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Christiane Lauterbach


Pine Street Market’s Rusty Bowers

I don’t wear a hairnet for just anybody. But when Rusty Bowers, the baby-blue-eyed young owner of Pine Street Market, handed me a white coat and something even more hideous than a shower cap, I suited up without a whimper in order to follow him into the back room where he turns hogs into artisanal sausages. We had just met: him behind the counter; me in front, eyeing the samples fanned out on a carving board in the small store he operates with the help of his wife and a part-time worker named Jose, who is a whiz with the knife.

Bowers calls what he does salumi (not to be confused with salami, which is one specific style of sausage), and I call it charcuterie. Atlanta’s newest full-time producer of cured meats was far into his twenties when he had his first meaningful encounter with Italian sopressata. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and working as a sous chef at Pano’s & Paul’s, he found his calling.

You don’t need a quarter of a million dollars to start making salami, as one consultant told Bowers, but you do need a lot of refrigeration equipment, several fans, a cold humidifier, a combination grinder and mixer, a smoker, and several gizmos, including something that looks like a cheap gadget but costs $2,000 and measures the “water activity” (professional speak) within a drying sausage. You had also better be prepared for daily visits from a USDA inspector who will look at your drains and take temperature readings in your coolers.

I have become an enthusiastic consumer of the product I buy at Pine Street Market. My favorites are the coppa (a dry-cured whole pork collar spiced with chiles and black pepper), the spicy Hungarian-style paprika salami, and the tiny picnic salami whose fine grind and kaleidoscopic structure I especially like.
Now that I have spent some time with Bowers, standing on the sealed gray concrete floor in the rear of what used to be an upholstery shop, I know a lot more about what makes a great salami. Bowers’s process starts with fresh hams and shoulders from slightly older pigs (“better flavor,” he told me) brought in from a farm near Raleigh, North Carolina. The fat is harvested first. Butchering is next, followed by grinding, salting, spicing, adding a German yeast culture, and stuffing into all-natural casings, aka pig guts. Careful aging and drying transforms a simple sausage into an inspiring salami. The magic happens in a walk-in cooler where fennel-scented finocchiona, robust peperone (whose spicy nuances could never be confused with vulgar commercial pepperoni), and traditional pancetta rolled by hand all dangle from metal racks. The tangy odor and fine white mold that accrue on the surface of the more mature specimens gave me the same frisson as being in a cave where cheeses ripen to perfection.

My only criticism of Bowers is that his salumi tends to be a little soft—in Europe, you should be able to clobber someone with the salami you take home in butcher’s paper. What you buy at Pine Street Market will last up to six months uncut in your refrigerator (longer for the sliced, stacked, and vacu-packed applewood-smoked bacon), but why would you want to wait that long to enjoy it?

For those who live far from the Avondale Estates neighborhood where his shop resides, Bowers sells his line of products under the name Cured Foods at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market in the Cathedral of St. Philip parking lot, and restaurants such as La Tavola and Ecco are starting to use it on their charcuterie platters. One can also order online and receive a shipment anywhere in the United States. At $13 a pound, a salami perfumed with toasted fennel, Pinot Noir, or even truffle is a bargain and a sexy masterpiece crafted by the hands of a local artist/artisan.

Pine Street Market, 4-A Pine Street, Avondale Estates, 404-296-9672, pinestreetmarket.com

Photograph by Joe Martinez

Discovery: Breakfast at Northern China Eatery

What does the rest of the world eat for breakfast? Such a question may not keep you up at night, but even the most active ethnic buffs often draw a blank when it comes to other cultures’ ways of starting the day. Breakfast central for the local Beijing community is Northern China Eatery, a sweet, unadorned dining room on Buford Highway that sits in the shadows of Italy Optical, a fancy Asian-owned establishment whose sign you should watch for in order to make the proper turn. There is no need to scramble out of bed early for hot soy milk; crisp, long crullers served plain or folded into thin egg cakes with hot sauce; dumplings; savory cakes; and other unexpected, delicious treats. Breakfast is served all day between 9:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. (except Thursday, when the restaurant’s hours are shorter) alongside dishes such as pig’s feet, pig’s ears, noodles with preserved vegetables, and hot pots filled with stewed oxtail or (I kid you not) ox penis.

Unlike the Cantonese, who eat mostly rice, seafood, and lots of vegetables, the northern Chinese subsist on a hearty wheat-based diet. They love hot spices, mutton, and pork meat. Their dumplings are nothing like the ones you know from going to dim sum, a Cantonese practice. Order a plate of pan-fried pot stickers barely bigger than Italian agnolotti, a bamboo steamer with a layer of soup dumplings replete with rich broth, a couple of pastries such as chive pies, wheat cakes stuffed with beef, or a large Mandarin pork cake divided into wedges, and you will have a feast.

In order to taste other items, such as brilliant pork buns, boiled fennel dumplings, and fish fillet hot pot with tofu and cabbage, it is best to gather a group. I’d be surprised if you managed to spend $10 per person on a memorable meal. The staff isn’t used to having a Western clientele, but they rise to the occasion in sometimes-limited English. I have eaten almost everything on the menu, even the delicious shredded potatoes (cold Chinese hash browns?) and the “crispy rice” dish consisting of wet, long strips of something that looks like wheat pancake in a dark bean-paste sauce. I am not giving up bacon and eggs quite yet, but I crave the tastes offered at this restaurant. 5141 Buford Highway, 770-458-2282

Photograph by Amy Herr

Shaun Doty fries solo

As funny as it is to hear a youthful forty-year-old describe himself as “a product of an earlier era,” I knew exactly what chef Shaun Doty, the owner of Shaun’s in Inman Park, was trying to communicate when we sat down for a chat at Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points. I thought he would be mad at me for starting the conversation by calling him “the king of french fries.” Au contraire! He reminded me that, although he grew up in Oklahoma, he had lived in Belgium, where frying potatoes is an art form, and that he had once been married to a Belgian woman.

