A high calorie meal takes the agony out of finding the perfect gift
Christmas, you may have noticed, is not my favorite time of year. I don't object to it on principle. I just loathe shopping. A trip to a mall even out of season ranks appeal-wise below self-immolation and seeing my 500th performance of the Nutcracker.
Apart from the sheer aggravation of steering between irate shoppers and decorated Styrofoam, the agony comes down to finding the "perfect gift." I envy those people who can hand you a wrapped box of Whitman's or a necktie embroidered with a snowman and go on about their business.
My solution to the problem is simple, of course: take people you really like to a spectacular meal. I can't think of any more memorable gift these days than lunch or dinner at Bacchanalia, 1198 Howell Mill Road. (404-365-0410). While dinner at Bacchanalia, under the direction of Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, has long been the city's best, lunch is a relatively new luxury here.
The $35 prix-fixe menu entitles you to three courses prepared by lunch chef Daniel Porubiansky, who worked earlier with chef Guenter Seeger, whose restaurant Seeger's is Bacchanalia's only close contender. Although I find Seeger's work fascinating in its spare complication, I am repeatedly drawn back to Bacchanalia.
At a recent lunch with my friend, Atlanta artist Katharine Dahl, I started with seared veal sweetbreads with braised Lacinato kale. Sweetbreads are making a comeback on menus all over town, but this is the best I've encountered, buttered with a firm glaze. I've also had sweetbreads served with artichokes and with spinach here.
The don't-miss starter is the Russian Osetra caviar service. At lunch, you pay an extra $10 and at dinner $30 more. It's a classic service with flawless blinis and minced garnishes, and worth every penny.
Good caviar really is one of the dependable pleasures of life. I recall being very poor, married and miserable in my early 20s. One day, I drove my Volkswagen Beetle to Buckhead, went into a gourmet shop and paid an astronomical amount for a tiny bottle of caviar. I got back in my car, dumped the bottle into the palm of my hand and ate it slowly, crying, in an orgy of spoiled self-pity worthy of a disinherited rich kid.
I've also sampled, on the lunch menu here, fennel soup with lobster, a glorious rabbit terrine with arugula, an irresistibly fatty French foie gras terrine with muscadine gelee and fresh snails with braised cepes. The signature starter, which I notice can be bought pre-packaged in the restaurant's store, Star Provisions, is a crab fritter served with avocado, citrus and Thai pepper essence. It really is a nearly perfectly designed dish, contrasting temperatures, flavors and textures.
The restaurant is also serving various fish — sauteed loup de mer and wild striped bass — over marvelous French green lentils. One of my favorite dishes recently has been grilled California squab. I had it at dinner with gnocchi and at lunch with glazed cippolini onions. I preferred the latter with its nice touch of bitterness.
Dinner, which is $58 for four courses, includes a salad or cheese course after your entree. I find it very difficult to resist the cheese selection made by Raymond Hooks. (It's $10 extra and also available at lunch instead of dessert for $5 more.) Hooks, who is the messenger of the gods of cheese, brings astonishing varieties to the table. Some of the most interesting are the least familiar, from either small domestic producers or odd places like Tasmania.
Many of the salad dishes are accompanied by cheese and bring clear, sharp notes between the entree and dessert. I love the roasted beets with banon and the piquant Gaia Garden French radishes with chevre. Possibly the only dish I haven't much cared for at Bacchanalia is a dried fruit compote.
Desserts, of course, push you completely over the edge. The signature one here is Valrhona chocolate cake, warmed and oozing a ribbon of chocolate, with vanilla bean ice cream. I also like, for tartness' sake, any of the citrus sorbets (served with a pomegranate gelee). The raspberry brown butter tart with lavender ice cream is no slacker, either.
Here and there
The best panettone, the popular Italian Christmas cake, I have ever found in Atlanta is at Salumeria Taggiasca at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market right now. Call 404-524-0006 before making a special trip, though. The supply is very limited. I also urge you to try the shop's gnocchi. It is amazingly good. I eat it with a sauce I make by dicing some of the shop's sausage and cooking it with garlic, tomatoes, rosemary, red wine and pulverized anchovies. Grate the shop's excellent parmesan over it.
Two of East Atlanta's first retailers in that area's gentrification movement, Michael Knight and Shawn Ergle, were disturbed by some of my introductory comments in my recent review of Pastificio Cameli. I reported a downturn in trade in the neighborhood, on the basis of reports from two restaurateurs and my personal observation.
The two dispute the reports and feel my report has had a negative impact on business there. As I live near East Atlanta, enjoy dining and shopping there and have no wish to discourage anyone from visiting the area, I encourage you to read their letter to the editor in this issue.