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Hidden treasure

Floataway Café is casual fine dining at its best

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There is something deceptively alluring about Anne Quatrano's and Clifford Harrison's habit of hiding their restaurants down alleyways, through doors and inside stores.

If you've never been to Bacchanalia or perused the depths of Star Provisions, you'd never know that the entrance to the restaurant opens from the back half of the store. Quinones, located kind of behind and under Bacchanalia, is even harder to find. And Floataway Café, which resides in the nether regions of an industrial office complex down an inconspicuous road in north Virginia-Highland, is almost absurdly hidden away. But there is a fun exclusivity to making your way back through the breezeway to the restaurant's entrance, a kind of over-the-hills-and-through-the-dale feeling, like you're on a treasure hunt for that tucked-away gem of a restaurant.

Of course, if it weren't for the excellent track record of Quatrano and Harrison, a location like this would be a death sentence for a restaurant. But the reputation the couple has earned, courtesy of Atlanta's love affair with Bacchanalia, makes Floataway's hide-and-seek location a non-issue.

And now, a moment of blasphemy: In some ways, I feel as though Floataway Café is the restaurant Bacchanalia should have been. While the simple perfection of Bacchanalia's food is impressive, and the space is undeniably lovely, I was expecting something a little more inventive on the menu of the restaurant that has often been touted as Atlanta's finest. Don't get me wrong -- I love simple -- but perhaps the type of cooking at which Quatrano and Harrison excel resides more comfortably in a more casual setting. Taking an ingredient, treating it with care, and letting it shine are admirable techniques. But in order to enjoy the pleasures of a meal made up primarily of pristine ingredients cooked perfectly, I can do without the formal service, oversized plates and special-occasion-only cost.

Which is why Floataway Café is such a pleasure. Here, you are able to get the lovingly coddled ingredients, the beautifully cooked proteins, and the gracious service for which all three of their restaurants are known -- but you can enjoy it wearing blue jeans. You can relax.

In fact, the decor of the space is downright calming. Cool blue walls, billowing white curtains that partition semi-private dining rooms, chrome accents and pictures of clouds make for a sweetly trendy environment. Servers dressed in white look a little like they belong on a hospital staff (especially with those white sneakers), but when they deliver a delicious cocktail, you can imagine, staring dreamily at the cloud photos, that this is what health care will look like in heaven.

The menu -- broken into cold starters; hot starters; pizza and pasta; meat and seafood; sides and cheeses -- is best perused in a wandering sort of way, and shared whenever possible. This is especially true of the appetizers, which if selected well and put on the table as a collection offer a riotous combination of colors and flavors. A salad featuring roasted beets, avocado, radishes and feta cheese officially converted a beet-hating friend into an enthusiast on a recent visit, and reminded me that feta can in fact be one of the more luxuriant cheeses. (If run-of-the-mill, domestic cow feta has convinced you otherwise, give the European goat and sheep varieties a chance -- you'll thank me.) Roasted heirloom peppers served with apricots and manchego are pure, natural sweetness tempered by parsley and a hint of cayenne. Floataway's Mediterranean influences bring out the best of the farm-to-table concept, and allow us to delight in simple contrasts and unfussy bold flavors.

If there is a true wonder to the cooking at all three of Quatrano's and Harrison's restaurants, it is their handling of meat and fish dishes. These folks should give lessons around the world on how to properly crisp the skin of a trout or to achieve the ultimate creamy interior of a chicken liver. Floataway's chicken liver appetizer is deservingly famous, the livers skewered on rosemary sprigs and grilled, then topped with a sweet onion jam.

Adding to the comfort of the place are the pasta selections. To be able to get spaghetti and meatballs at a restaurant of this caliber is a real treat, especially when the pasta is homemade and the meatballs are lovingly composed of veal and ricotta. Or try a warming plate of gnocchi, fluffy and firm and paired with bacon and super-fresh bittersweet turnips.

Meat and fish dishes also rely on the simple-is-better ethos, pairing trout with cabbage, chicken with a bread and arugula salad, and pork with braised greens. All cooked with that masterful touch, seasoned with care and served with a straightforward eye to detail.

Floataway's wine list is delightful, especially for those of us who appreciate personality and quirk. Even the large section of the list dedicated to chardonnay is made up of small vineyards and surprisingly affordable French gems. Sommelier Susan Maschal is at her best, though, when seeking out lesser-known varietals, such as the mellow, food-friendly fruit of a muller thurgau on the by-the-glass list.

Dessert wines are another real treat and are my after-dinner indulgence of choice here, along with a few of the thoughtfully selected cheeses. But if you must, you won't go wrong with the intensely seasonal desserts. The pumpkin flan on the current dessert menu is enough to make us long for autumn all next year.

There are two distinct schools of thought in Atlanta's growing restaurant scene -- the one that gives us ever-glitzier, ever-more-impressive design and high concept, and the one that is focusing on personal service and pristine food. Floataway Café should be held up as a role model for the latter group. The restaurant proves that with the right combination of care, quality and comfort, a restaurant can survive and thrive, even years after the initial buzz has died down, and even if you have to traipse down a badly marked breezeway between office buildings at the end of a dark road to find it.

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