There is nothing easy about making french fries. I remember being at Joël Robuchon’s famous L’Atelier in Paris and watching the master send the same line cook crying back to the kitchen six times in a row until he finally gave his approval to a simple plate of golden fries. Doty’s pommes frites graisse de canard are as good as any I have had in my life. “It takes a hundred dollars to fill the fryer [with duck fat],” he told me, bragging that he could make them in the restaurant and still deliver them crisp to me half an hour later. He is particular about his spuds (Kingston Idaho) and his technique (two dips into the hot fat), and it is “as serious a business as making a terrine.”

The menu at Shaun’s, a compendium of wide-ranging, educated bistro dishes, is right up my alley. The fettuccine with chicken livers, the Sardinian flatbread with wild arugula and argan oil, and, more recently, the incredible pork schnitzel with grilled Vidalia onion salad, peanuts, and parsley have cast a spell on me. The brunch, now available on Saturdays as well as Sundays, is one of perhaps two in town I consider getting up for: I am a huge fan of the cheddar waffles with poached kumquats and a new pure cane syrup less sticky than maple.

Because of the level of creativity, I consider the early-bird special ($29 per person for three courses, available from 5 to 7 p.m. and all evening at the bar) a better deal than the Sunday pasta dinner ($12 with salad and homemade gelato), which draws folks who don’t necessarily know what the restaurant is otherwise capable of.

I have had my eye on Doty for many years, first when he was chef Guenter Seeger’s right hand at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, then as the co-owner of several flashy operations that ultimately closed. “Patience,” I have always thought. “He will be great some day.”

When he opened Shaun’s in October 2006, Doty finally shed the mantle of the protégé. Now that his famous mentor and friend has left town, no one calls him “Little Guenter” anymore. He has made a cocoon for himself in a place that feels like an extension of his culinary personality and socializing habits. A wild card no longer, he credits his young son, Dante, who has been diagnosed with autism, for forcing courage upon him.

I am a big proponent of restaurants (and businesses in general) where the owner puts his or her name above the door. I trust Shaun’s implicitly, and I know that it takes a brave man to stake his reputation on chopped liver—a signature dish Doty describes as “a perfect representation of what I do”—and glorious french fries.

Shaun’s, 1029 Edgewood Avenue, 404-577-4358, shauns­restaurant.com

Photograph by Joe Martinez

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Atlanta magazine

Cacao’s Kristen Hard

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like the fierce, bitter taste of dark chocolate. Like all French children, I grew up on chocolate croissants, peeling off the buttery dough to access the vein of pure delight. Later on, I pressed my face against the windows of Paris’s most renowned chocolate artisans, anticipating the one truffle or glossy bonbon I would buy with hoarded money.

When I moved to America, I didn’t even understand why Hershey’s called its product “chocolate.” I subsisted on care packages from my family and the occasional box of Belgian truffles. In 1977, the opening of Maison Robert by Robert Reeb, a third-generation confiseur who set local standards for old-school chocolate work, rescued me from the doldrums.

Compared to Reeb, Kristen Hard, the young owner of Atlanta’s newest and most unique chocolate boutique, is a maverick: an obsessive, self-taught micro-entrepreneur with New Age concerns for the health benefits of carefully sourced cocoa beans. Her early passion for making lollipops in her mother’s Dunwoody kitchen haunted her as she went back and forth between academic studies and cooking on sailboats owned by rich Europeans. Hard’s awakening as a chocolatier took place in Martinique, where she badgered local women to share their secrets for transforming rough batons of cacao sold at open-air markets into an arousing beverage.

Almost two years ago, I ran across Hard’s name and that of her company, K Chocolat, in restaurant circles and became a fan of her distinctive truffles sold in various venues. The recent opening of her exquisite little factory shop in Inman Park (she calls it “a laboratoire du chocolat”) has me sinning left and right in an attempt to dig deeper into her all-encompassing magic.

Cacao doesn’t even have a proper sign (the first time, I had to look for the word “Chocolate” on a row of former warehouses), and its entrance off a garden path ending in silvery steps is part of the romance of a small tasting room designed with an artful blend of modernism and femininity. I am no longer intimidated by the glass shelves, the white display drawers, and the gleaming counter in a place that looks more like a jewelry shop than a specialty food store. I hop onto a stool and run my eyes over fragile edible arrangements of cocoa nibs in test tubes, marshmallows dipped in chocolate, miniature cupcakes topped with silver dragées, toffees in twists of waxed paper, and improbably pretty chocolates.

What interests the owner—single-origin chocolate, a precise artisanal process, the use of medicinal herbs and beneficial spices—is reflected in the intense, austere taste of her creations. Like all customers, it is with barely contained excitement that I receive my props (a stretchy white cotton glove and a small silver tray) to pick out my own truffles. The shapes are relatively familiar, but I know that combined notes of Caribbean rum, Saint-John’s-wort, and peppermint; green tea with ginger; or pink peppercorns and rosewater are about to create mysterious harmonies on my tongue. I am mesmerized by the smooth, shapely treats bearing names such as Italian Cowboy and Aztec Aphrodisiac.

Since I have watched Hard—a pretty, blue-eyed blonde who wears a lab coat to temper and hand-mold her product—dust pure gold onto her Chocolate Diamonds filled with Veuve champagne ganache encapsulating an elderflower liquor gelée, I no longer agonize over the prices she charges ($2.25 for single bonbons; boxes priced accordingly by piece). Cups of hot Mexican cocoa perfumed with chili powder, handmade chocolate ice cream, and crystallized ginger dipped into chocolate complete the seduction of a meticulously crafted substance whose journey from a plantation in Ecuador to Atlanta makes my heart beat faster.

