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Shining star

Bacchanalia's new space still boasts first-rate kitchen

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I cringed a year ago when I heard that Bacchanalia -- perennial No. 1 choice of Topside Loafers for most romantic, most important-occasion, most impressive, most everything else -- was moving out of its little gray, rose-festooned house in Buckhead and into a stark, industrial space in the city's west side warehouse district.

Whatever else the metro dining scene may have, it is not exactly overrun with dress-up dining destinations. (And, by the way, would it kill some of you men to put on a jacket and tie every once in a while?) Unmoved by the glowing reports of my colleagues, I mourned the change in atmosphere.

I should have had more faith in Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison.

The new space is smashing. Yes, the high ceilings are high-tech. Yes, the walls can make you think of concrete block. Yes, theoretically, the long, open kitchen behind glass is out of place in a big-ticket restaurant with a classical foundation. And yet, everything looks and feels exactly right.

The lights are low, the banquettes are velvety, the draperies sectioning off a secret alcove in the middle of the room billow and sway with an air of magic and mystery. The acoustics are such that the only noise is the constant murmur of appreciation. The large, lighted kitchen, rather than appearing workmanlike, brings to mind a ballet or a sacred ritual. There's a small square pit in the foyer, where waiting for the rest of one's party surely would be a pleasure. Better still, browse the shops of Star Provisions, the tiny Bacchanalia mall of cheese, wine, bread and gourmet tidbits.

Frankly, all these things are so wonderful, they are worth the trip all by themselves. But luckily, they are but the underpinnings of a first-rate kitchen expertly preparing inventive cuisine, a new American culinary interpretation with a classical pedigree.

The four-course prix fixe dinner menu offers an appetizer, entree, cheese or salad course, and dessert. This will be plenty, believe me.

Lobster bisque -- a small boat of liquid poured over a mound of thick lobster meat -- the blue crab fritter and oysters in champagne mignonette long have been favorite starters at Bacchanalia. And they are still stars. But they now take a back seat to the ossetra caviar service, a luxury that would be well worth the extra $30 for its looks alone: a precious individual stemmed glass vessel set on a square white plate and surrounded with frothy crème fraiche, finely chopped egg white and yolk and the usual accompaniments, and the tiniest warm potato blini.

Obviously, in an operation of this caliber, the menu will change with the seasons. But you can expect to see certain things, certain sauces and consistent preparations. Salmon, for example, is likely to be roasted. Duck will be deliciously pink, juicy but totally devoid of fat. Beef will be superbly sauced. And there will be squab, a rarity in this town.

Naturally, there is warm chocolate cake -- a tower of dense goodness. A Grand Marnier soufflé ($10 supplement) is light and fragrant. And then, an additional small bit of sweetness will be presented with the bill.

Wonderful as Bacchanalia is, it is not perfect. I am not crazy about the texture of the sauteed turbot, for one thing. And, especially considering the $10 supplement, the cheese course seems miserly. Surely, this is a setting for generosity if ever there was one.

Bacchanalia, 1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-365-0410. Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Dinner: 6-10 p.m. Prix fixe: $58 at dinner, $35 at lunch. Credit cards. Dress: dressy and business attire. Ambiance: high style. Smoke-free environment. Reservations required; don't even think about going without them at dinner. At lunch, though, you may get lucky sometimes. Wheelchair accessible.

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