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Spring Dining Guide: A note on the star ratings

Dining room at Bacchanalia (AJC Staff)

Dining room at Bacchanalia (AJC Staff)

I know what you’re thinking: Why, if Bacchanalia and Restaurant Eugene are the two most prominent special occasion restaurants in Atlanta, does neither of them get our highest rating of five stars?

While both are great destinationsin their own right, neither one to me — based on the two meals I had at each — feels like they are setting the standard for fine dining in the region. I’m not looking for perfection, because that doesn’t exist. But I am looking for that recipe of thoughtfulness, delight, surprise, consistency and poetry that some restaurants can attain. I’ve seen this level of dining in past Atlanta restaurants, and I’ve seen it in travels throughout the South. The grand vision of foothills cuisine at Blackberry Farm in eastern Tennessee comes to mind, as does the astonishing invention and energy of the cuisine at McCrady’s in Charleston, and the keen attention to every last detail at Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham.

Five-star dining is no money-maker for independent restaurateurs, but I cannot in good faith “grade on the curve” and ignore its existence.

And there’s a chance that I’ll find five-star dining at Quatrano’s Saturday-only Quinones at Bacchanalia (a separate dining room) or in the omakase room at MF Buckhead. Maybe Bacchanalia or Restaurant Eugene will attain that level in the next stage of their respective evolutions. I love and heartily recommend both places. For my birthday, I would probably default to Bacchanalia for its consistency and aesthetic sensibility. But that’s me. Let me find out who you are. You might like Eugene better

14 comments Add your comment

John

April 28th, 2011
8:40 am

My vote is for Eugene. My wife and I had the best meal since Mr. Seeger used to run his kitchen. The chef’s tasting menu was excellent and I love the creativity of the new menu categories.

Art

April 28th, 2011
9:20 am

I’m with you John; Bacchanalia is my pick of the two if I have to choose just one. I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the question of fine dining; it’s simply not a money maker, particularly in a market like Atlanta. I think both of these restaurants realized this and made a conscious decision to be more things to more people. In the end, it’s all about economics but if that keeps both restaurants open for us to enjoy, I’ll sacrifice a little “fine”.

jimmy

April 28th, 2011
9:54 am

I much prefer Eugene, even though I’ve had some horrible misses there.

BFellows

April 28th, 2011
12:35 pm

Such a hack. If your standard is fine dining in the region, then those two are certainly in the conversation. Are there only allowed to be 2-3 five star places in the south? Hard to believe there isn’t one place in Atlanta that qualifies by your made up northeastern esoteric scale. Highlands Bar & Grill is not Bacch or Eugene. It just isn’t, not by anyone’s metric. There might be some hillbilly commune in Eastern Tennessee that is literally 20 steps from farm to table, but it doesnt provide the urban chic of our establisments which is certainly a factor in the fine dining aesthetic. By not giving our best restos five stars in Atlanta while writing for its largest daily, you are doing the city and its service industry a disservice. Atlanta isn’t NYC, but it DOES have some of the best food in the region.

Go back to the NE and wax poetic about Daniel and Ko while ‘barbecueing’ chicken by grilling it. You don’t understand the south or southern food and you never will.

Soupy Sales

April 28th, 2011
1:48 pm

Geez, BFellows, don’t be so touchy. It’s one man’s opinion. (Even if that one man has one of the only widely-read bully pulpits in the metro area.)

John: Am interested in one aspect of the fine line between stars in the rating system. How big a role does consistency play? For example, let’s say you do three visits to a restaurant before publishing a full review. The first is a terrific meal and service, worthy of four stars. The second is one of those off-nights, service is good but the food isn’t hitting it as well as on the first trip. The final visit is over-the-moon good, worthy of a 5-star review. How do you view the 2d trip, as an aberration or as a genuine concern which lowers the overall stars in your review? I guess what I’m asking is: have you eaten 5-star worthy meals at current Atlanta restaurants, but lack of consistency has maybe lowered their overall rank a notch? (Would also love to know the best meals (high- or low-brow) you recall since your return to reviewing.)

Higgins

April 28th, 2011
3:29 pm

Just like Magnum never “knows what I’m thinking”, neither do you.

Really?

April 28th, 2011
6:31 pm

@Bfellows. I do agree with you that Bacc is far superior to highlands bar and grill and McCradys. I have been eating at McCrady’s for many years, from Micheal Kramer to Sean Brock and never have I had a meal on the level of Bacc. Did I enjoy the evolution of the restaurant (mcCrady’s) over the years, of course. However, Sean’s manipulation of ingredients with “science” just does not appeal to me. I am truly sorry to say that I have not been to husk yet, all I hear is wonderful things. With that being said highlands bar and grill is not even close to bacc or even eugene, and I can say this after many sub par meals. I do however disagree with you on the point that JK doesn’t understand southern food. He is an active member of the SFA, and has the eating credentials to back it up. The man has dedicated his career to prove it. What I can’t understand is how he would take a star away from someone else, Anne Quatrano, who has sacrificed ten fold what he has to raise the bar for food in the southeast. Please, I would love for someone to correct if I am wrong, but can you name anyone who else in this city/ region that has invested their entire life financially and emotionally as this lady? And please people don’t come back with some media whore response like RB. I mean truly tell me about someone who is as dedicated to their farm and restaurants as AQ. John Kessler, I love what you do, I love that you are raising the bar with your new star system. It makes a good review more rewarding and deserving, I do however strongly disagree with your decision to remove one of Baccs stars……..AQ does set the standard for the food culture in the region.