312 North Highland Avenue, 404-221-2626

This review originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Atlanta magazine.

Method Coffee: A scientific attention to detail

It isn’t easy for independent coffee shops to fight corporate giants that crowd the market and deliver a uniform taste. Some independents rely on the personality of their baristas, the quality of their furniture, the ease of their Internet connections, and the extent of their merchandising. Many pride themselves on having better, more ethical beans. But what distinguishes a newcomer in the Emory Village, a place so focused and so good that some coffee nerds are waving bye-bye to their usual haunts, is primarily a technique.

Donald Nathan Lowell, the uncannily quiet owner of the aptly named Method, relies on the Chemex, an hourglass-shaped, heat-resistant glass carafe invented by a German chemist in the 1940s. I am from a generation that discovered the Chemex in the 1970s, when it still sported a wooden collar and a leather lace with a wooden bead, and have loved the process ever since. Method uses an elegant, contemporary version of the Chemex that is manufactured with a slim handle.

When a customer places an order, the coffee is ground and tipped into a special filter inserted in the upper third of an individual Chemex. The attendant draws water kept at 201 degrees and carefully pours it over the grounds. The whole transparent process takes no more than two minutes, including the dripping time.

The store sources its coffee from Intelligentsia, a Chicago roaster that specializes in direct trade and single-origin beans of an exceptional quality. The company also supplies impressive teas brewed in individual glass teapots. The desire for quality extends to the milk (organic, from grass-fed cows), the atmosphere (subtle and relaxing, with a remarkable absence of clutter), and the culture (monthly cuppings).

If you are an espresso fiend, Method serves perfect shots from a traditional machine, and the employees know how to transform a simple cappuccino into a piece of art. There isn’t much to eat at Method, save for a few bagels, cookies, and, recently, cute cupcakes by a local baker. But Method scores major cool points for being the first coffee shop in America to take the Chemex out of its normal home setting.

1593 North Decatur Road, 404-549-8942

This review originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of
Atlanta magazine.

L5P’s The Porter

There are more than ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall behind the bar at The Porter (I counted). There are tap handles by the dozen. The bar could overwhelm even the most dedicated beer drinker with the depth and breadth of its inventory. But instead of just playing a numbers game, the young owners display a curatorial finesse. Better yet, without gloating about running a “gastropub,” they serve pretty remarkable casual food to go along with the lagers, pilsners, Belgian whites, and, of course, their favorite porters.

Without an ounce of snobbery, The Porter will get you interested in trying an elegant Scottish ale that tastes like liquid butterscotch or a German smoked beer with the aromas of hops and wood stove. The staff is there to encourage those who have never, ever paid eight dollars for a glass of beer to move beyond the thirst-quenching product of the big breweries. The helpful beer list—large enough to require a clipboard—is arranged by category rather than region and includes alcohol content and tasting directions.

Thanks to co-owner Molly Gunn and her intelligent questions (“What do you normally drink?” is one of the first things she asks those who hesitate), initial bewilderment soon subsides, replaced by a sense of wonder and adventure. Seasonal casks, monthly beer dinners, and unusual pairings with, for example, earthy truffles or artisanal chocolate maximize the cultural impact of The Porter on a growing community of beer fans, myself included.

Customers who understand descriptions such as “bready malts, caramel center, touch of sour at the end” or “dark with cinnamon and fig notes” are probably the minority at The Porter, and fewer still could instantly think of how to match those tastes with food. But the menu offers revelatory pairings of, say, St. Ambroise Apricot ale with the smoked bacon hushpuppies and organic applesauce or yeasty, effervescent Berliner Weisse with crispy calamari and preserved lemon aioli. (The latter revelation is equivalent to discovering that champagne is the ideal companion to many fried foods.) You may be interested to know that brandade, a Mediterranean dish consisting of creamy salt cod and potatoes, doesn’t have to be served with red wine. Beer brings out its assertive personality just as well and does wonders, too, for fun specials such as meatballs stroganoff or a superlative lemon-marinated shrimp BLT with shaved fennel.

The secret behind The Porter is the pedigree of its owners. Fresh-faced Gunn, who at twenty-six still gets carded when she drinks outside her own establishment, and her husband, Nick Rutherford, the executive chef (a funny title in a beer bar), met when working at the former gourmet gold standard Seeger’s, where a passion for excellence was drilled into them.

Rutherford’s brisket pot roast with mashed potatoes and organic carrots has as elegant a texture as anything I have experienced in the world of slow cooking. A few judicious drops of truffle oil and a saute of cremini and portobello mushrooms give glamour to an impeccable rendition of shrimp and grits. When it comes to more classic bar food, simple items such as the organic bratwurst with kraut and Fuji apples, the fresh Angus cheeseburger on tomato focaccia, and the mussels steamed in beer have been composed as carefully as the above. I’d prefer thicker-cut potatoes in the fish and chips (but I appreciate the Terrapin Rye beer batter), and I am amused by the misspelling of crisp, golden potato rissoles (offered as “resole”), but The Porter’s authority in culinary matters, including beer and cheese pairings, is generally amazing.

A thirty-six-foot unpolished concrete bar backed by plywood shelves loaded with specialty glasses (flutes, tulips, goblets, pints, and the occasional glass boot), mason jars (for the cocktails and beer tastings), and other paraphernalia occupies the long, narrow front room. A huge space at the back offers more conventional seating as well as a mishmash of vintage suitcases alluding to the other meaning of the word “porter.”

Yes, The Porter is noisy (it’s a bar!), and though a special effort is made to attract women, there is more testosterone than perfume in the air. But it’s great news for everyone that, after a long period of drought, Little Five Points should once more offer destination-­worthy meals.

