Over the past 25 years or so, Anne Quatrano and Cliff Harrison’s restaurants have become synonymous with a lot of things in Atlanta.
Their solemn flagship, Bacchanalia, has been our final word in four-star fine dining for almost as long as it has been open. Their home farm, Summerland, put them at the vanguard of farm-to-table sourcing. There’s even an argument to be made that Star Provisions, their deli counter, predicted the chef-driven fast-casual bandwagon that has overwhelmed Atlanta in recent years.
In all of that time, they’ve never become known for seafood, though.
This is a little odd, because carefully sourced, impeccably prepared seafood often has played an important role on their menus. The exquisite blue crab fritter at Bacchanalia, the indulgent shrimp po’boy at Star Provisions, the perfect pan-roasted trout at Floataway Cafe — these are dishes that Atlantans have been raving about for years, but they’ve always been in supporting roles, never quite the main characters in Quatrano’s kitchen.
And so, if you’ve been a Quatrano fan as long as I have, going to W.H. Stiles Fish Camp might be a little like seeing your favorite local character actor finally land a leading role. There is full range on display — from the purest of raw oysters and clams to decadent, rich heaps of creamy barbecue shrimp to flawless fried calamari — that shows Quatrano finally giving seafood her top billing.
The kitchen here is run by executive chef Daniel Chance, sous chef at Bacchanalia before this move. If what I’ve heard about Quatrano’s other restaurants remains true about Fish Camp, though, she’s the one calling the shots in the end.
Her well-established attention to detail has paid off in the kitchen, where the dishes are worthy of the table in any fine seafood restaurant in Atlanta, yet run around half the price of restaurants serving seafood of this quality. Entrees are about $12, Southern oysters are all less than $2, clams are just 75 cents. A glass of beer is less than $5.
So, my humble advice is load up and have yourself a feast. There’s no table service, so you either order at a register or grab a stool at a winding, light green counter facing the kitchen line, the stuff of small-town fish camp diner dreams.
I like to start with platter of a half-dozen Ace Blades, a long, briny oyster from South Carolina, and a half-dozen Sapelo Island clams. If you’re averse to the oceanic punch of a raw clam, try a few of the clean, simple poached shrimp. Doctor the house cocktail sauce with an extra heaping of horseradish (they bring you plenty) and you’ll be in peel-and-eat heaven.
The Vietnamese crispy “today’s catch” salad has been Mississippi catfish on my recent visits. The light, golden brown filet is fried to a satisfying crunch and topped with a heaping, lime-bright slaw of cabbage, cilantro, cucumbers, pickles and peanuts. I could happily eat it for lunch every day.
The fried stuff will beg you to indulge beyond a salad. The calamari riffs on that New England combination of light cornmeal fry and hot pickled peppers, and tops it off with some salty fried shallots. The crab fritters here aren’t to be confused with that decadent orb of blue crab served at Bacchanalia, but they are fun, doughy balls, fried deep brown and studded with crab, and make a fine vehicle for the remoulade served with them.
The biggest indulgence, though, is a plate of barbecue shrimp. Perfectly plump Georgia whites arrive swimming in a tomato sauce so rich with butter, and satisfyingly spiced, that my dining companion almost begged the kitchen for a gallon of it to take home. The dish is ladled over a hunk of spoonbread, a soft pudding-like variation on cornbread that takes it into full-sail decadence.
Which is not to say that Fish Camp is without flaws. The counter service tends to be lacking, slow or erratic. Whoever is in charge of shucking oysters seems to work at half the pace of the kitchen line, because fully cooked, carefully plated dishes tend to show up well before the half-dozen raw oysters you order.
Oh, but this isn’t Bacchanalia, it’s a lunch counter, for crying out loud. The place requires a little patience.
Most customers won’t deal with those service quirks anyway. Despite the possibility of feasting, this is a place that has been set up mostly to sell quick sandwiches to the lunch crowd.
If that’s you, you could splurge on the $22 out-of-season lobster roll, the priciest thing on the menu, but I’m not sure why you would. The shrimp po’boy, served simply dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickles and a spiked Cajun mayo, is as good as any sandwich Quatrano’s restaurants have ever served. You’ll be happy you got it.
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