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Spring Dining Guide: Bacchanalia Restaurant Review

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After all these years, it’s still a thrill when Bacchanalia’s manager Frances Quatrano (Anne’s sister) gets up from her desk near the restaurant’s entrance and leads you up the few stairs to the dining room and your table. As much as I haunt Star Provisions on bread-and-cheese shopping expeditions, I never venture into the restaurant looming in the back like a sanctum sanctorum.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

This restaurant — with its yellowy glazed concrete walls, earth-toned carpeting, fluttery sheers and chocolate velvet banquettes — hums with the same timeless, chill elegance it has since relocating here in 1999 from Buckhead. It feels rarefied but relaxed; people dress up for here or they don’t, but both feel comfortable.
In fact, there remains a kind of anti-establishment attitude that has always been part of Bacchanalia’s special charm. Managers dress casually; the kitchen holds no secrets behind a glass wall to the dining room; dinner starts with a little something to pick up and nibble — maybe a bit of toast smeared with, say, spring ramp puree, or a raw radish spread with a flavorful butter.
As ever, the menu is a four-act play: appetizers, entrees, “cheese and contrast” and dessert. The price has crept up to $85 per person, but the menu has smartly done away with all supplemental price hikes, save a bump for the cheese trolley.
And let me tell you: $85 buys a boatload of easygoing luxury. The appetizer section brims with marquee gourmet ingredients — all those things you love but rarely get to eat anymore. Six kumamoto oysters come lined up on ice with rhubarb mignonette jelly and caviar. Foie gras torchon may be a bit too dark and tacky in texture, but it’s a pleasure to spread with bits of Florida strawberry on the slices of brioche toast that arrive in a pretty toast rack.

Zamarano cheese with celery and white anchovy (photos by Becky Stein)

Zamarano cheese with celery and white anchovy (photos by Becky Stein)

The oddball outliers, of course, are more interesting. Surreally tender wood-grilled octopus arrives napped in an angular, greenish herb sauce that tastes of bit of Thai curry. Handmade ditali rigate pasta (small tubes) is Grinch green, made with pressed fennel juice, and tossed with turnips and morel mushrooms for a flavor as thrillingly resonant as Boris Karloff’s voice.
Entrees are busier than I recall them from previous meals. The kitchen, under chef de cuisine David Carson, likes to take one protein and show it in different guises. Local Berkshire pork loin, belly and sausage kind of dart across the plate in a linear heap with Sea Island red peas, rice grits, crumbled peanuts and seasoning that hints at sticky, fatty sweetness of Chinese barbecued ribs. It’s a fantastic mess of refinement, this dish.
Others are just refined — the kinds of dishes that might be called “study in…” on a more pretentiously written menu. Seared lamb loin and tenderloin with a cube of pressed corned lamb leg shares a plate with a scattering of shaved spring vegetables, mustard grains and an emerald green onion pesto. A delightful plate, but in the end I don’t get that lamb-y, lanolin, yum-yum-yum I do from a great plate of fatty chops. Magret duck with confit duck leg attracted me for the prospect of crisp skin on the leg. In fact, this dish is all about the tasty slivers of russet breast, while the confit was but shreds of meat tossed with another spring vegetable medley. (Asparagus, fava beans, artichokes and green sauces are all over this hugely seasonal menu.)
This brings up my one complaint about Bacchanalia, which is that the cooking has become more mannered in recent years. We might not have ordered the “chilled Maine lobster” with grapefruit and fennel if we had known it would be a highly processed scoop of lobster salad in a fantasia of garnish. I was curious about the sea urchin rouille that accompanied a (seriously overcooked) fillet of halibut in bouillabaisse consommé, but found it to be a dot of innocuous orange sauce on a toast thin. The sorbets used to be such focused snapshots of fruit flavor, but the rhubarb sorbet on the current menu is all about the daubs and dribbles on the plate — the tiny sticks of pickled fruit and the gooey puddles of marshmallow. There are too many precise cubes of this and that skittering around the plates, even among the choices in the cheese and contrast course — Bacchanalia’s hallmark. This menu used to feel lustier.
Oh, it’s still there. You just have to look for it. My favorite current selection on cheese and contrast matches slivers of Zamarano (sharp, dry sheep’s milk cheese) with celery, boquerones (pickled white anchovies), greens and minced egg. It’s one of those dishes where each bold flavor polishes the too-sharp edges from the others.
An asparagus cake with lemon cream and pecan ice cream sounds beyond bizarre but makes perfect sense on the tongue. A gooey grapefruit tart with tarragon ice cream offers a weird thrill.