During one of the most magical moments I have experienced at The Porter, I happened to glance at the bar, where every seat was taken and every glass featured the same basic beverage in an astonishing range of colors: chocolate, straw, caramel, tea, ruby, sunshine, amber, toffee, honey, cinnamon. “I am going to try them all,” I thought. “It will take me years.”

The Porter
Rating **
1156 Euclid Avenue, 404-223-0393

This  review originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Atlanta magazine.

JCT Kitchen & Bar

Wishful thinking goes a long way toward explaining why too many Atlantans, some of them respected colleagues of mine, speak of JCT Kitchen & Bar as if it were a dyed-in-the-wool Southern restaurant, the deluxe meat-and-three of their dreams.

Come on, now. Where are the biscuits, the pimento cheese, the rich taste of pork fat? There is fried chicken on the menu as well as mac and cheese, but the way they are prepared in this upscale new dining room is more slick than rustic. As much as I love Chef Ford Fry’s chicken and dumplings, his version tastes exactly like a French-country coq au vin over soft, pillowy Italian potato gnocchi.

Perhaps the disconnect can be explained by William “Ford” Fry’s origins; he is after all a native of Houston, and as we all know, Texas may be geographically in the South, but its cuisine and culture are not truly Southern. That said, Fry’s JCT Kitchen & Bar is a classic contemporary bistro with a clever but light Southern spin.

The budding owner was so afraid of the ill-fated location at the very back of the Urban Westside Market that he persuaded the landlord to let him build a silo that could be used as a landmark in the parking lot. I feel about the silo the way I feel about the restaurant: It isn’t fake (a small group of Mennonite workers came to erect it on site), but it isn’t quite the real deal, either.

Fry’s concept is impeccably clever. He worked for nine years as the executive chef of Eatzi’s, the now-closed upscale grocery and takeout shop, and he knows exactly how the local upper middle class lives—and what it likes to eat. Beautiful ingredients, none of them particularly rare, rich buttery flavors, and lots of fresh vegetables strike just the right note in an airy dining room that resembles a wine country inn or one of those fabulous Alpharetta home kitchens meant for entertaining.

Many of the dishes could be served at a tony dinner party. The crispy oysters Rockefeller, without the shell and with plenty of leafy spinach and bacon under (rather than atop) the oysters, show a sense of humor. The thin, nearly liquid shrimp-and-crab cocktail, formerly and more truthfully known as a “Bloody Mary,” exemplifies Fry’s modern ways. His white bean bruschetta with Georgia green garlic comes as a delightfully unexpected dip, served with thin rusks of country bread.

If you don’t count your calories, there are plenty of dishes, such as overwhelming truffle-Parmesan fries, listed as an appetizer, and slow-cooked beef short ribs with “pot roast vegetables,” that will fill you up. But it would be a pity to go all meat-and-potatoes. A crisp chopped vegetable salad with Green Goddess dressing and blue cheese “snow” (very fine shavings), followed by a grilled, farm-raised Georgia trout with al dente tiny garlicky green beans, constitute a lighter meal.

There are two dishes that make me want to hug the chef. One, served as a generous side, is a bowl of glossy, amazingly lively collard greens bathed in potlikker and doctored with hot pepper vinegar. The other is a dark square of gingerbread pudding as light as a custard and served with a perfectly tart and sweet lemon cream.

Evidence of clear thinking can be found in everything from the restaurant’s design to its wine program. The wines are food-friendly, and many selections can be ordered by the half-glass. The formerly dark dining room (some described it as “a dungeon” in its former incarnations) is now flooded with natural light thanks to five new windows cut right into the thick brick walls. At night, enormous ecru lampshades mounted on the ceiling bathe the dining room in creamy light. The servers beam with good humor. They’ll even help you fill your pockets with Lemonheads (made in Chicago rather than Dixie!) disbursed by a gigantic, somewhat temperamental gum ball machine near the door.

If you’re wondering what to wear, think Southern prepster and you’ll fit right in. The restaurant is every bit as good for lunch as it is for dinner and is less noisy then. A cute upstairs bar with a secluded terrace serves raw oysters and light bites. The only access, up a steep outdoor staircase, is a bit dodgy, even with the handrail, but the view of Midtown is breathtaking enough for you to make the climb.

JCT Kitchen & Bar gets almost everything right. Its name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (Junction—“JCT” in railroad speak—may have had a better ring, since the place does overlook active tracks), but so what? Ford Fry has a runaway success on his hands. Better get on board! —Christiane Lauterbach

Photographs by Lauren Rubinstein

The Arrogance and the Ecstasy: Günter Seeger has been called a tyrant, an elitist, a snob. Guess what? He doesn’t care.

0315_archive_arroganceecstasy_cck_oneuseonlyGünter Seeger reaches for a bottle of Vittel mineral water, empties it into a shiny pan and sets it on the stove. He calmly fills the glass insert of a transparent teapot with mysterious dried yellow flower heads.

“Chamomile,” he says to me. “Look … how beautiful.”

I have never seen more perfect chamomile flowers. I have never seen anyone pouring boiling water more tenderly.

“Infuse exactly five minutes or it’s no good!” he lectures.

He will sip one cup after another, reaching for the clear golden tisane throughout the feverishness of the kitchen rush as if it were a magic elixir and he had all the time in the world.

It is 6:30 and the first customers are tipping their flutes of champagne in the orderly dining room. All day long people have toiled, prepped, vacuumed, polished, arranged flowers and performed countless exacting tasks so these customers can have an exceptional dining experience.

Günter Seeger, the chef whose eponymous establishment was named Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire magazine last year, is fanatical about detail. His relentless pursuit of perfection – whether chamomile flowers or caviar – ­is what has catapulted him to the pinna­cle of his profession. Arguably one of the best chefs in the world, not just America, Seeger appeared on the same page as Tom Cruise among the 1999 nominees for GQ’s Men of the Year. Every night, he’s found in chef’s whites, working side by side with his staff.

