We all love Bacchanalia, don't we? Clifford Harrison and Anne Quatrano opened their restaurant in 1993 in a cottage on Piedmont Avenue. It was an overnight hit, although their prix fixe menu -- just under $50, as I recall -- scandalized many Atlantans. But the restaurant quickly became known as the city's best, with only Seeger's in contention for first place.
In 2000, the restaurant moved to its present location in a warehouse space on the west side of town. Harrison and Quatrano also opened a gourmet grocery, Star Provisions, in the space and had meanwhile opened a second restaurant, Floataway Cafe.
Now the two have opened the Quinones Room at Bacchanalia (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-365-0410). Named after their former manager and friend James Quinones, who died in a traffic accident last year, this is a very fancy dining room, unlike anything in the city, that seats only 35. It is located downstairs in the same complex as Bacchanalia but, despite the name, has its own kitchen, run by Drew Beline, formerly a sous chef upstairs at the mother restaurant.
The dining room, managed by the very gracious Rob Payne, is balm for eyes sick of postmodern design. Dominick Coyne, who designed both Bacchanalia and Floataway, has created a virtual throwback to classic, vaguely French design. The walls are a deep gray-olive, with simple molding, lit by glass chandeliers. White tablecloths cover round tables skirted in the same color as the walls. The carpet is geometric with blue outlines. Recorded jazz plays in the entrance area and drifts into the dining room, which has to be the quietest in our city. There is a private dining room on the other side of the foyer, but it features Bacchanalia's cuisine.
I'm undoubtedly going to get some grief for saying so, but I do find the menu concept here a bit problematic. Quatrano and Harrison have jumped on the tasting-menu bandwagon and one can't help but compare the cuisine a little to Guenter Seeger's and a little to Richard Blais'. The menu -- with a prix fixe at $95 or $165 with wine pairings -- featured nine courses the evening of our visit.
So, pricewise, Quinones is competing directly with Seeger's and takes a similar culinary approach in featuring intense contrasts in often bite-sized dishes. Indeed, even the plating is similar. A single oyster, for example, lurks in a little pool in the well of a huge bowl that reminded me of a bishop's miter. On the other hand, the chef does not push the envelope and display the great wit Richard Blais does at One Midtown Kitchen. (Blais, by the way, is now offering a tasting menu Monday and Tuesday nights.)
None of this is to say you won't have a wonderful experience at Quinones, but I'm still happier upstairs with a three- or four-course meal. My favorite course last Wednesday night was probably the most conventional -- a fat, glossy slice of seared foie gras and a roasted local fig in a port wine reduction. The fig was not at the season's peak but good enough.
The foie gras was offered as an alternative to melt-in-your-mouth Hawaiian ahi tuna, served raw with lemon zest and a bit of herbs. Only one other course allowed a choice. That was between sturgeon and a single chop from a rack of lamb. The sturgeon was amazing -- three meaty pieces wrapped in tissue-thin pancetta, served with some heirloom green beans. The lamb, cooked rare, was served over eggplant confit with a ribbon of yogurt infused with mint oil on the side, bordered with some diced cucumber.
The first course was also a standout. It was a demitasse of consommé with summer truffles. Floating in the intense liquid was a poached quail egg and a grape tomato. Our server, Charlie, instructed us to stir in the egg, to add some velvety body to the consommé.
The oyster, mentioned above, was poached in sweet onion milk and featured some creamed potatoes and celery. It was literally one bite scooped up in a spoon. If you like foreplay without sex, you'll love it. In fact, the next course was the only one I had serious problems with. It was corn ravioli with Georgia mountain chanterelles. Oh, the flavors, including the heady broth, were superb. But eating the stuff, served in a bowl big enough for punch at a meeting of the Women's Missionary Union, was really difficult.
The final four courses were all sweet. I find that excessive, but I typically prefer savory flavors much more than sweet ones. My favorite was the silky taste of pungent taleggio cheese from Lombardy with a bright yellow hunk of Tupelo honeycomb from Savannah. Next was a poached plum -- a very sour plum -- with basil gelato. Then a tart made with Spanish artisanal chocolate (which is often served with salt) and chocolate mint ice cream. Finally, there was a trio of warm madeleines, obviously meant to accompany coffee, which we did not order.
Quinones is bound to become known as the best special-occasion room in the city. In fact, Wayne and I went to celebrate our birthdays, which are a month apart. I think many diners will appreciate that the kitchen does not go to the outré extremes Seeger and Blais do. Others will wonder why it doesn't go further. But everyone will appreciate the luxurious and quiet ambiance that you won't find at either Seeger's or One Midtown Kitchen.
Foodies are abuzz with the news that Shaun Doty is leaving Midcity Cuisine to become chef of the Woodruff Arts Center's new restaurant. Lance Gummere, who has worked with Doty for 12 years, has been promoted to executive chef. Doty had already somewhat withdrawn from Midcity, spending half his time in Miami's South Beach, where he has been consultant on a new restaurant in the famed Marlin Hotel. ...
Those of you who have followed my weekly updates on Popeyes should consult my other column, Headcase, in this issue. If it is not in your paper, you can find it online.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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