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.
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.
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.
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.