Tonight, he is impeccable in his crisp chef’s whites, although he’s been at the restaurant for eight hours before the first orders reach the kitchen, setting a chain reaction in motion. Seeger’s work­ing kitchen, visible through portholes in an elegant paneled wall, is twice as big as the dining room. It is dominated by a bright red Morice stove, the largest of its kind in the United States. Except for a tiny grill there is no open flame. There is no mad rattling of pans. The eyes of the stove are closed, and everything glides smoothly on its polished metal surface.

Everyone knows the drill. The saucier keeps his pots at the right temperature. The garde manger in charge of the cold line molds a matjes herring tartar into a flat elliptical shape. The sauté chefs operate their pans. The grill supervisor flips the lamb chops. The chef de cuisine is making tomatoes into petals. The bread baker slices homemade brioche. The pastry chef, who will be busy later in the evening, goes around tasting her colleagues’ ingredients.

Günter Seeger may decide to pitch in anywhere. He runs some firm, woodsy cèpes mushrooms through a mandoline and fans the slices on a pristine white plate. He dips his fingers in fleur de sel and sends the tiny crystals flying on a tender young squab. He squeezes three perfect dots of sauce near a gorgeous piece of loup de mer. Like a traffic dis­patcher, he keeps track of what everyone is doing. When the restaurant is especially busy, he wears a Madonna-­style headset to stay in touch with his line cooks. His voice, urgent and imperative, issues from loudspeakers distributed strategically in the kitchen, and he is obeyed without delay.

He is the one who puts together the pieces of the puzzle and, hunched over in concentration, finalizes the plates, set­ting them just so on the counter where they are snatched by the waiters and borne away on gleaming silver trays.

When customers get their plates, they will receive an offering of Günter Seeger’s art; food prepared exactly the way he envisions it. The orchestration is complex, precise, carried out unwa­veringly.

Günter Seeger has been called a tyrant, a misunderstood artist, an elitist. Guess what? He doesn’t care. He just wants to deliver the best dining experience possible – on his terms.

Esquire’s reviewer, John Mariani, is convinced that Seeger, the man he calls “cool and reserved” and whose “elongated ascetic look” reminds him of an El Greco figure, has, thanks to his very fine sense of taste, done some­thing not just for Atlanta but for the entire United States. In 1996 Seeger received a distinguished award from the James Beard Foundation, the first Atlanta chef to be so honored.

It isn’t easy to get recognition from the national foodies in New York, and yet at home Seeger has endured more than his share of criticism. He’s been accused of charging too much, compromising too little, putting too little on the plate. “Who does he think he is?” detractors ask.

What Seeger’s critics do no realize is that a chef who will schedule a Cuvée Dom Perignon dinner at $350 a head (and fill all the seats and have people begging to be put on the waiting list) isn’t interested in local standards of fine dining. ­ A typical dinner at Seeger’s, a five-or eight-course, fixed menu with hand-picked wines, may cost between $100 and $150 per person before tax or tip, but Seeger doesn’t compare his offerings to other high-end Atlanta restaurants. His counterparts are the world’s great chefs.

“People go to Alain Ducasse maybe once in their lives,” Seeger says, referring to one of France’s finest restaurants (three stars in the Michelin guide) with­out a hint of false modesty. “And they never forget!”

Seeger at times has wondered whether he should leave Atlanta. After all, this is a city that has responded more to his success than to his unique culinary gifts. But he has decided to stay here and pur­sue his vision.

Günter Seeger isn’t a typical self-pro­moting star culinarian. He doesn’t court the press. He doesn’t network or hustle, and he rarely appears on television. When he is in public, he is often perceived as aloof, mostly because of his rigid body language, the way he always sits at an angle from the people he speaks with, the European distance he maintains between himself and his conversation partners. He is clearly not a fellow you want to slap on the back.

Six-foot-two, rail-thin, devoted to Prada and Versace, he looks like an artist, and conveys the aura of isolation that comes with creative territory. Among friends such as the painter Paul Chelko, who was the best man at his wedding, or with Lucy and Clay Cal­houn, whose farm has been a personal retreat for more than a decade, he loves to engage in conversation. Small talk is clearly alien to his nature. He can be intimidating to his colleagues, many of whom treat him with more respect than genuine warmth.

The highest compliment Seeger pays to another human being is, “He works really hard.” He is contemptuous of people who do not push themselves to the limit, and he knows exactly which chefs leave their kitchens by 9 p.m. “We are not here to screw around,” is some­thing he holds as a higher truth.

He is serious. I have known Günter Seeger for 13 years. I recently spent 13 hours shadowing him through a typical workday (his day is longer than that; I had to leave early). I stuck to him like glue and I saw him laugh exactly twice. Once, he chuckled in the kitchen at a joke cracked by his young staff. And when he opened his mail, sitting on a cheap garden chair at a well-organized long wooden desk in the basement of Seeger’s, he laughed out load and handed me a typewritten sheet.

The short letter was from a man from an Atlanta suburb who reported that he had dined at Seeger’s with his wife and that she had found the food exquisite but that he, being much more sensitive in matters of taste, had detected a malodorous whiff of the cooler in his food, and offered some suggestions as to how the problem could be corrected.

“Can you believe it!” Seeger said with a guttural chortle. Patrons have accused him of such crimes as having no wines under $50 (he has 70 selec­tions below that price) and refilling his bottles of mineral water from the faucet (which is, of course, nonsense). The mineral water provokes more out­rage than any other detail at Seeger’s; he doesn’t serve tap water, and customers are charged $3 a bottle for min­eral water. As a tiny concession, he now lists the charge on the menu.

He has barnyard names for some of his detractors. He calls some famous female chefs “housewives,” and most anyone who displeases him is branded as a “shoemaker.” As far as anyone can tell, that word isn’t an insult in German, but to Seeger it clearly implied crass boorishness.

