Restaurant Review - At what price glory?

Weighing the agony and the ecstasy of a meal at Seeger's

Cocoa-dusted marshmallows, apricot jellies and tiny chocolates sit in a military-straight line on a lithe tray. They have been offered as our meal's crowning flourish, but neither my friend Carol nor I reach for them with any enthusiasm. We've been eating and drinking for nearly four hours on this wintry Saturday afternoon. Our euphoric sense of satiety staggers ever closer to a state of overboard gluttony. At least the persistent myth that diners leave Buckhead's luxuriant Seeger's still hungry can be laid to rest once and for all.

We both rally to pop a final chocolate in our mouths. The first and only bite releases a floral somersault of lavender cream that mingles with the dark chocolate in a haunting waltz. Sigh. Ecstatic precision down to the minutest detail.

Then, a moment of terror: The check arrives. I make frantic calculations in my head before I crack open the discreet black book. We ordered the four-course option instead of the eight-course degustation menu, though if you opt for cheese service with the four courses — which we did — the price is the same as the eight-course. We asked for wine pairings. We each had a glass of champagne before the meal, and greedily requested an extra dessert.

"Hello, how much?" whispers Carol as I stare silently at the piece of paper. Our bill for two for lunch — including gratuity — tallies at $659.20.

Carol's eyes bulge in disbelief. She reaches for her mostly untouched glass of Moscato and downs a hefty swig. A fellow food adventurer, I had warned her that this meal would probably exceed the company's dining budget and we'd be pitching in dollars ourselves. But I don't think she expected the tab to equal a modest mortgage payment.

Neither did I, frankly, though as I reach for my credit card I realize that was a spate of willful ignorance on my part. This is Seeger's, after all — the non plus ultra for fine dining in Atlanta. If we'd confined ourselves to a single glass of wine each, we still would have spent more than $300.

The valet — a new feature at Seeger's — has pulled our car into a tent pitched over the driveway. I'm pensive on the drive home. It's not the bill, though this lunch undoubtedly ranks as the most expensive I've ever consumed in my restaurant-centric life. It's the swirl of thoughts and emotions a meal here conjures: The cerebral, sensory glory of the food juxtaposed with the tense tenor of the service and the atmosphere. The state of Atlanta's dining scene and the role that Seeger's plays in it. The enigma of the chef himself.

Guenter Seeger was introduced to Atlanta during a nine-year, star-making turn as the executive chef at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. In the mid-'90s, Seeger was a one-man revolution. Atlanta had never been exposed to a chef whose cuisine appeared so minimalist on the plate but revealed such an uncanny layering of flavors on the palate. He single-handedly elevated the national culinary status of Atlanta. If the personality that produced this ever-changing array of wonders could sometimes come off as laconic — well? The sumptuous luxury of the Ritz-Carlton sheltered diners from his gruff edges.

Seeger opened his eponymous restaurant in a converted Buckhead bungalow in 1997, and reactions by a significant contingent were pointedly negative. Besides the now anachronistic complaint regarding portion sizes, many labeled the behavior of the staff too formal, too chilly. Foodies and critics observed the frequent turnover of general managers and servers as proof of Seeger's challenging disposition. And instead of courting the dining public, Seeger remained largely defiant: His European vision of the restaurant would continue to be executed the way he intended it.

At a dinner last May, though, I wondered if Seeger wasn't readying to give up the fight. We occupied one of only three tables on a Tuesday night. The food arrived as exactingly prepared as always, but the usual spirit of experimentation and surprise was absent. Seeger himself sat in the dining room with friends. He never approached the other tables with a "Hello" or "Thank you." It compounded the discouraging sense of loneliness pervading the space.

I left that night questioning if Guenter Seeger still belonged in Atlanta. If he insisted on enrobing his exquisite cooking in such obstinate formality, surely New York, San Francisco or even Paris would embrace his ideology more fervently than this essentially Southern town. Should Seeger pack up his act and hit the road?

Not long after the meal in May, Seeger recommitted himself to the city by announcing he would close his restaurant in the early fall for renovations, and narrow the number of seats from 64 to a more intimate 32. Would changes in the physical space bring a shift in philosophy as well? Might this indicate evolution toward a warmer, less rigid tone in the service style?

