Restaurant Review - Bliss

One meal in a thousand is worth a critic's wait

Beets, dried codfish and cauliflower don't sound like much. But the road to culinary nirvana is paved with more than caviar and fatted calf. Seasonal, locally produced, first-rate ingredients make a crucial difference. So do ability, training and understated commitment on the part of owners and chefs.

Floataway Cafe, younger sibling of the peerless Bacchanalia, hovered near the bottom of my favorite-destinations list when I reviewed it in 1998. No matter that Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison's informal concept closely resembles Zuni Cafe, a San Francisco edge-cutter often cited as among America's great restaurants. In the beginning, Floataway was loud, the pizzas lousy, the be-there-first mob unruly, the menu as unfocused as a photocopied map.

Everything felt different last March, not quite four years later. After an early-evening dinner, I leaned back, closed my eyes and drifted into the land of dreamy dreams. Zen-like, I floated somewhere between tantric rapture, Woody Allen's Orgasmatron and communion with all the saints, including Auguste Escoffier, Cesar Ritz, Fred Harvey and Alice Waters.

Spring air wafted in through an upraised garage door, rearranging the gauzy, bubble-pattern curtains that divide Floataway's dining and drinking areas. Outside the rehabbed industrial building, leafless trees and disused railroad tracks were barely visible in the golden dusk. New carpeting softened the din.

Host Cassandra Miles, who led the way to a private corner, started us off with warm focaccia, sweet butter, sparkling mineral water (for me) and plain Chattahoochee (for the curmudgeonly ex-banker). We read through the menu for entertainment as much as information. At Floataway and Bacchanalia, throwing darts at the daily list is generally as safe as making conscious choices.

We started with three appetizers. Cauliflower bisque with chives, shaved black truffles and truffle oil marked a subtle and promising beginning. The thick, savory mixture reminded me of warm cream infused with smoky, musty memories. A dried-cod fritter was as light and exquisite as the spring weather, the roasted red pepper relish beside it a prickly prediction of summer. Roast beets in three varieties (Ruby Queen, Chioggia and golden), crowned with sprouts and mild shaved cheese, provided a sharp, vinegary contrast. The salad set off the soup and fritter-like rubies on silk.

Homemade ravioli stuffed with organic Swiss chard and ricotta in sage brown butter bridged the gap from sharp to savory. Wood-grilled duck breast, medium-rare with a thin layer of fat hidden under crispy skin, was assertively salted, delicately scented with cumin and served with cannellini bean ragout. Pure comfort food times two, we oohed and aahed.

Desserts at Floataway and Bacchanalia are typically unusual in conception, technically well-turned-out and satisfying. Meyer lemon ice cream, though perhaps a tiny bit icy, hit our spots as a welcome variation on Key lime custard. Gateau Victoire — triple chocolate cake — half hidden under a mound of whipped cream, as always, was fudgy fun.

We finished the desserts. I put down my fork. Time to take a break, I thought to myself. After almost 20 years of reviewing restaurants, what's left to say? Reviewing a restaurant like Floataway Cafe is the right place to stop, at least for a while. Retirement? Not for the workaholic Dr. Mackle. I have a book coming out next year, and a second novel is well under way. So I'll be around. Just now and then, not every week or two.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or at PO Box 6002, Atlanta, GA 31107. ??