Paul Chelko calls Seeger “a brilliant and gifted artist immersed in his art.” Chelko thinks Seeger is humble but aware of his gifts. “He is very sensitive to space and form,” says Chelko, who com­pares the blank spaces on Seeger’s plate to the intervals in Isaac Stern’s music.

On the cover of the menu for his 50th birthday celebration is a picture of the future chef sit­ting at a wooden desk, staring straight at the camera with slightly anxious and distant dark eyes. The collar of his checkered shirt is turned neatly over a hand knit sweater. A small bouquet of primroses lies by his left elbow. In front, a carefully lettered slate with a wooden frame says, in German: MY FIRST SCHOOL DAY, 1955.

He looks like a dreamer, and his face, framed by large, expressive ears, bears an unusually serious expression. We have all pored over the childhood snapshots or the yearbook pictures of celebri­ties, looking for something that set them apart from those who stayed behind. Why is it, we ask ourselves, that some little boy in Germany grows up to be a world-class chef?

He was born in Loffenau, a small town, barely bigger than a village, on one of the major sightseeing roads through the Black Forest. One of Seeger’s early memories is picking armfuls of wild yellow primroses and selling them to tourists for 25 pfennig a small bunch, a price he raised to one mark if they were Americans.

His early years were solitary. “It was the time after the war, people didn’t have a lot of time to spend with chil­dren,” he says matter-of-factly. When he did spend time with his father, a fruit broker, it was on trips to large auctions, where the finest produce in Germany changed hands. The old man was a devil, according to his son. “He would fight people, and you always knew he was there.” On his mother’s side, though, the genes were more intellectu­al and artistic; some ancestors painted churches and canvasses.

When Seeger left school at 14 (by his own admission he was a horrible student), he had no great ambition to be a chef. He became an apprentice in a restaurant, and, as he recalls, “It was just a job. ”

Seeger worked and trained at ever-higher levels until, at the age of 28, he opened his own restaurant in Pforzheim, a town at the edge of the Black Forest. There, he evolved a highly personal and refined cuisine and caught the attention of the famous Michelin reviewers, who awarded him one star. This may mean little in America, where five stars are bandied about, but, especially in a loca­tion other than France, this was a remarkable accomplishment.

The restaurant failed commercially, and Seeger, already married to his first wife with two young daughters, was recruited by an American company to become the dining room chef at the Regent Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Horst Schultze, a fellow German and then the general manager for The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, offered a top job to Seeger and gave him what he needed most: unconditional support. Peter Kre­han, also a German and the maitre d’ in The Dining Room, may joke about what he calls “the World According to Günter,” but during the 11 exceptional­ly intense years of his work with Seeger, he has had the highest respect and admi­ration for a man whose vision, he says, “extends far beyond cuisine.” Seeger’s obsessive love of beauty and excellence, “at first created innumerable conflicts within the hotel’s hierarchy,” Krehan says in an understatement.

Seeger achieved acclaim at The Ritz, winning the American Express Best Chef in the Southeast Award given by the James Beard Foundation – and national recognition. Nevertheless, he wanted autonomy and left to start Seeger’s in 1998. It was a gamble, but it paid off, not through luck but through drive and hard work.

Every morning Seeger wakes up and practices a form of China kung fu known as Southern Praying Mantis. “It’s a whole system, not a style,” he explains. The discipline, he says, has a strong spiritual element and helps him to feel “more centered” and in touch with his power. He has a private teacher, an American, who comes to his home, but he also does a specific sequence of exercises and medi­tation on a daily basis.

He is an intensely physical man and throughout his life has had a passion for nature. Seeger, his second wife Lau­reen, pregnant with their second child, their young blond toddler, Angela, their dog and her cats just moved to a house that sits on four acres of woodland near Chastain.

“It’s like being on a vacation,” says Seeger of his new home in the woods. He is proud of the cherry tree that grows up to the bedroom window, and he loves the fact that the unpaved, steep driveway may keep people out. When he sits on the deck, he can’t see a soul. In the kitchen, Seeger has no professional stove or anything that reminds him or a restaurant.

All that zen serenity is balanced by an adoration of speed and technology. He loves cars, motorcycles, dirt bikes, and wouldn’t mind gunning a vintage Porsche on the Atlanta Speedway. When talking about performance, his own and that of the restaurant, he often compares it to a speed race, where everyone does his job and there is no room for mistakes.

His look is severe – in another era he might have seemed a Jesuit warrior; in the late 1990s he cuts a glamorous figure. He arrives to work in a late model red Porsche convertible. He loves skinny Versace jeans and black Prada sandals. He often wears black and white with an occasional splashy yellow jacket or even hand-painted trousers. He has the long eyelashes men have and women envy. At his wedding, he sported white pants tucked into high boots, and when he swims, it’s in a string bikini that is small even by European standards.

Laureen is tall and blond and willowy even in the later stages of pregnancy and always looks at her husband with an adoring smile. She is a litigator and part­ner in a top law firm. Since meeting Günter at The Ritz, she has been his “biggest fan.” She is younger; softer than he is and by all accounts has helped him mellow and connect with his spirituality.

Once, I listened to Günter Seeger rem­iniscing about his father’s birthdays and the choosing of the yearly pig, dragged squealing into the open before being slaughtered, gutted and cleaned for the feast. The conversation turned to graphic descriptions of uncoiled guts and boiled innards. With the rapturous smile and the tremulous voice she always assumes when speaking about her husband, Lau­reen turned to me and said, without a hint of sarcasm, “He is so sensitive.”

And he is a sensitive man, too, in love with the beauty of a moment and the intensity of nature. I watched him once in one of the fields of his friends, the Calhouns, who have a large farm near Conyers. He picked a small watermelon right off the vine, broke it on his thigh and buried his face in the flesh, letting the juice run onto his chest.

