A server at Bacchanalia set down an orb of crabmeat bound in a bronzed coating of breadcrumbs, arranged over splayed avocado slices, and stippled with orange and grapefruit sections. Vanilla beans speckled a shallow pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl; the maternal warmth of their aroma and flavor calmed the precocious jolts of Thai pepper essence that bounced among the ingredients. Every sweet, hot, mellow, and tingly nuance harmonized with the crab. The effect of the dish was akin to the reprieve after an evening thunderstorm that dissipates the Atlanta summer heat. My heart felt lighter afterward.
That was my first taste of Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison’s cooking in 1998, when Bacchanalia still resided on Piedmont Road in a cottage hidden among Buckhead’s car dealerships and prodigious law firms. Even in my overfed life, so much of the meal remains starry in my mind.
Bacchanalia was destined to outgrow that cloistered space. Opened in January 1993, Quatrano and Harrison’s flagship nimbly bypassed the style-over-substance clamor of the nineties’ Atlanta dining scene. They championed seasonal foods earlier than most local chefs—an appreciation nurtured in San Francisco, where the couple met while in culinary school.
Emboldened in part by the success of Floataway Cafe—their more casual Cal-Ital restaurant, launched in 1998 in a clandestine industrial redo down Zonolite Road near Emory—they gambled and shepherded Bacchanalia out of Buckhead in 1999. The converted meatpacking plant on Howell Mill Road and Fourteenth Street where they reopened the restaurant (fronted by their new gourmet market, Star Provisions) was in the middle of commercial badlands. A decade later, we can label their move to the area we now call the Westside as pioneering. Back then, it was just plain ballsy.
And it paid off. Howell Mill ripened into a traffic-jammed corridor of retail businesses. The new location sparked a zeal for the industrial-chic restaurant settings that the city still favors. Bacchanalia now rules as the queen of Atlanta fine dining, having outlived ultraluxe Seeger’s and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. (Only Restaurant Eugene, with its slightly more relaxed atmosphere and style of service, operates in the same stratosphere of rarefied cuisine.) Quatrano and Harrison have won practically every national culinary accolade there is to win—including the James Beard award in 2003—and last year they opened their fourth restaurant, Abattoir, in the White Provision complex across the gully from Bacchanalia and Star Provisions.
Their firstborn’s celestial reputation is so entrenched that its success can be taken for granted, so it was heartening to find that it remains a masterfully calibrated dining experience. Much of Bacchanalia’s longevity stems from its low intimidation factor. You smell roasted coffee beans and the bewitching funk of the market’s cheese shop as you walk into the restaurant. It’s hard to feel uptight about the modern art and the fine linens when mustard-colored concrete blocks, reminiscent of a public high school cafeteria, line the walls. Service always begins very starched and professional but loosens up as staffers read the table and develop a rapport.
The menu format stays constant: Choose four courses (appetizer, entree, cheese/salad, and dessert) from among eight or so frequently changing options in each category, and then surrender to the meal’s midtempo rhythm. Opt for wine pairings for each course, or select glasses or bottles from a nicely edited list that could use a few more daring, non-American varietals.
Nibbles appear soon after ordering—perhaps hot, cheese-filled gougères, followed by a sip of cucumber gazpacho with Marcona almonds, then warm, thick slices of sourdough bread with a crock of salted butter. Before dessert, there will be an intermezzo—a strawberry smoothie made from fruit picked on Quatrano and Harrison’s Bartow County farm, maybe, or lemon panna cotta dotted with blueberries.
When selecting dishes, go bold. Extend beyond your default preferences. Certainly, timid palates can assemble a sequence that will please them: dulcet Georgia shrimp in a gentle mélange of heirloom tomato, cucumber, and crème fraîche; rainbow trout with wholesome summer squash and a tomato-horseradish vinaigrette; plump dates with tasteful wisps of Parmigiano-Reggiano; and Valrhona chocolate cake with a demure scoop of mint ice cream alongside. All capably prepared and safe. And, in this arena, a little dull.
Instead, let the chefs—in particular, chef de cuisine Andy Carson, who runs the kitchen when Quatrano and Harrison are minding their other ventures—show you how they elevate sweetbreads. Artichokes barigoule (an herbaceous, aromatic stew), meltingly soft spring onions, and vinegary cherry gastrique surrounded a starter of sweetbreads, the organ meat cooked so the edges became crisp but the interior was creamy. The pounce of sweet, sour, and earthy contrasts shorted out my analytical brain, leaving me to sigh and simply enjoy the waves of flavors.
Meatier dishes displayed the most bravado. Boneless medallions of quail were stuffed with boudin sausage and set over an early summer succotash of corn, lady peas, and young butter beans flecked with country ham. Two cutlets of veal schnitzel, slightly thicker than traditional German versions and coated with lightweight panko, were poised over a vinegary potato salad punctuated by pickled ramps. I loved the most overtly Southern dish: roasted pork loin and hard-seared pork belly gussied up with white grits, a clump of greens, a small link of fresh andouille sausage, and potlikker jus.
Of the many difficult decisions to make when ordering, I find the cheese course the most torturous. Do I want something sweet, such as Sweet Grass Dairy’s Camembert-like Green Hill with blueberry compote? Do I want savory, such as a semifirm tomme with a rough-and-tumble salad of pole and filet beans, hazelnuts, and bacon? Do I want to challenge the palate with manchego tossed with celery leaves, white anchovies, and egg vinaigrette? Or, for a $10 surcharge, do I want to choose from the cheese cart?
Star Provisions’ passionate cheese monger, Tim Gaddis, has lately been curating a stunning, diverse array of fromage culled entirely from the South. Honestly, I cheat and order two cheese courses, then repent with a lighter dessert—a trio of sorbets, a delicate blueberry brown butter tart, or a fried peach pie (it’s small).
If the idea of this much of a blowout seems daunting or too much of an investment (the prix fixe is $75 per person), wade into Bacchanalia’s world via the bar. You can order a la carte there and still experience the dining room’s charisma. I took a friend who was visiting from out of town for his first Bacchanalia meal a few weeks back. We sat at the bar and started off by splitting a blue crab fritter—still a beloved staple after all these years. He yelped and rolled his eyes in glee and gushed over the interplay of the crab, the citrus, the avocado, and the spices. I sat there, beaming proudly. I knew exactly how he felt. —Bill Addison
1198 Howell Mill Road
HOURS Monday–Saturday, 6–10 p.m. (closed Mondays until September 14)
Photograph by Alex Martinez. This review originally appeared in our August 2010 issue.