On my first post-renovation visit, a woman wearing a form-fitting business suit and high-tech headset greets us halfway up the long steps outside Seeger's entrance. The dining room is now hidden from view in the foyer by a heavy velvet drape — she instead ushers us into the bar-cum-sitting room, and we plop down on a plush couch. Youthful general manager Scott Turnbull approaches us with greetings, and lists off choices of champagnes by the glass to start the evening. As the bubbly is poured, gorgeous individual goat cheese tarts and a bowl of nondescript popcorn appear for snacking. We are given menus and encouraged to make decisions before being shown to our table.

I believe I understand the intention behind this new pre-dinner ritual: It is meant to set the stage and the mood for a protracted gustatory event, to give guests time to relax. But I instead find this awkward interlude stressful. The servers whisper to themselves across the room in tight, conspiratorial circles. With no music, the room is squeamishly silent. I genuinely want to bypass this whole rigmarole and settle in at the table straightaway.

Finally, all the unnecessary pomp, the forced repose and the worries about cost fade away. We sit down to thick, lovely linens and wonderfully weighty silverware and are presented with the first amuse-bouche: a small sphere of foie gras covered in pecans. It is the savory bookend to the chocolate truffle, meltingly complex and thrilling. The precession of genius has begun.

Next, a brown egg filled with custard. The first spoonful brings the sweet pounce of maple syrup. Maple gives way to fishy bottarga, then a vegetable essence — all in what amounts to barely more than a tablespoon of food. This is a Seeger signature, designed to spark the dialogue between your engaged mind and delighted senses.

The courses start in earnest: Barely smoked Georgia mountain trout over a thin layer of horseradish cream are formed in such a perfect circle that it boggles to imagine mere hands constructing it in the kitchen. Two quenelles cap the trout: American caviar and beet apple chutney. Dots of ruddy juniper berry oil surround this work of art, evoking a Scandinavian combination of flavors not often executed in this country's restaurants.

As a meal at Seeger's progresses, and as intimidation eases into enchantment, you begin to revel in the chef's unexpected ways: Lettuce soup, served in a bowl shaped like a nun's habit, has a surprisingly toothy texture. At lunch, we try duck ham served with a yin-yang of accompaniments: prune stuffed with marzipan at one end of the plate and meticulously minced vegetable vinaigrette at the other. Both showcase drastically different aspects of the ham.

Poached loup de mer showered with wisps of shaved almonds and paired with a dollop of almond mousse is completely idiosyncratic yet absolutely right. I want to shatter the daunting calm of the room with a feral yelp of glee.

A couple of servers help take the edge off the tension. Molly Gunn, in particular, charms with her lack of pretension. When she approaches the table to inquire if we're enjoying our entrees, she asks specifically about the crock of spätzle served alongside venison medallions. I tell her I love its squiggly earthiness, and she nods and replies, "Awesome." God, it's refreshing to hear someone utter some slang in here.

Seeger himself tends to let his mop of curly hair down when it comes to desserts. Beignet-style "s'mores" are among the most playful concoctions I've seen near meal's end here: Two square doughnuts, when cut open, reveal a gush of chocolate and marshmallow. A Technicolor scoop of orange sherbet completes the tribute to Middle American sweets. Fuji apples marinated in lemon juice create a trompe l'oeil. The apple is dyed so yellow it looks like chunks of pineapple, though the lemony jolt quickly dispels the illusion.

Creating and shattering illusion is really what an experience at Seeger's is all about — whether it is intended or not. Of course, the intricate dishes, with their myriad startling components, invoke a feeling of fantasy. But the semblance of perfection Seeger and his staff strive to project sometimes crumbles under the gravity of their seriousness. I wish more humor ran through this place.

Will the subtle changes at Seeger's at last ingratiate the chef and his restaurant to Atlanta? Probably not. But those who can see past or even appreciate the formality of the service and hone in primarily on the food will find Seeger closer than ever to expressing his essential values as a chef.

Cost and stuffiness be damned: I'll be back next year to discover what the formidable mind and soul of Guenter Seeger will have in store for me.