Cheeses to end

Cheeses to end

More good news: The wine list (once the weakest element) has expanded to include such well-priced finds as a fleshy 2004 Vitanza Brunello di Montalcino ($75), a great match to all the spring meat entrees. The current crop of servers are friendlier and more personable than ever, though that expensive cheese trolley needs to be presented with a touch more graciousness. It should be the grandest indulgence of the evening.

Bacchanalia: 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta; 404-365-0410.

A note on the star rating.

19 comments Add your comment

Chrome Gouda

April 28th, 2011
7:25 am

Bacchanalia is good. Not great. And Lord, save us from silly review-speak: a “fleshy” wine? “Lamby, lanolin, yum-yum-yum”? “A little something to pick up and nibble”? Give me a break.

Mark

April 28th, 2011
8:15 am

@Chrome: oh come on. Silly review speak? Describing food in words is an intrinsically difficult proposition, just as trying to put the impact of music, or a painting into words would be. If the notion of metaphor as a way to communicate is foreign to you, you don’t read enough. And if you don’t get why a wine can indeed be fleshy, you sure don’t drink enough wine. To anyone who drinks wine, beyond “can I have something sweet like a white Zin?,” and who thinks about it a bit, the idea of a wine having body, weight, unctuousness, in a way that might remind you of chewing meat makes sense. And fleshy communicates that in a single evocative word.

And where does lanolin come from again….that’s right, sheep!! “Yum yum yum” annoys you? You don’t eat enough lamb chops either.

If you don’t like review-speak, why do you read them?

Johnny

April 28th, 2011
8:20 am

3 times in the last 6 months and 6 times overall, kept hoping and hoping it would get better the next time and the next but it never did. Great fresh ingredients but the vision, composition and execution never lived up to the ultra hyped name. Is it a wonder why this name never appears anywhere worth reading anymore? Service is spot on but still, this is a 3 star restaurant at best. Maybe this review will help them stick around a little longer with a boost of traffic, temporarily at least.

Art

April 28th, 2011
9:09 am

“as thrillingly resonant as Boris Karloff’s voice”… Love it John! Keep up the good work!

Hungry Gringo

April 28th, 2011
9:12 am

My goal in life is to have enough money such that on any given night I can choose between Bacchanalia or a sackful of Krystal’s entirely based on what mood I’m in, not how much it costs.

Grasshopper

April 28th, 2011
9:28 am

– unctuousness —

The ‘foodie’ word de jour.

kmb

April 28th, 2011
11:15 am

The best part of Bacchanalia is Star Provisions. If you’re not in the mood to go out but want a Bacchanalia quality meal, you can go there and pick up the exact same ingredients, including meats, seafood, bake goods and dairy products, that are used in the restaurant. Although not cheap, it is less expensive than going to Bacchanalia itself, which is in the same building. When looking for provisions for a dinner at home for friends or business associates, it’s a great way to impress. The staff is very knowledgable and will give out fool proof receipes.

Mark

April 28th, 2011
11:16 am

It is such a good word! It sounds like what it’s trying to describe, plus it has the other, unrelated meaning with threatening implications, which can also be said of some unctuous foods (foie gras?). And it annoys Chrome.

