Without question, one of the most dominant traits of this year’s restaurant scene is hotel dining. Despite the recession, hotels — notably high-end hotels — have opened, and with them comes a slew of restaurants: Pacci inside the Palomar, Livingston inside the Georgian Terrace and Paces 88 inside the St. Regis Atlanta.
Hotel dining in Atlanta is different from independently owned restaurants, and it differs from hotel dining in other cities, too. Here, there is as much an emphasis on the hotel bar as there is the hotel restaurant. Elevators whisk you away to a rooftop terrace, where cocktails and a view of the skyline offer a convivial escape that often turns into a clubbish nightmare, especially after a place has just opened.
High-end hotels such as the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead have always offered a more sophisticated bar scene for slightly older crowds, but it’s a bar scene nonetheless.
It’s impossible to enter the St. Regis Atlanta without noticing the following that the bar at this stylish hotel, still so new it smells of lumber and building materials, has already garnered for itself. Make your way up the luminous lobby’s sweeping staircase, and the journey practically dumps you at the bar’s front door, where the mahogany-colored walls embrace a mass of Buckhead’s elite, just finished at the office, dressed head-to-toe in St. John and Ralph Lauren. A second bar open to the hotel’s glorious patio is next door, reserved for wine tastings and special functions, but just as crowded as the first.
It’s a stark contrast to the dining room of the hotel’s restaurant, Paces 88. Oriental rugs cover dark wood floors and French doors open to more of the patio replete with fountain and fireplace. Giant paintings grace three alcoves of banquette dining blanketed by a ceiling of Venetian plaster, but below, the stately chairs are mostly empty. Everyone, it seems, is at the bar.
The restaurant’s chef de cuisine is Mark Alba, a man of formidable culinary talents who helmed the kitchen at Food Studio ably for years, and brought to that venue Atlanta’s first tastes of modern nouvelle cuisine. He has been bouncing around since Food Studio closed last year, most recently at Parish in Inman Park.
Alba’s kitchen provides the food for every venue the hotel operates for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including that ever-busy bar. It makes for long waits between courses, even when the dining room is almost empty. Service is excellent — exactly the kind of personalized experience expected from a venue of this caliber, but a waitress can’t produce food from a kitchen when it just isn’t ready. If Paces 88 is truly to be considered a signature restaurant, it will have to divorce its kitchen from the rest of the hotel’s needs and let Alba focus on what he does best: cook.
His list of appetizers is stellar, and by far his best course. Roasted artichoke bisque has a rich, creamy nuttiness, drizzled with a wisp of bright green basil oil surrounding a luscious clump of Maryland crabmeat. Seared foie gras gives way to brioche toast, with a brulee of Mission figs, toasted and caramelized, to offset the liver’s tender meatiness — hardly inventive, but perfectly prepared. Tender bites of veal sweetbreads rest on a cauliflower puree with trumpet mushrooms and a frothy Parmesan foam surrounded by a delicate reduction.
Entrees are not as diverse, but offer solid showings, too. Though diver scallops suffer from a salt overload, the dish is otherwise perfect with tangy artichokes, fava beans and slices of sweet-tart confit of lemon. And pork tenderloin smacks of a stalwart smokiness, sliced and layered over a bed of seasoned lacinato kale.
Desserts possess that composed air of hotel dining that makes them look pretty, but lack any glimpse of personality. Doughnuts served with an otherwise interesting tangy buttermilk ice cream are cold and lifeless. Banana panna cotta is a better bite — silky cream topped with swirls of whipped cream and a small taste of butter pecan ice cream that offers a striking texture and temperature contrast.
It’s good to have Alba back, especially at as cush a locale as Paces 88. But with so much on his plate, he’s got his work cut out for him.
Paces 88, St. Regis Atlanta, 88 West Paces Ferry Road, 404-563-7910
Food: Sophisticated American bistro
Service: Extremely courteous and professional
Price range: $$$ - $$$$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours of operation: Open for breakfast Monday – Friday from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. and Saturday – Sunday from 7 to 11 a.m. Open for lunch 11:30 to 2:30 p.m. daily. Open for dinner Sunday – Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. and Friday – Saturday from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.
Best dishes: Veal sweetbreads, artichoke bisque, seared foie gras, Thai steamed mussels, chicken live pate
Vegetarian selections: Heirloom tomato salad, cheeses, goat cheese tart
Children: Yes, during early evening hours and lunch or breakfast
Parking: Complimentary valet
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Web site: www.paces88.com
Key to AJC ratings
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.
Food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
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