Little Bacch is designed to be clubby. The bottle-green lacquered paneling, smoked mirrors, and informal marble bar give this small downstairs hideaway the look of a men’s club or rich friend’s billiards room; the original oil landscapes imply that friend has taste. But while the decor suggests intimacy and familiarity, the small number of tiny tables mandates it. I didn’t know how much I’d been hankering for a restaurant like Little Bacch until I brought four guests there, and among the five of us, we knew someone at every table. And I’ve been here just a year.
The classic food makes you sigh for dishes you haven’t had in forever because you know that most of the time the preparation will be heavy and horrid. But here, oysters Rockefeller, cheese soufflé, and New York strip with bordelaise are made with such close attention to sourcing and with such careful, uncluttered technique that you start to pine for the days when food like this was served nightly by old-line clubs—even if you probably couldn’t afford them and they wouldn’t let you in anyway.
Little Bacch is tucked near the kitchens for Star Provisions and Bacchanalia, the flagship of Anne Quatrano’s empire. After a dinner to refresh my Big Bacch memory, I decided that all the energy, creativity, and verve that once fueled that Atlanta landmark—one that still defines destination dining in this city—must have seeped through the floor to the dining room below.
Not that Little Bacch isn’t starchy in its own right; the white-jacketed servers aren’t exactly jokey. And on that first convivial night, there weren’t enough of them—just two for a room that seats 52, though only five or six tables were full. Over the course of a month and two more dinners, both the room and staff started to fill out and smooth out. As did the preparation and presentation of several dishes on the compact menu.
They needed to. I fell in love with Little Bacch at the first dinner; out of love at the second, when service glitches and flat main courses made me wonder why I ever got so excited; and back in love at the third meal, when the elegant first courses sent me into a reverie. Little Bacch is what I hoped Atlas, with its dazzling gloss, would be: simple, refined, and restrained.
Those first courses were serenely confident and delivered more than the laconic menu descriptions (“chilled Maine lobster, Sauternes, tomato”) promise. Two were revelatory: that lobster and Kumamoto oysters Rockefeller. I’m a terrible lobster snob, and try to restrict my consumption to a once-a-summer, yes, bacchanalia on the Maine coast, where a family friend always serves us lobster fresh out of the water. Little Bacch’s terrine makes the best case I might ever have encountered for off-coast lobster: big, generous, perfectly cooked chunks encased in a sweet, simple gelée spiked with Sauternes (a fortified dessert wine) and served with a small scoop of tomato sorbet and homemade buttermilk crackers. The gelatin was just firm enough to loft the chunks to your mouth, where it melted to a coulis that enhanced the fresh flavor of the meat.
As for the oysters, they weren’t “Rockefeller” as you might know it; they were more like escargots, heated in an herb-flecked compound butter rather than blanketed with thick white sauce and breadcrumbs. The echo turns out to be appropriate because the dish originated at Antoine’s in New Orleans as a copy of escargots (one legend has it that oysters were substituted when snails weren’t available). Little Bacch’s chef, Joe Schafer, uses small West Coast oysters in place of the usual fat Gulf variety. Tarragon and chervil in the butter, along with a strong note of anise from Pernod, gave the sauce a pinpoint focus. The oysters were barely warmed through, retaining all their flavor and juices.
Little Bacch’s version of actual escargots featured snails worth eating. Schafer says he finds basil-fed snails from California; wherever they’re from, they’re much smaller and more tender than the usual canned French kind—so small the chef will sometimes fit two into the classic dimpled bowl. I hunted for the nuggets and as usual sopped up the not-too-garlicky, nicely lemony butter with bread. (Picky service note: For such beautifully imagined and executed food, couldn’t they buy little forks to get out those teeny snails and oysters? Or be a bit more generous with the Star Provisions bread, served warm and worth the calories?) Pork pâté—liberally doused with cognac and sliced shiitake mushrooms, served with port jam and homemade ale mustard—was so forthright but elegant that I was sure Schafer couldn’t make a misstep.
Little Bacch serves just four mains, and because they’re so few—and so pricey—each needs to be impeccable. The New York strip, aged 28 days, was everything you want steak to be: charred on the outside and succulent inside, the juices augmented with generous butter-basting—the same treatment that Jamison Farm lamb chops get (served with smoked ribs best eaten by hand). These dishes are expensive—$57 for the 14-ounce steak, $35 for the lamb (despite what the menu says, each could serve two). Red snapper or bass, depending on what’s available, is baked in parchment over soft-braised leeks and fennel; the server snips it open at the table, and it’s cookbook-perfect. I had each at different times, yet I don’t remember much distinction; the uncharacteristically heavy butter-caper sauce dominated the fish, and the very process, akin to steaming, softened all flesh to a similar consistency. There were disappointingly few vegetables with the mains, though smashed fingerlings with the steak, deep-fried and then drizzled with garlic butter, were hard to resist.
The chicken, listed for two at $52, is meant to be the signature main course: served with beak and legs, reclining in a clever and capacious winged porcelain tureen as if laid in state. The lettuce and tomato salad tucked on the side, and the planks of sourdough beneath to absorb a vinaigrette and the chicken juices, are modeled after the country’s greatest roast chicken dish—chicken with bread salad at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, perfected by the late Judy Rodgers, a model of meticulousness. It’s certainly arresting: The claws, dangling from the tureen as if from a bath, can catch in your water glass as the server tries to set down the dish. As much as feet-on chicken is in vogue, you’re not likely to eat them or the head.
But the trouble wasn’t so much looking your dinner in the eye as it was finding white meat that wasn’t dry and dark meat that had much flavor. Then there was the challenge of cutting through the too-thick slices of fat-soaked bread while negotiating the salad—which the first time was served as unmanageable wedges of lettuce and tomato, though it became more bite-sized in successive meals. And the foie gras stuffing was so dry it might as well have been brown crumbs. Because the dish is meant to be the calling card, and my colleagues were so taken with it, I ordered the chicken three times. It never came together.
Desserts were few but choice, particularly a buttermilk tart with a not-too-sweet custard over a perfectly brittle crust, spread one night with sliced fresh peaches, another with fig jam and brown turkey figs. A chocolate individual soufflé brought me back to the classics: served hot and airy, the chocolate dark and deep and running like lava. It was just the celebratory finale you want at a happily old-line restaurant—the rare club that welcomes you in.
Good to know
Follow chef Joe Schafer on Instagram (@josephschafer) to spot upcoming menu specials.
1198 Howell Mill Road
This article originally appeared in our November 2015 issue.