FoodFan

April 28th, 2011
11:43 am

Bacchanalia has been good but not great for me. I feel like they are still stuck in the 90’s (they had foam & things like that last time I was there, blah). I think that Eugene is just so much better in terms of pushing the envelope with food (I still dream of the rosemary & goat cheese cheesecake, and field peas with pickled ginger that I had there). Yes, there will be hits & misses when you do that, but you have to respect a restaurant that is confident enough to put something out there and see if it works. My reccomendation for people looking for high end in ATL is always Eugene.

One final things about Bacchanalia: you can go sit in the bar & order off the full menu ala carte, so you don’t have to pay the $85 fixed + alcohol per person. You can order beer or a glass of cheaper wine, select what you want (try a few apps if you want to try a range of items), and you are usually plied with an amuse or two between courses you’d get anyway. Skip dessert & enjoy the variety of house-made chocolates/cookies, etc. that come with your bill.

I know the purpose of this article is to highlight a special experience/high end, but for those that have never been, the bar is a way to try the food without the whole experience. Can usually get in/out for $40-50 per person (on up, depending on what you’re drinking).

ATL-Paul

April 28th, 2011
1:47 pm

I had hoped you might have included a little discussion with the owners to quell the rumors they are closing…..

Nom Nom Nom

April 28th, 2011
1:53 pm

If Bacchanalia does not get 5 stars, which restaurant in Atlanta would? I can’t think of a better restaurant in this city.

James

April 28th, 2011
2:30 pm

Nom – I think that perhaps is the point. At the moment, there are no 5 star restaurants here. Which may say more about the nature of Atlantans than it does about the city’s chefs – in this market, restaurants that play it safe seem to be rewarded more which it makes it riskier to do what it takes to create and run a 5 star establishment.

A sucky economy may also be a factor :)

sansho1

April 28th, 2011
4:51 pm

Mr. Kessler ain’t messing around this week, I see.

DB

April 28th, 2011
5:45 pm

Enter your comments here

Are you sure?

April 28th, 2011
7:03 pm

Isn’t the chef de cuisine’s name Andy Carson?

Art

April 28th, 2011
8:01 pm

“FoodFan”, your bar suggestion is actually a great idea. My wife and I are app’s and main course people so the dessert is usually lost on us. We love Bacchanalia but are oft, “stick a fork in us”, done by the time the cheese cart rolls away. Thanks for a great suggestion. I really liked Bacchanalia when it was in that funky house on Piedmont; it was a great place to take out-of-towners… I guess that was back in the ’90’s wasn’t it? I’m getting old…

Stephanie

April 29th, 2011
2:34 pm

Yes…back in the 90s and that cute house. Went there with my Dallas college roomate who appreciates fine cuisine. We got a lousy table, had equally lousy service and were practically ignored. Hope they have figured out that two women are equal customers and often tip more than men.

Daryl-Atlanta

May 1st, 2011
12:48 pm

“….for a flavor as thrillingly resonant as Boris Karloff’s voice.” Now that’s a clever description for green pasta. Kim Carnes once sang that “Bette Davis Eyes” can “…tease you, unease you, all the better just to please you…” (John, feel free to use this in one of your future reviews) why not John about “Karloff’s voice”…a voice that once spoke for Dr. Seuss’ “Grinch?” Makes me wonder how “early” (in the morning) John had to get up before finding the inspiration for the expression…or how “late” he was up watching Elvira before Karloff (nee Dr. Seuss) spoke to our favorite foodie enabling him to find his “inner-voice” and words to praise Bacchanalia’s “Grinch Green Pasta™.” Nonetheless John, your comparison to Karloff’s voice paints for us all the correct picture; that you indeed savored the (green) dish’s flavors…well said! On the other hand however…I suppose if you had not liked the dish, then perhaps an analogy to George W. Bush’s oratory, Lindsey Lohan’s upbringing or Charlie Sheen’s personal life would/could have all been just as effective.

Billie

May 1st, 2011
1:30 pm

Wow, foodies are fierce!
By the way, the expression is “du” jour, not “de” jour, as in “dessert du jour.”
Tantamount to the ignorant misuse of “au jus” on many menus. . . .