“You’ve got to try the grouper!” says our ecstatic waiter, who loves many dishes on the menu but none with quite the ardor he feels for the grouper. “The chef glazes it in Parmesan and basil and the sauce runs off it in rivulets,” he explains, his fingers fluttering down the sides of an imaginary mid-air fillet. “I’m not embarrassed to tell you I squealed like a schoolgirl when I first tried it!”
We all burst into peals of laughter at the image: squealworthy seafood.
This waiter has a mandate to sell hard and he does so with good humor. If Truffles Cafe is to succeed with its ambitions, it will need for every customer to find their own squealer of a dish.
This new restaurant across the street from Lenox Square in Buckhead looks like any number of restaurants that hug the periphery of shopping malls. It’s a vast box of space, dark and glossy, with distinct areas for every dining need. There are booths to sink into and a bar to belly up to, tables to push together for that office party of 10 and those high lounge tables where two of you can meet for martinis and – why not? – burgers. Overhead lights that look like ginormous lampshades cast an easy glow.
The interest here is that Truffles Cafe is the first link in a small restaurant group that sees the national chain stretching out in its future. In fact, it’s the missing link: that one where the particular flavors of food and service that have charmed a small community are meeting the focus groups of hungry mall-crawlers and office workers.
Before opening in Atlanta, Truffles was a trio of casual restaurants in and around Hilton Head Island, S.C. Then its owner, Price Beall, struck a licensing deal with his brother, Sandy Beall, the chairman and CEO of Ruby Tuesday. Sandy was looking to convert some underperforming locations of the casual restaurant chain into a new concept and so Buckhead was chosen as the prototype. (Sandy’s two sons are also in the hospitality biz: David Beall owns the Atlanta area Pinkberry franchises, while Sam Beall runs the swank Blackberry Farm in eastern Tennessee.)
Now the all-American recipes that have charmed a generation of sunburned beachgoers are having their tryout in the city. They’re looking to push the magic yum button in the manner of the pineapple juice-marinated ribeye at Houston’s or the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster. Dishes you come back for.
My vote goes to the crispy chicken ($16) – a half-bird whacked into six or seven chunks, fried to a fare-thee-well and tossed in a soy-ginger vinaigrette thick with fresh grated ginger. What the preparation loses in moisture, it gains in the kind of crispy edges and bits that makes you want to pick the bones clean. Honestly, this just may be my dragged-to-the-mall go-to meal. However, I might ask to substitute the orange spackling paste (otherwise known as truffled macaroni and cheese) that comes on the side.
Other dishes may depend on your taste. My daughter and I were pooh-poohing the chicken pot pie ($12) for its jiggly cream sauce holding cubes of flavorless chicken and broccoli under a puff-pastry crust. Then I noticed her friend gobbling it up, wide-eyed, thinking, “Delicious!” I thought the mushroom crostini appetizer ($10) with toast rusks was herby and well seasoned but far too dry. My wife loved it for that reason. Why goop up pieces of cooked mushroom?
And trust me, there’s plenty of goop to be had. Shrimp alfredo ($17) tosses pasta with cream, cheese, bacon and gobs of seasoning and salt. It’s one of those dishes against which the Center for Science in the Public Interest will launch jihad one day. If you like stuff like this, you will like it. The signature blondie dessert comes pumped full of chips and covered in all kinds of sweet drizzle. A hamburger ($10.50) arrives coated with so much pimento cheese you can’t taste the patty. This is one item that’s definitely not ready for prime time in burger-savvy Atlanta.
That said, the kitchen executes most dishes consistently and well. I don’t like the surfeit of seasoning on an 8-ounce filet ($29), but it’s a center-cut piece of meat cooked to a perfect medium rare and its side of lumpy mashed potatoes have the kind of silken richness that invites your fork over and over. Tomato dill soup ($5) brings a coarse-textured cream of tomato soup in which a generous sprinkling of dried dill doesn’t seem out of place. I may be wrong, but I’m guessing the chicken almond soup ($6) is the chicken pot pie filling minus broccoli and plus a handful of toasted almond slivers. Not my thing, but I don’t doubt it’s someone’s. Ditto the nicely cooked fillet of salmon ($19) in a mango barbecue glaze with sticky, tangy pineapple chutney. We took a bite and scraped the sauce to the corner of the plate.
The service is so nice and so enthusiastic that I hate to point out it needs tuning. The schtick comes on hard, but then folks disappear. If hospitality were a car stereo, this would be all treble, no bass. All front, no back. My very tasty chunky tuna burger with cilantro mayonnaise ($14) was impossible to eat because a side of spinach had totally saturated the bun. After waiting in vain for the “how’s everything” visit, I just pushed the bun to the side and ate it with a fork. On both visits there were forgotten dishes, and water refills can try patience. Checks are dropped before you can ask for coffee or dessert. New staff: give them time.
But Truffles Cafe does seem a nice place to hang out and drink and that will go a long way for future franchise prospects. For an almost-chain, the drinks list has an almost contemporary feel. There’s a doable selection of draft (Fat Tire, Sweetwater 420) and bottled (Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA) beers. The specialty beverage list has one foot in Sweet-neon-tini-land, but another in today’s cocktail culture, with elderflower and basil making appearances. I had no qualms with my “Millionaire’s Manhattan” ($9) made with Woodford Reserve and shaken tableside.
Alas, the wine list is old-school horrible, with no vintages listed and a selection that reads like a walk down the aisle at Kroger. When my wife asked if there was a rose by the glass, the waiter enthused over the Beringer White Zinfandel.
Now would be the time to squeal like a schoolgirl.TRUFFLES CAFE 3345 Lenox Road, Atlanta. 404-364-9050 Food: Casual American fare: sandwiches, steaks, seafood, big salads Service: Super enthusiastic but not as detail oriented as it could be Best dishes: Crispy chicken, tuna burger, tomato dill soup Vegetarian selections: Yes, about what you’d expect Credit cards: All major Hours: 11 a.m-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight, Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday. Children: No problemo Parking: In private lot, sometimes with valet Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: No Takeout: Yes