At the restaurant, Seeger’s control and calm prevail. His staff treat him almost as lord and master. They all call him “Chef,” a name they use even away from the restaurant in such sentences as “Chef says…” and “Chef wants…”

While some culinary stars brag about not doing any actual cooking and are content to act as conductors, impresarios and concept men, Seeger is 100 percent (or “hundred prozent,” in his undiminished German accent) involved at the most physical level.

One minute he is unpacking some superlative globe-shaped squash and fresh lambs’ quarters (a wild green with a carmine center) that stain his hands. Then, with his chef de cuisine, Daniel Porubiansky, he looks over a shipment of young morels. The two have worked side by side for 10 years; in a moment of nonverbal communication, they silently nod in unison over the mushrooms. The next moment, he is showing a young staffer exactly how he wants a baby chicken thigh boned and wrapped in a fine web of caul fat. Seeger touches all food with expert and delicate gestures, sometimes snapping a thin disposable glove onto his right hand when he is cooking. “You don’t want fingerprints on the food,” he explains.

During the day, he is everywhere. He examines the wooden floor in the dining room and, together with his manager, the very French Claude Guillaume, decides that they need a new coat of polyurethane. He poses for a crew of photographers from a national magazine. He meets with a German winemaker who works for a producer in the Hamptons, and both he and his young sommelier do a blitz tasting.

I never catch him actually running, but he does materialize in unsettling ways, heard two seconds later at the other end or on another floor of the restaurants. He talks on the phone a lot (“Ja, this is Günter…”), runs his meetings with brisk efficiency and assumes that everyone knows what he wants. When the first customers walk in, he is in the kitchen cooking side by side with his staff.

The young cooks gather around to see him do quick and mysterious things that may take them years to learn. There are spectacular moments of calm during the rush of dinner. I, for example, saw the entire staff flock to the windows to admire a double rainbow.

Seeger used to be a terror. He has always set the bar very high, and women are particularly susceptible to his criticism, but, regardless of their gender, the people he trains tend to be fiercely loyal. His former sous-chef Troy Thompson, now the chef at Fusebox, says in reverential tones, “I wanted to make him proud. He has been cooking for longer than I have been alive.” The most fervent of all, Shaun Doty of Mumbo Jumbo, also a former sous-chef, can channel Seeger in ways that are clearly unconscious, down to the point where he sometimes speaks with a trace of a German accent and uses some of the same expressive hand gestures as his former boss.

All his protégés agree: Günter Seeger is no longer the frustrated genius he used to be. Seeger’s is his home, the place where he can express himself more fully than ever before.

He controls the entire Seeger’s experience, right out to the parking lot. He refuses to offer valet service. He doesn’t want the typical valet – a young college student – to be the first person a patron encounters at Seeger’s. So on a rainy night like tonight, customers are left to fend for themselves, aided by a Seeger’s staffer in a dark suit who stands at the door with an enormous black umbrella.

The pace in the kitchen slows down; on rainy days people cancel because they know about the no-valet policy. It means losing hundreds of dollars, but Seeger doesn’t mind.

“Ja…” he says, looking out into the rainy evening

“I do it my way.”

Sampling Seeger’s: The eight-course menu, July 5, 1999
The menu at Seeger’s changes nightly; the chef offers five- and eight-course menus that vary depending on what is in season. Dining at Seeger’s, you will never have the same meal twice, but you will experience carefully selected ingredients artfully combined and exactly presented. Atlanta Magazine restaurant critic Christiane Lauterbach reviews one evening’s offerings:

(1) Beet terrine with fresh horseradish and lemon balm salad: The sweetness of the beets, the pungency of the horseradish and the distinctive taste of lemon balm treated as a micro-green take the palate on a sophisticated ride. (2) Tomato gelée and white tomato mousse with heirloom cherry tomatoes and shiso leaf: The most wonderful surprise about this dish is the intense flavor of tomato in the pure white mousse and gelée. (3) Flan with fresh morels and pecans: a delicate savory custard with a concentrated taste of wild mushroom. (4) Dover sole tempura on seaweed salad with soy cream: East meets West without fusion confusion in this perfectly orchestrated fish course. (5) Rabbit tournedos with fresh chanterelles mushrooms: a new take on a classic European preparation served in a gleaming individual casseroled. (6) Selection of French and American farm cheeses: includes superlative tastes such as Brindamour, Gratte-Paille, Edel de Cléron, Époisses, Gaperon d’Aubergne, fresh goat cheese from Mary Rigdon, petit Reblochon, petit Banon, Amram, and Fourme d’Ambert. (7) Kiwi marinated in lavender with goat yogurt sorbet: The sprig of lavender is purely decorative, but the wild sunny flavor of lavender is all over a dessert that has wit and aplomb. (8) Raspberry tart with caramel cream, raspberry sorbet and balsamico reduction: almonds, lemon zest and aged balsamic vinegar add an extra dimension to this ode to fresh raspberries.

Christiane Lauterbach, Atlanta Magazine’s restaurant critic, discovered Günter Seeger’s cooking at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in 1996. She took a forkful of red cabbage and thought, “Aha! A German who doesn’t cook like a German!”

This article originally appeared in our September 1999 issue.

This old house: Our 1993 review of Bacchanalia

Bacchanalia August 1993
Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison

Editor’s note: Twenty-eight years ago, our restaurant critic Christiane Lauterbach (who’s our critic today!) reviewed a charming little restaurant that stood in stark contrast to the dining scene’s bombastic glam. She wisely concluded—be sure to read to the end—that this restaurant would have significant staying power. It also would redefine the nature of fine-dining in Atlanta and beyond and, later, shift the center of culinary gravity away from Buckhead to Atlanta’s Westside.

