It’s hard to call the proliferation of swanky new hotel restaurants in Atlanta these days a trend. It’s more like a side effect. Three years ago, when the economy was booming, upscale hotels were planned all over town. Millions of dollars went into construction. But these weren’t projects that could be abandoned simply because the economy tanked. So while smaller restaurant projects were put on hold or abandoned, and large and small eateries alike closed all over town, a generation of gleaming, expensive hotel restaurants arose.
Paces 88, in Buckhead’s new St. Regis, epitomizes almost everything that’s both commendable and frustrating with this new crop of restaurants. Extreme care has been taken with the décor and food. The place has a meticulously upscale and conservative feel (think muted wood tones, large cream archways, oil paintings and windows overlooking a manicured courtyard), and the menu consists of dish after dish of perfectly cooked and presented luxe ingredients. Everything is $5-$10 more expensive than you probably want to pay, and nothing about the place is the least bit surprising. If that sounds good to you, you’ll probably love Paces 88. If it sounds a tad boring, well, it is.
This isn’t to say that chef Mark Alba, who has a long history in Atlanta including tenures at the Food Studio, Eno and Canoe, isn’t delivering worthy food at Paces 88. In fact, the skill he showcases in, say, a roasted artichoke bisque garnished with a mouthful of succulent crab salad, is rare and admirable. Alba marries the artichoke's earthiness with bright acid notes that make the dish sing. As with almost every dish on the menu, the bisque is masterfully seasoned, thoughtfully composed, and takes no risks.
Not that risks are needed for pleasure in dining — I loved the perfectly pink chicken liver pâté, served with housemade bread-and-butter pickles and grilled bread. The mussels in coconut curry broth, while seeming slightly out of place on the otherwise steadily European menu, were a shining example of how mussels should be done: fat, expertly cooked, full of flavor.
Lamb served with faro, fava beans and baby carrots was cooked to a juicy medium rare, its accompaniments garlicky and agreeable. The shellfish hot pot hummed with oceanic goodness. But with both dishes I longed for a surprise, an element that stood out — a kick of thyme in the hot pot, an unexpected twist on the lamb dish. The food all tasted pleasant and just a smidge too safe.
The one truly off note at the restaurant is the service, which during my visits bordered on absurdist. It is at once extremely formal and also, well, just weird. On two occasions, my waiter’s tableside manner was both stiff and slightly angry. “Did we do something wrong?” my mother asked me as the waiter left us after an uncomfortable exchange that ended in him glaring at us and walking off abruptly. On another evening, the waiter interrupted me in the midst of ordering to pick up the check left at an empty table nearby. “Continue,” he ordered when he returned. Setting and resetting for new courses somehow felt more laborious and uncomfortable than in most restaurants. On one evening, a bowl and spoon were delivered to the table for the seafood hot pot, then removed before we got the dish. It’s as if the aspiration of formality is so strong, the staff has forgotten what the original purpose of formal service is: the comfort of the guests. This service made me distinctly uncomfortable.
On the other hand, the gentleman delivering food one evening had warmth radiating off him. His desire to know if we were truly happy as each dish arrived was a blast of relief compared to our cold waiter. And the wine service, led by sommelier Herve Pennequin, is genuine, knowledgeable and friendly. This brings me to the one place where Paces 88 becomes exciting: The wine list here rivals the best in the city. The way it’s set up is a tad disconcerting — you have to turn past pages of expensive Chave wines and large format bottles before you even get to the glass pours. But once you make it into the meat of the list, prices become much more reasonable. For lovers of American wines, white and red Burgundies and more, there’s a lot to explore here.
Beyond wine, the St. Regis has managed to open a restaurant that will appeal to a broad range of guests without challenging anyone too much. Of course, that’s often what’s needed from a hotel restaurant, which raises the question of relevance. In this economy, in this city, how relevant are these upscale hotel restaurants? Right now, in terms of new restaurants, they're the bulk of what we’re seeing, at least until the financial news gets brighter. If Paces 88 is the outcome of this hotel-boom side effect, then the news could be a lot worse.