The names Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison are synonymous with great food in Atlanta. The powerhouse couple seem to be everywhere, whether it's through one of their existing (or upcoming) projects or whenever a staff member whom they've trained lands at a top-tier Atlanta restaurant. While Bacchanalia and Star Provisions remain their strongest and most consistent concepts, the other two — Abattoir and Floataway Café — are in a state of flux, one bad and one good.
When Abattoir opened in 2009, fresh on the heels of the exploding nose-to-tail trend, the restaurant positioned itself as a place for the offal-seeking, adventurous diner. Abattoir is French for slaughterhouse. While Atlanta was initially excited by the newness and the restaurant's perceived edginess, it never became a destination despite its pedigree, location, and styling. Since opening, the kitchen has gone through changes. Its opening chef, Joshua Hopkins, left at the end of 2011. Tyler Williams was then promoted to top toque. Under Williams' leadership, it seemed that Abattoir might realize its potential, but he left in January 2013 to head up the kitchen at Woodfire Grill and Brett Ashcroft took the lead. Recent visits to Abattoir have revealed a restaurant that still has not decided what it would like to be.
On a prime Friday night, the restaurant was eerily empty save for a few occupied tables and an impressive mass of well-pressed staff hovering near the kitchen door. There isn't much — if any — offal left on the menu, but standards such as the beef burger with cheddar and bacon remain. Much of the daring that once seemed to define this restaurant is gone. Many of the dishes, while adventurous in their conceptualization and execution, are heavy-handed and often gloppy. Confit chicken wings are tender, but the dark hoisin-based sauce is overcomplicated, leaving your taste buds saturated to the point where no one flavor is discernable. The Korean beef jerky appetizer is beautiful to look at with gnarled and glossy sheets of house-made dried beef, lettuce wraps, funky kimchi, and salty bean. However, the cloying and overly salted jerky is practically too dry and tough to eat. The promise of splurging on chicken schnitzel and waffles on the entrée side is exciting, but a soggy waffle coupled with soggy chicken skin that falls off too easily when cut and limp cooked green leaves one sadly unsatisfied. A leg of lamb dish is plated beautifully, as many things here are, but the jumble of pickled fennel and sliced radishes that accompany it seem to have no connection to the lamb. The dish is largely forgettable. The shining spots on the menu always seem to be raw ones. The beef tartare mixed with diced Asian pear is light and gorgeous paired with wispy crisps of thin toast. The bright red tuna poke is another raw dish where the creativity pays off. A sprinkle of sesame powder transforms each soy-laced bite as it melts on your tongue and the accompanying crisp adds a nice textural contrast. Unfortunately, two raw dishes are not enough to make a meal.
Floataway Café has always been the kind of place you decide to go on some random Wednesday night for a meal and leave feeling like you were just hugged for an hour. Last October, Todd Immel was named executive chef after many years running the meat counter at Star Provisions. Immel has slowly been making creative changes to a menu that, while still very seasonal, has felt relatively unchanged up until now.
His whimsy is best illustrated in the duck skin parmigiana starter. It sounds completely indulgent and it is. Immel says he found he had all these bits of duck skin left over from rendering duck fat for use elsewhere on the menu. He decided to press all the bits into a loaf, slice it, bread it, fry it, and cover it in spicy tomato sauce and bubbly Parmesan cheese. The result tastes like duck and pepperoni had a baby. The house-made charcuterie plate runs the gamut of textures and tastes, utilizing gelatinous pig ears, lamb terrine, homemade pickles, mustards, and more. Floataway's steak frites is one of my favorite dishes in Atlanta. Homemade french fries, which rival any version I've ever had, accompany a smoky hanger steak sweet from a secret rub and the wood-burning oven, which almost quick smokes the steak. Immel has added a potato and green garlic sauce, that when mixed with the juices running off of the steak, makes an addictive ad hoc sauce. The whole quail is marinated in olive oil, honey, and balsamic vinegar to add sweetness and tang before being grilled until it is crisp yet still tender. The sides vary, but its most recent incarnation is served over a green farro. The only weak spots in Floataway's dining program are its heavy hand with salt and, sadly for sweets lovers, dessert. A simple salad with buttermilk dressing and a promising mint tagliatelle coated with slow-cooked lamb ragu were so salty they were practically inedible. A premature offering of strawberry shortcake was packed with sour, under-ripe berries and the shortcake was burned in some places, while raw in others. There is one dessert-menu bright spot though: the pillow-soft and caramel-drenched sticky toffee pudding that left the entire table dueling spoons for the last bite.
What will become of these two restaurants? If Floatway Café's upward momentum is any indication, it will continue to secure its position as the underground favorite it has been for so many years. Abattoir, however, needs a makeover or its identity crisis could prove fatal.