You may have trouble believing there is still such a thing as an old house near the traffic-jammed intersection of Piedmont and Peachtree. Set back from the street in a 60-year-old Tudor-style dwelling, Bacchanalia seems wonderfully out of place next to a hair-replacement center. Pretty flowers line the short walk; absurdly small and ornate cast-iron furniture waits on the pocket-size front porch. And just as this demure, charming restaurant contradicts its frenetically commercial surroundings, its food offers a refreshing alternative to the recent culinary emphasis on flash and high tech. Bacchanalia is a delicious family project with surprises in every corner.

Partners in life as well as in the kitchen, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, both in their early to mid-30s, moved to Atlanta a year ago. Anne’s sister, Frances Quatrano, runs the front of the house and helps the couple fulfill their dream of running a fresh and inventive restaurant in an appropriate personal setting.

Bacchanalia is as serious a small restaurant as we have seen in a long while. Simplicity of flavors leading to intensity in taste sensations means a lot to the two chefs. The prix fixe formula ($27.50 for three precisely crafted courses) offers a fair opportunity to understand the cuisine. Trained in California, perfected in kitchens from Nantucket to Manhattan, Quatrano and Harrison have found a fresh way to express themselves. “Good food is simple food,” they echo, finishing one another’s sentences. “We are not trying to be clever. We don’t want to be a stagnant kind of place. We are small enough to be able to do different things, but nothing is contrived.”

You would call Bacchanalia contemporary American in the best of ways. The touch is always light. Salmon in cucumber water flavored with mint from their garden, a wonderful lamb ragout with beans served with thin sheets of pasta dough in a sort of free-form giant ravioli seasoned with thyme broth, an enchanting terrine of potatoes with goat cheese show Quatrano and Harrison as excellent technicians with great sensitivity.

Some of our meals have been more perfect than others, but we have always felt that the “building blocks” (Harrison’s words) are always stacked in interesting configurations. Steamed Prince Edward Island mussels with parsley juice and roasted garlic, prosciutto di Parma on crostini with fig burro and shaved Reggiano Parmesan, spinach-crusted roast halibut in tomato water are the kind of dishes that do not overload the taste buds. A lemon risotto with green asparagus is exactly what Harrison means when he describes his passionate quest for “simplicity, intensity, and subtlety.”

The menu changes every week. A small restaurant like Bacchanalia has, of course, a great deal of flexibility. “We change according to what is available. We have to,” explains Harrison, who balances value and creativity so as to be able to “score a home run every night.”

The ingredients are carefully chosen although the budget is limited. “We can no longer say, ‘White truffles . . . sure, give us a basket,’” explains Quatrano. But the chicken is free-range, the tenderloin of beef organic. The salad greens come from the same Ashland farm as those of the most prestigious kitchens in town. There is a rare commitment to making everything in the house: the desserts, of course, but also the cookies served nonchalantly on the side, the fresh fruit sorbets, the relishes, the broths, and the little tidbits served before the beginning of the meal.

Something about the tiny complimentary hors d’oeuvre one receives upon being seated reminds us of the way sushi chefs greet their customers with a special small bite. For Harrison and Quatrano, this small gesture may be a few ribbons of fried sweet Vidalia onion, a sliver of smoked trout, crawfish tails over homemade aioli, or a minute slice of seared tuna with a dot of seasoned mustard.

Although the cuisine is exceptionally light (more fresh vegetable extracts than butters), the kitchen doesn’t shy from powerful dishes such as braised oxtails in wine sauce or Moroccan lamb shanks with dried fruit. “We would like to serve more game,” say Quatrano and Harrison, who so far have been impressed by their clientele’s willingness to try just about anything.

People, however, resist the idea of their favorite dish being taken off the menu to make way for other, sometimes more seasonal items. The terrine of potatoes and Georgia goat cheese with mesclun has been hard to give up, and the kitchen hasn’t dared to let go of the fabulous warm Vahlrona chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream. Baked in a mini-Bundt pan, the cake is so simple that Harrison is almost embarrassed to give the recipe. Warm and light like eiderdown, the plump little cake releases a gush of melting chocolate at the first touch of the fork.

All desserts are strong and sensible. Caramel pecan ice cream, simple creme brulee, lemon chess pie with candied zest, fresh strawberries in aged balsamic vinegar with homemade biscotti, and strawberry rhubarb cobbler have all been big hits as well. Anne Quatrano is the baker in the family, but Clifford Harrison is quick to point out that these are his recipes. A classic cheese course such as Stilton with Mission figs or St. Andre triple creme with fresh berries is an alternative to the sweets.

A small but delightful list of dessert wines by the glass ($3.75 to $5.50) comes with the dessert menu. The regular wine list is thoughtful and innovative as well, including many lesser-known American boutique wines. Serious wine connoisseurs are among the regular clientele and, on occasion, bring a special bottle from their cellar for a flat $10 corkage fee.
Bacchanalia has only four small dining rooms, one of which seats private parties of up to 12. The space is cramped and cozy. You will see many family heirlooms on the walls and, occasionally, on the tables. Limoges porcelain collected by Quatrano’s grandmother is in use in the dining rooms. Antique wooden pieces stand next to the more recent but traditional-looking, solid square tables. Tapestry runners cover the tables, candles burn slowly under glass, and the music mixes the old and the atmospheric in a way that is, again, a pleasant surprise. Being greeted by a member of the family (Frances Quatrano) is yet another advantage.

The future looks bright for Bacchanalia. Quatrano’s family farm in Cartersville, Ga., is already growing some produce for the restaurant, with plans for more home-grown greens and vegetables on the horizon. Bacchanalia seems bound to become what Quatrano and Harrison have always wanted: “a nice, long-lasting place.”

This article was originally published in our August 1993 issue and reprinted in our January 2021 issue.

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