It begins with a phone call. "Hi, this is Rob calling from Quinones! How are you?"
It's about an hour before our reservation, and Rob Payne, Quinones' maitre d', is calling to check in. "Do you have any dietary restrictions?" he asks. But the call has none of the formality or brusque business attitude normally associated with the reservation confirmation. It feels personal.
It's a feeling Quinones has worked diligently to establish since the Westside restaurant opened two years ago. Intimacy and personal attention are the guiding principles of service here. Payne is likely to greet you at the door with a handshake or a warm pat on the back depending on how well he knows you, and the whole experience, from the phone call right up until the second before the check is delivered (bringing the whole fantasy crashing down) is so much like eating at a wonderful friend's house that it is a bit of a shock to realize that this is an exercise in commerce and not camaraderie.
No, of course that's not a complaint; in fact it's a compliment. The joy of Quinones is its capacity for excellence paired with a natural grace that leaves patrons feeling pampered and charmed but also utterly relieved of the tiresome fancy-restaurant game, whereby one is made to feel he or she must live up to something. Dress up nicely and then relax.
The sage-green room only holds a smattering of tables – 38 seats in all. The decor is a soul-soothing respite from the flash and dazzle that characterizes much of Atlanta's fine dining, and even seems subdued in comparison with the stately urban elegance of Bacchanalia upstairs. There is a distinctly Southern feel to the place, and the smoky, tarnished mirrors and glass chandeliers evoke the dining room of a Charleston mansion haunted by history.
In all their endeavors, restaurateurs Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison bring a highly tasteful aesthetic, from the lovely candies on the counters of Star Provisions – which throw me into fits of consumer lust – to the precisely simple beauty of a plate of food in any of their restaurants. Quinones is no different. I want to take home the heavy linen tablecloth with the lovely knobby hemstitching. I want to put this restaurant in my pocket and carry it around with me.
The menu is a set tasting menu – 10 courses on recent evenings. Each course is small, a few mouthfuls at most, and it works with the style of cooking at which Quatrano and Harrison are so adept, and which Quinones chef de cuisine David Carson has learned to replicate beautifully, which is simple, flawless luxury. You aren't going to find huge leaps of invention here, or revolutionary methods and flavor combinations.
Instead, each ingredient is coaxed to its platonic ideal, complemented by garnish, and left to its own devices. North Georgia rainbow trout is just barely cured, the process stopped at the precise moment when the flesh might lose some of its fresh mountain-water character, and simply adorned with radish and young fennel. It is cleanly delicious, a single phrase in a long conversation that extends throughout the evening.
On its own, a dish such as this plays one sweet note, but as a pause between a sweet-corn custard and a bowl of potato dumplings with morel mushrooms, the trout is part of a delightful melody.
Honestly, there have been times I became tired at Bacchanalia with a full plate of one- or two-note perfection, but here there's no danger of that. A plate of Maine halibut arrives, your fork breaks into the crust surrounding white flesh, you luxuriate in the crunch of sweet corn and string beans playing against the savory crisp of the fish, and then it's gone. On to the next thing.
There are complements to dishes that touch, just barely, on the idea of contrast rather than pure harmony. The gaminess of dry aged lamb loin finds its smooth, vegetal counterpoint in a puree of fava beans. But that's about as out there as it gets. Honestly, the sharp contrasts in flavor found in the pre-dessert date, stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in country ham, were a relief. But after that, there's more harmony – balls of melons in a honeysuckle soup, followed by lemon pudding cake with blueberry ice cream.
Is too much easy agreement between flavors a bad thing? I don't think so. But what it does do is make it hard for any one note in this melody to stand out and truly shine. As an eater, I need that contrast and perhaps even surprise to have a dish wiggle its way into my long-term sense memory, to haunt me for years to come. But it's a personal preference, and one I can overlook for the boon of other gifts Quinones has to offer.
If you can afford it, do go for the wine pairings with your meal. Like everything else here, the pairings have been so carefully thought out you will be amazed, and quite often that counterpoint of taste gave me the sparkle I was looking for in the dishes.
There's no doubt this is one of the finest meals to be had in the city, with service to match. As Payne bids what can only be described as a fond farewell at the end of the evening, you ought to feel that you are leaving the company of good friends.
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