Really?

April 28th, 2011
6:31 pm

Enter your comments here

SS

April 28th, 2011
9:29 pm

Just for general information. While I don’t know where Mr. Kessler hails from originally I do know that his post prior to Atlanta was Denver as I used to read him there during a brief stint in that city. So the whole N.E. bias doesn’t really work. Personally I would be pretty suspect of any critic who gave a 5 out of 5 rating to anyone; without nitpicking I’d be pretty surprised at any restaurant nailing every measure. Let alone it seems a quick trip to complacency to be awarded one.

Russ

April 29th, 2011
12:36 am

Who cares about 5 stars from a local food critic? Restaurants in Atlanta don’t live and die by John’s stars. We go where we think the food is good, service above average and the atmosphere interesting. I read this column to keep abreast of the local cuisine, not to be influenced by your opinion. Long Live Bacchanalia and down with Kessler and his tired and dated approach to restaurant reviews.

John Kessler

April 29th, 2011
9:46 am

Hey, Folks –

First off, thanks for reading. I’d like to address some of the issues raised here. I’m just going to do it this once, now, because I don’t think the matter needs to drag on. If any of you want to follow through on any point here, please don’t hesitate to drop me an email.
I agree with the lot of you who say the ratings don’t tell the whole story. I would personally be happy to do away with ratings altogether. But since we do have them I want them to mean something. That’s why I insist that each incremental star signals a performance benchmark.
I can tell you that my words and the star ratings attached to the reviews represent my best efforts at giving readers a notion of what to expect based on the recent meals.
I’ve probably had saner ideas in my life than to review and implicitly compare the flagship restaurants of the two chefs I most admire in the city — Anne Quatrano and Linton Hopkins. But the question comes up a lot from readers, and it felt like time.
On Bacchanalia: I really don’t think of the rating as a demotion, but as a snapshot of the two meals I had there. (I wish I could have had three meals at each restaurant, but I wanted to experience each in a party of two and a party of four, and that took care of the budget.) The food was intricate and extremely beautiful, and the sense of luxury was palpable. I’ve had previous meals here that felt more joyful, focused and driven by the flavors of the ingredients. There were also some other execution gaffes in addition to those I wrote about.
On Eugene: I love this restaurant, but it frustrates me. Because the chef does change it up and experiment so much, the cooking can lose its thread, and you end up with those “what did I order?” moments. I can understand why some of you commented that the review read more like a three star. But I did sample enough really great, thoughtful dishes over the two meals that I have no qualms that this restaurant “defines excellence in local dining” — our 4-star verbiage.
I’m not trying to stir up or avoid controversy, but just describe a few expensive meals that might inform you in your decision making.
And if want to talk about how decent little neighborhood places deserve more than one star, or the city’s top restaurant’s should get a de facto five stars, please feel free. If you’d like to engage me on these topics, please write or call. Thanks, and happy weekend.

Darin

April 29th, 2011
11:24 am

I’m really digging this idea of rating restaurants in regard to where they stand in the realm of regional excellence and not just local. And I like that the other regional places are being brought into the conversation by name. Southeastern restaurants deserve to have a conversation and rating community that brings them together — it makes sense.

Having said that, my interest in restaurants that operate at the price point of these two has faded over the years, so I read reviews like this more out of curiosity than as a way of guiding or comparing personal experience. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to know about the food excellence that’s going on in the region at all price levels.

EDC

April 29th, 2011
1:18 pm

Being a California guy in the south, I don’t mind a bit of experimentation. I have eaten at both and have had extremely great food at both, but consistency is the key. Every single time I have been to Avec, it’s an outstanding meal. Eugene’s experiments don’t always go as planned, so I would have to go with Bacchanalia if I had to choose just between those two in Atlanta.

Alain Escoff

May 3rd, 2011
4:17 pm

I understand your adherence to the verbiage of the star rating system; however, to say that Linton Hopkins is one of the chefs you most respect in the city is quite funny considering he is hardly a chef at all. When a chef opens what is to be his flagship restaurant he had better be in the kitchen every day earning the reputation of the restaurant. 5 years down the road he might have earned the right to hire a Chef de Cuisine to run his restaurant (see Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz and even good old boy Frank Stitt); however, from the day Eugene opened there has been a Chef de Cuisine. Linton never earned his unwarranted reputation. Just as a side note John…Linton’s reputation among the restaurant community in this city is terrible: he and Gina are both a joke. One last thing. Any restaurant that serves you food that you describe as “Eww” does not “define excellence in local dining” whatever reasoning you choose to follow.

It doesn’t really matter I guess, but I wish you were more in touch with the realities of Restaurant Eugene. It is a joke of a restaurant and is no where near the same category as Bacchanalia.