I’m a holdout for fancy duds in temples of gastronomy. My friend had laughed earlier in the day when I asked if he was wearing a tie to dinner, and the table of four that sat down after us included two men wearing jeans and shirts with psychedelic prints. Hey, I wear jeans and T-shirts out to eat all the time, but I also savor the ritual of pulling out the finery when it feels appropriate.
Quinones’s pricey level of extravagance makes it a holdout of sorts as well. Economic doldrums have naturally cut into its customer base, and the casualization of American dining continues unabated: Way fewer big-ticket destinations open these days, and haute chefs now invest their skills in burger joints.
But this restaurant—named for James Quinones, the manager of Floataway Cafe who was killed in a car accident in 2004—has always struggled with its identity. When it opened in 2005, it initially aimed to elevate Southern cuisine into the high-end milieu. But it basically ended up being a protracted journey into Bacchanalia’s Mediterranean and California cooking. Quinones needed its own personality, its own raison d’etre.
Inspired by the farm-to-table phenomenon that started a few years back, Anne Quatrano (who owns the restaurant with Clifford Harrison) strived in 2007 to push the menu in truly Southern directions, offering dishes such as Lowcountry Frogmore stew and short ribs with spoon bread and collard greens. Then the recession came, and last year Quatrano and Harrison opened Abattoir, with its demanding, revolving mix of small plates. Quinones went from operating five nights a week down to Fridays and Saturdays. During the summer, it is now open only on Saturdays. And the set menu, disappointingly, is once again an extension of Bacchanalia.
At a recent meal, the food didn’t always deliver—a shock, given the cost, the exceptional service, and the mannerly room filled with smoky mirrors and lambent chandeliers. Certainly, moments of brilliance blazed: an amuse-bouche of silky corn soup with pickled red onion, capped with a single chicharrón (fried pork rind, a signature dish at Abattoir). Maine halibut seared with gusto and served with gossamer spring onions, slivers of artichoke, and tiny, crisp tomato chips. A tasting of lamb that included medium-rare tenderloin, a luscious round of herbed forcemeat made from leg of lamb, and a link of lamb sausage redolent with cumin.
The kitchen cribbed five of the evening’s courses straight from Bacchanalia’s menu: foie gras terrine; boudin-stuffed quail; Sweet Grass Dairy’s Camembert-style Green Hill matched with tiny, elegant portions of peach chutney, peach gelée, and a slick of peach puree; lemon-buttermilk panna cotta studded with blueberries; and a final dessert that included a nifty version of white chocolate roasted until it developed a caramel hue and flavor. Is this repetition a bad thing? If I’d not been in the rare position of reviewing both Bacchanalia and Quinones simultaneously, I wouldn’t have been so familiar with these preparations—all of which were precisely executed. Still, it clearly broadcasts the lack of individuality at Quinones.
And two of the dishes unique to the restaurant fell flat. Tuna crudo (the Italian version of sashimi) with radish, fennel, and avocado needed a more acidic pop than a splash of soy sauce to brighten the combination. And fried Kumamoto oysters in a refreshing bath of tomato water with cucumber, dill, and caviar arrived room temperature and nearly soggy. Oysters fresh from the fryer would have made this dish sublime.
So consider this a down cycle in the constant evolution of Quinones. Once the economy truly rebounds, and expense accounts and disposable incomes surge, the restaurant may rouse itself to reveal a unique personality. I’ll check back then—still in my finest pinstripe. —Bill Addison
1198 Howell Mill Road
HOURS Saturday 6–10 p.m.
Photograph by Alex Martinez. This review originally appeared in our August 2010 issue.