Thanks to “Baby Driver,” moviegoers everywhere are now privy to what Atlantans have known for years: Bacchanalia is “the finest wining and dining of all the wines and dines in town.”
It is the default special occasions destination in this city. A reservation at Bacchanalia begs for dressing up, for thinking twice about attire, all in anticipation of being transported to the sensuousness that comes with the good life. Are such artifices — on both sides — still required?
Recent visits to Bacchanalia felt, at times, like a joyride. One where attendants in jeans and sneakers (and mandarin chef coats) offer a chichi stool for your purse, proceed to buckle you in (here, it would be getting seated at a table so cumbersome it takes two servers to help you get in and out — then again, are you truly a pity case when you’re trapped with a plate of Bacch’s famed crab fritters? ) and you trust that the driver knows what he’s doing.
The flagship restaurant from wife-husband team Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison is in the midst of change. After 18 years at Westside Provisions District, it has moved to a new location not far away on Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard. During this review, it underwent a chef change: Jonathan Kallini, its chef de cuisine for the past four years, now helms the kitchen.
But more than that, there is a casual air about it just now that feels juxtaposed to the $95 tasting menu price tag. Stylish can certainly be dressed up or down. The risk is in becoming so comfortable as to be uncomfortable for guests who have come to expect that the best is delivered exclusively through formality.
The new space is breathable. High ceilings and bright natural light that emanate through floor-to-ceiling windows are a swap from the darker, more intimate Bacchanalia on Howell Mill Road.
The room is filled with reminders of Bacchanalia’s roots. The calm demeanor of Quatrano, dame of Atlanta’s dining scene, feels present in the understated, timeless tones of beige and tan. Light blue, matronly macramé weavings form partitions that divide the main dining room from semiprivate seating for larger parties.
Other connections to its past include those hefty tabletops fashioned from wood that hails from Quatrano and Harrison’s Summerland Farm, source for most of Bacchanalia’s vegetables. These artisanal tables showcase handiwork, yet aren’t a union of form and function if you’ve got to raise your hand when nature calls. I also spotted a guest spill his wine because he set his vessel down on one of the uneven splits in the lumber.
Smoother comes in the form of food, the parade of exquisite edible gifts, like an amuse of gorgeously pure gazpacho kissed with olive oil or puffy, cheesy gougeres or the simplest garden tomato wedges sprinkled with salt.
Starters are the highlight of the four-course tasting menu. If someone at the table doesn’t start the night with those crab fritters, you’ve all missed out on the finest you might ever taste. How fresh and meaty is the crab. How moist the interior. How perfect the fry. How light the whole ensemble.
The coddled egg is a delight to devour and a showcase for technique. Sweet Local Corn was an ode to the tasseled ear: a crisped lacy corn pancake topped with kernels of lime-marinated corn and a quenelle of silky corn pudding — with paddlefish caviar adding looks, taste, texture, finesse. Adding peanuts and a snow shower of grated Parmesan to beef tartare sounded savvy, but the flavors were disruptive.
Among round two on this regularly changing carte, there was roasted duck with blueberry and shaved celery, a garnish of flowering chervil, garlic foam and garlic chips. It was gorgeous, and after making its way around the table, there wasn’t a morsel left on the plate. Equally impressive was lamb with fennel, chickpeas and almonds. Both demonstrated that you don’t need fireworks to pull off fabulous. Fishy, though, was rainbow trout that looked and tasted over-poached, and floundered in a tableside pouring of nondescript broth.
Course Three opens the eyes to the wonderment of cheese. You want it shaved thin? Try the pungent Red Cow Parmigiano that encircles a delightful date cake and earthy chanterelles. Crumbled Kentucky Blue hidden under a cup of radicchio? There’s that, too. A near pudding came in the form of Maplebrook Burrata, which amazes for how a wee bit of ginger can make mozzarella pop. Brie churned into ice cream was a cool pairing with a brunoise of peaches and finely crumbled almonds. You can opt for a personal cheese board — a selection of five cheeses with extra nibbles arranged to exactness — but the chef-driven cheese creations are far more tantalizing.
It’s wise to save room for pain au chocolat. This version looks like a muffin, but like the best of croissants, it is buttery and flaky, and the inside is filled with chocolate so decadent that but a few bites will send you into sugar purgatory. A side shot of bourbon milk is the bonus for sinners. Other desserts — peach soufflé, Pavlova, caneles — were less inspired, less sinful.
Bacchanalia remains a benchmark for farm-to-table dining, top-tier sourcing, a highly orchestrated chef’s tasting menu, bread service (round after round of onion-potato rye rolls, sourdough, baguette and pretzel, and a wonderfully, just-so-sweet Hawaiian roll if you order the foie gras terrine starter) to temp carb curbers and a wine program that deftly pairs food and drink for any plate, any course. It also takes dietary restrictions seriously. And considering all the food that comes your way, it’s easy to take for granted how remarkably Bacchanalia’s kitchen hits a mark on portions and how adroitly the floor staff establishes a rhythm of service.
All of this is why, when the ride is over, you leave Bacchanalia saying, “That was some pretty fine wining and dining, Baby.”
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: new American cuisine presented through four-course tasting menu
Service: highly attentive and informed staff; refined but unpretentious
Best dishes: crab fritters, coddled egg, Rohan duck, Jamison lamb, Red Cow Parmigiano, pain au chocolat
Vegetarian selections: Vegetarian options exist for first and second courses; all cheese and dessert courses are vegetarian.
Price range: $$$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to close Mondays-Saturdays
Parking: free lot with ample parking
Reservations: highly recommended
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: average
Address, phone: 1460 Ellsworth Industrial Blvd. NW, Atlanta. 404-365-0410
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