Buckhead restaurant nails formula for Atlanta dining

One restaurant turns into two; two into three and on it goes. A restaurant group is born.

If you enjoyed the original restaurant, you’ll likely look forward to number two and perhaps three. As the group refines its formula for a successful spot, each new addition may benefit from a restaurateur’s past experience. Or, it could lose the edge and freshness we seek from an independent restaurant, yielding instead to the high-gloss impersonality of a corporate-owned facility as our beloved chef/owners position themselves in managerial roles far removed from the kitchen.

As Atlanta culinary proprietors add locations and new concepts, we eye the birth of these groups to see how they grow. Ford Fry, one of our town’s sizzling restaurateurs, recently opened his fifth restaurant and has additional ones in the works. His new Buckhead spot, St. Cecilia (sister to JCT Kitchen, No. 246, the Optimist and King + Duke), took over the space formerly inhabited by Bluepointe, the once-popular Buckhead Life Group seafood and sushi haven.

Restaurants five, six and seven could very easily slip into a formulaic sterility. Not at Ford Fry’s restaurants. While all different concepts, the Fry five do exhibit common threads like the please-come-decorate-my-house decor, a thorough understanding of the target market and the creation of an appropriately trendy dining experience.

St. Cecilia (number five) is no exception. Though a highly styled member of a group, this restaurant doesn’t lack for personality, albeit a gentle soul. The bright and breezy two-story space mimics the delicate flavors of the light, coastal European fare. Simple fish dishes like herb-scented swordfish and fresh pastas like the spring green nettles ravioli come from this kitchen. The fare is still a work in progress as the kitchen strives to identify its flourishing dishes and keep up with the demands of an ambitious 160-seat dining room. But that doesn’t stop the Buckhead business lunchers and evening trendsetters from snagging every available perch. St. Cecilia is where you’ll find Atlanta.

You’ll find many huddled around the library-esque bar adorned with colorful jars of cocktail garnishes. Beverage director Lara Creasy has developed a program that will draw us in and keep us here. From nuanced cocktails like the Gravity’s Gone ($12), a take on the Negroni, to nonalcoholic refreshers like the lime cordial and soda (Ricky don’t lose that number $3), her menu has wide appeal. The same is true of her wine list appropriately comprised of selections from coastal European areas.

Spring has brought a new menu and changes in kitchen leadership. Drew Belline, executive chef of No. 246, has been appointed creative director for the restaurant. In his newly created role, he oversees all things culinary at both No. 246 and St. Cecilia. Belline’s style is to gently enhance each of the local and seasonal ingredients he works to source.

For most dishes, this minimal manipulation of materials works beautifully. The restaurant’s signature dish is fast becoming its hearth-roasted octopus ($12), its meaty interior juxtaposed with crispy charred tentacles. The marinated bean medley studded with bits of tomato and oregano leaves make for a harmonious pairing.

That octopus may have a little competition for top spot as the new spring ravioli ($11) enchants our taste buds. The green nettle-infused pasta comes stuffed with a smooth mascarpone and spring pea mixture. A touch of pecorino adds richness but not enough to overwhelm the bright freshness of the dish. At dinner ($14), lobster adds a little luxury to this must-try spring addition.

I’d recommend delving into the pastas, which really succeed with slowly unfolding flavors. Like the ravioli, the agnolotti ($13) only hints at decadence. The little pats of pasta filled with red-wine braised short ribs with Parmigiano should be far heavier.

This delicate infusion of flavors also enhances the seafood. Dishes like the swordfish ($26) are enhanced with simple flavors of wood smoke and herbs. Accompaniments like warm castelvetrano olives and marinated tomatoes add an extra pop of contrast.

Lunchtime brings a selection of tartines (open-faced sandwiches), many highlighting the season’s bounty in lovely combinations. Try the three toasts ($9), an ever-changing selection of cheese, nut and veggie-topped croutons. Toasts may come slathered with whipped ricotta and olive topped with a brilliantly green broccoli pesto or apples and toasted almonds. If you’re lucky, the third will be spread with blue cheese and topped with soft, roasted beets and toasty hazelnuts.

In his new role, Belline is working through some dishes. The monkfish ($27) that appeared on the menu on one of my visits was removed by the next. Good move. Currants confused the pine-nut-garnished tomato sauce on this one.

I also wonder how long the pork tartine ($13) will remain on the menu. Folds of pork in the image of pale, uncooked bacon weigh down the soggy bread. Throw in garlicky rapini and sliced sweet dates and you have mass confusion.

I’d say the desserts are also a work in progress here, the subtle flavoring strategy less successful in this course. Warm ricotta doughnuts ($8) may satisfy your sweet tooth well enough, but you’ll have more fun exploring the coffee cocktails. Skip the fried dough and go with a carajillo ($8). This shot of espresso mixed with rum comes in a short glass encrusted in a cascade of lemon zest and sugar.

Like those in most groups, Ford Fry’s restaurants follow a formula — one for today. One for Atlanta.

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