I remember James Quinones vividly.
As front-of-the-house man for Floataway Cafe, he embodied the gallant and charmingly enigmatic model of the modern Southern host. With his cherubic face and thatch of thick black hair, James was often the first smile that greeted you at the restaurant. His benevolently exacting presence could be felt through your whole meal. He might lean in, sotto voce, to inquire if you were pleased with the combination of blood oranges and olives that embellished the ahi tuna entree, or if you'd enjoyed the trip to Chicago you were plotting the last time you came in for dinner. He savored details. He remembered names.
One of the traits that made James memorable was the mischievous, knowing glint in his eyes. I never encountered him as anything less than gracious, but I could tell that, off duty, he probably employed a devastating sense of wit. I had looked forward to a day in the future when, retired from the critic business, I would break bread outside the restaurant with James and prove my theory true.
I'll never get the chance. James died in an auto accident June 12 last year, driving his Vespa home late after work. Floataway remains a wonderful place to dine, but it's never been quite the same without his vitality. I know I'm not the only customer who walks in and still cranes his neck, looking to see if James is emerging from the kitchen door by the bar.
Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, owners of Floataway and Bacchanalia, deeply valued James professionally and personally. It came as no surprise, then, to learn they had named their new luxe venture after their beloved comrade.
Quinones at Bacchanalia is technically the couple's third restaurant. In many ways, though, the food served in the quietly sumptuous room on the subterranean level of the west side complex that houses Bacchanalia (and the adjoining market Star Provisions) tastes like an expanded and concentrated distillation of the upstairs restaurant's cuisine.
But, decor-wise, the two spaces are distant cousins. While Bacchanalia gives you industrialized glamour, Quinones evokes a cross between colonial Williamsburg and old-money Savannah with regal, smoky green walls and spookily tarnished mirrors. Given the city's propensity for brash eateries, the senses unfurl here in relief.
A wonderful tribute to James Quinones awaits you when you enter the restaurant: Rob Payne. An interior designer, Payne is a former Floataway server who accepted Quatrano's invitation to moonlight as Quinones' host. A familiar impish witticism lurks on his visage. I suspect James, who was good friends with Payne, would approve of Payne's cheering demeanor, which is at once formal and clubby.
He leads you to a table under clear, undulating chandeliers set with heavy linen that you want to paw again and again. The first of many servers soon swoops in to ask for your selection of bottled water: He has six to offer. This will be an evening blessedly free of decisions, so relish the little choices.
Bacchanalia offers a four-course prix-fixe meal with many options for each course and amusing extras before or after several of the courses. Quinones offers an eight-course dinner that changes nightly, with the same nimble adjuncts at the beginning and end. Two courses have two choices; the rest is predetermined. It is all spelled out on the menu, which you keep by your side to remind you of the pedigrees of the coddled ingredients you're relishing.
My two meals at Quinones (consumed nearly two months apart) can be summed up as orchestrated treatises on current yet restrained fine dining. Intellectual gastronomy and lessons in chemistry via foams and molecular reconstruction are largely eschewed in the pursuit of subtle pleasures.
And subtlety can assuredly please. My midsummer meal began in earnest with a scrambled egg from Quatrano and Harrison's Summerland Farm. Striated with barely perceptible leeks and haunted with summer truffles, it was so creamy and lovingly cooked, I felt like I was being reintroduced to this staple so oft abused at breakfast joints.
A generous spoonful of caviar graced the base of a judicious bowl of vichyssoise, poured tableside. Caviar is not quite the coveted luxury it once was, but it still reigns as a classic indulgence with the first nip of autumn.
Next, a choice: Crudo or foie gras? It's a palate preference. Gravitate toward the crudo -- aka westernized sushi -- if you like clean flavors. Black grouper took on a shimmery quality when paired with watermelon and shiso, the minty herb widely used in Japanese cookery. Foie gras folks (you know who you are) can revel in the inventive variations the kitchen conjures -- perhaps a suave terrine built around a tender morsel of moulard duck and punctuated with pickled bing cherries, or foie gras torchon with Scuppernong grape gelee and (hmm) peanut brittle.
Touches like Scuppernong and its muscadine kin (which appeared in soup form as a dessert course) are tenuous Southern insinuations weaved into offerings that mostly draw on a broader New American and European influence. Roasted scallops with mushroom risotto; strip steak with roasted potatoes; squash ravioli with sage and pancetta; Valrhona chocolate tart with chocolate mint ice milk -- these are not intimidating creations.
Actually, they may be too comfortable. The rare brilliance of Quatrano and Harrison (who work closely with chef de cuisine Drew Belline to compose Quinones' menus) is that they transform commonly known dishes into the best they can be. Using freshness and seasonality as allies, you experience Georgia white shrimp or South Carolina nectarines with as little distraction from their unique essence as possible. That's why Bacchanalia is booked every night: Like that first-course egg, ubiquitous meats and vegetables take on renewed wonder in their hands.
But for Quinones to become an in-demand draw on its own accord, Quatrano and Harrison will have to lunge beyond their current expertise. I am honestly hard-pressed to find technical flaws with any of the food, which is astutely prepared, elegantly presented and harmonic. It's also safe. Few dishes ingrained themselves in my memory. The flourish of marjoram on a sheep's milk ricotta in tomato consommé comes to mind, as does cool carrot and ginger soup with a fetching clump of Alaskan king crab.
Desserts allude to daring. Pastry chef Rory Moon knows how to blur the lines between poised and playful. That muscadine soup trilled in my mouth, augmented by a tangy goat cheese parfait. French apple tart, featuring what has to be the most buttery crust in town, arrived as a flirty menage-a-trois alongside a whimsical apple soda and a cool cup of green apple sorbet with an innocent apple chip atop.
The meal's most adventurous elements are found in sommelier Daniel Rudiger's wine pairings: a raisiny Spanish sherry with chocolate; the Sauterne-like Gros Manseng with foie gras; a minerally Italian Ottella Lugana that provoked the sweetness in the carrot soup with crab.
Gutsy glimmerings like these will hopefully multiply as the restaurant matures. The time is certainly ripe to brave some fine dining chances in Atlanta. Guenter Seeger has closed his eponymous temple for renovations and will reportedly reopen with an even pricier format. The Ritz-Carlton continues its hunt for a chef to fill the formidable shoes of predecessors Seeger, Joël Antunes and Bruno Ménard. I'm holding out for Quatrano and Harrison to dream bolder dreams on the plate.
So for now, approach and enjoy Quinones as Bacchanalia-plus. And raise one of the deftly chosen glasses of wine to James.
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