decide that dinner calls for something other than house wine, the mainly Italian list holds many serious wines for your consideration.
The hugely high-ceilinged dining room with its meticulously rough-hewn tables and modern-plush upholstered chairs has a kind of Italy-meets-Pottery Barn vibe. There are touches of design personality, such as a wall of old-fashioned glass seltzer bar bottles, but for the most part the feel is borrowed from both Italian and Californian wine country. That's Montaluce's shtick and I understand why its sticking to it, but I do hope one day to see a personality emerge for Georgia's wine country that is its own, that feels Southern rather than faux-European.
Looking out of these huge windows as the sun sets, though, it's hard to argue with much about this scene. It is lovely, and different, and the food before you and the wine you're drinking make it all the more so. Le Vigne should reignite our romance with Georgia's wine country, and then take it to the next level.
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