When Pacci opened, it was easy to ignore. Early 2009 was a strange time for restaurants in Atlanta. While the economy slid further into recession, hotel restaurants opened with overly confident gusto. It was as if the brains behind these multimillion-dollar developments had decided to ignore the realities of the economy. They foolhardily believed wealthy people would never stop wanting stupidly expensive restaurants where they could throw away fistfuls of unneeded cash.
There was a glut of overpriced hotel restaurants; so many that I began to feel writing about them was futile. I doubted all of them would survive. I also doubted many of my readers would actually end up frequenting such places. When the notoriously expensive Pacci opened in the Palomar Hotel, it didn't make it onto my list of restaurants worth checking out.
Fast-forward a year, and what seemed obviously out of sync with reality then is now crashing down. The Mansion on Peachtree, where both NEO and Craft Atlanta are located, was sold in foreclosure in early February. NEO no longer serves lunch or dinner, and acts solely as a breakfast spot for hotel guests and private events space. On March 1, Paces 88 in the St. Regis Hotel switched to a new, casual, salad- and sandwich-driven menu.
Pacci's changes were less drastic. Over the past year, the restaurant has made a subtle shift away from über-fine dining, dropping prices and pretensions along the way. What remains is a pricey but not prohibitive restaurant that still boasts a high level of professionalism and style.
Dramatic orb lights encircled in fringe hang like jellyfish tentacles over the tables. Chairs and booths have regal but quirky design – winter white and plush red upholstery, oversized with curlicue touches – lending a kind of Mad Hatter appeal.
Chef and Georgia native Keira Moritz, who came from San Francisco's Puccini & Pinetti, has been with Pacci since its inception. She has a light touch with her Italian menu, lending acidity in just the right places.
If I find myself alone and hungry in Midtown anytime soon, I'll be heading to the bar at Pacci for Moritz's duck confit appetizer. The dish could easily act as a meal alongside a carafe of one of Pacci's well-chosen Italian wines. The tender duck leg has just the right play of fat and musk. Served over creamy polenta with a blackberry marmalade and Gorgonzola, the dish is a vivid play of sweet and sour, funk and comfort.
One evening's special entrée provided a generous portion of sablefish and fat scallops over delicate fettuccini. Where you might expect muddy flavors or overt richness, the dish instead offered the clean, clear taste of the ocean atop a jumble of feathery pasta.
Whole bronzino is fried and curled on the plate, its flesh scored so chunks can be easily removed and gobbled up with olive and caper gremolata. In general, I think grilling is a better preparation for the elegant white-fleshed fish, but the fry is fun.
A pork chop is almost secondary to the gloriously caramelized rounds of roasted yam paired with crunchy fennel on the plate.
Wine is a high point, both the Italian-heavy list and the service. Recommendations are forthcoming and educated when requested, delivered without snobbery or pretension. In fact, the same could be said for service in general. These are professional waiters who know how to be both charming and appropriately distant.
There are some small ways in which Pacci falls into the hotel restaurant trap. Bread service includes that ubiquitous restaurant focaccia, which tastes more like stale industrial-strength birthday cake than Italian bread. A promising-sounding avocado and citrus salad was the usual pile of arugula (not mentioned on the menu) with some sparse slices of avocado sprinkled on top. (I'll be thrilled when restaurants start making salads out of the advertised ingredients rather than using said ingredients as garnishes.) Tapenade overpowers the delicate flavor of the gorgeous, garishly red Kobe beef carpaccio. Desserts were rich and kind of upscale-institutional – bread pudding, opera cake, tiramisu – that all delivered sugary overkill without much nuance.
But Pacci has adapted to a city that simply cannot support more upscale hotel restaurants. The room preserves just enough glamour to make an evening feel special. Moritz's menu delivers smart, flavor-forward dishes that seem far more in sync with the times than rarified ingredients and stodgy presentations. Pacci has broken free of its geographic and situational constraints, and emerged looking a lot like an upscale neighborhood eatery. Can Atlanta support another one of those? Only time will tell.