Restaurant Review - Lunchtime luxury
A midday meal at Bacchanalia is a rapturous experience
You've got one hour: Go! Pick up your dry cleaning, run to the bank, frantically cram in 30 minutes of cardio at the gym, race home to walk your dog or feed the cat, pick out a book and card for your cousin's birthday and call your best friend to bitch about your significant other or your frustrating job or both. Oh, right. Remember to grab something to snarf down at your desk back at the cube farm.
There you have it — a classic workday lunch.
Every now and then, though, we should indulge ourselves in a noontime meal where we can actually breathe. An hour-and-a-half or so away from the office that's peaceful and restorative and civilized. A midday respite when you can look co-workers or loved ones in the eyes and have meaningful conversation over thrilling food. I can think of no better place in Atlanta to do this than at Bacchanalia.
If you've ever shopped at Star Provisions, the upscale market through which you stroll to reach Bacchanalia, you know that feeling of yearning envy as you watch patrons disappear into the dining room. The market is bright and open and only accentuates the inviting shadows in which the restaurant's entrance is flanked. What sort of luxurious world are those folks disappearing into?
When you make the plunge yourself, you feel a giddy moment of anticipation as you're led up a few steps and around the corner to your table. First timers are often surprised by the minimalism of the room. Walls of tawny glazed bricks (a reminder of the building's past as a meat-packing plant) are offset by a rich chocolate banquette that runs the course of the space. The white laboratory of a kitchen, brimming with chefs, is in full view, shielded by a window that runs the length of the lithe bar.
Crack open the leather-bound menu and slowly take in the seductive and succintly described selections (I'm so over menus that read like grocery lists). I'm so over menus that read like grocery lists. There's a set tasting menu available, but I prefer selecting a la carte options for the sheer, luscious variety. Order all three courses, though — this is your special lunch, remember? Relay your choices to your soft-spoken server, and sit back. The ride has begun.
First out, a tiny something from the chef, perhaps a bit of duck or rabbit on crostini, or a just-warm cucumber soup with a drop of truffle oil. Just one vivid bite or sip to snap the palate awake. Crusty sourdough appears on your bread plate. Slather it with soft butter from the white crock on the table.
Simplicity is a hallmark of the food here, but it's the kind of subtle lucidity that comes from confidence and experience. Lunch chef Charles Schwab does an admirable job of executing the vision of Bacchanalia's chefs/owners, Anne Quantrano and Clifford Harrison. Their crab fritter with citrus, a signature starter, is as delicious as ever. Thin slices of avocado and a drizzle of vanilla-infused oil heighten the already intoxicating flavors of the crab and citrus. It's about now that you flag a server and ask them to bring you a glass of Chardonnay. What the hell, right?
Though dishes like the crab fritter are constants, much of the menu frequently revolves. If you hurry, you may still catch the heirloom tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella, a standard menu item made fresh by the rainbow of tomato slices topped with a sweetly acidic tomato sorbet. Fall is being ushered in with the Billi Bi, a rich Parisian soup of wine, cream and herbs with plump mussels bobbing in the brew.
If you're a curmudgeon about the freshness of fish in Atlanta, this is the place to have your faith restored. Maine halibut on a recent Saturday was set in a gentle pool of beurre blanc and draped with a precise succotash that included corn and edamame. A clever dish of Northwest ingredients pairs Copper River King Salmon (a far cry from the pallid salmon served in most restaurants) with sauteed Oregon lobster and chanterelle mushrooms.
Designer burgers are popular with chefs these days, and the Bacchanalia burger, stuffed with black truffles and foie gras, is a masculine, flavorful rendition. The nubby fries that accompany them are crisp and incredible. My nice-restaurant manners go down the drain and I down them by the fistful.
The third-course selection used to be split between salads and desserts, and I'm happy to see they did away with the salad selection. A meal this fine needs a sweet conclusion. Those with light appetites should sample the likes of three melon sorbets with matching granitas (ice, ice, baby!). Their identical presentation but different colors bring to mind a culinary Andy Warhol. My tastes veer toward the silky ricotta cheesecake with huckleberry sauce, or the nutty blueberry-brown butter tart with lemon buttermilk sorbet.
There are occasional missteps, like overly chewy grilled duck breast one day, or a peach tart tatin whose puff pastry crust is so tough I can barely cut it. And service at lunch can be a tad wet behind the ears. One earnest young man with braces clearly felt awkward talking to the table, and on another occasion a server neglected to bring the finale of small chocolates and jellies that finish the feast. on such an opulent note.
But these are secondary quibbles. After meal's end, you glance toward the exit and give your tablemates the "do we have to go?" look. Sadly, yes. It's back to the real world with you. But don't despair. I can tell you from experience that the rest of the day somehow floats by after such a rare and glorious lunch.