Since I arrived in Atlanta more than a year ago, I’ve watched with a kind of awe Ford Fry’s design savvy, efficiency, and deployment of talent. Fry cannily matches visual feasts to his menus, with the visual feast generally outshining the feast feast. At St. Cecilia, the sumptuous, sweeping room is so breathtaking you don’t need to remember the fish, though it’s fine. At the wildly popular Superica and The El Felix, the eccentric, busy decor keeps you interested during the endless waits for tables, and the food’s hot-from-the-plancha freshness compensates for the dishes’ lack of subtlety or regional variety. It’s uplifting just to enter the repurposed ham-packing plant that is the Optimist, and the Southern-style fish is juiced with enough chiles and bacon to ensure you won’t get bored. All of these restaurants share a professional proficiency and slight corporate cast, though the fun makes up for any missing flavor or finesse.
When Fry took over the lease for the former slaughterhouse in the Westside Provisions District from Abattoir, the big, casual restaurant Anne Quatrano closed last spring, he announced his entry into the big-ticket steakhouse sweepstakes. Why not? He has the magic touch. And he’s fast: While building out Marcel (his eighth restaurant in Atlanta), he was also preparing to launch BeetleCat, a smaller Optimist-style fish house in Inman Quarter.
Marcel opened its doors in July, barely three months after Abattoir closed. The motif is somewhere between 1890s Gilded Age New York and 1960s three-martini Mad Men lunch. Piaf is on the soundtrack, fencing masks serve as sconce shades in the big, dark bar, and period photos of Parisian boxers are arrayed on the ceiling. The Frenchy overlay, Fry says, was inspired by Marcel Cerdan, a boxer who became a national hero in 1940s France and who popularized beefsteak dinners. An aggressive theme softened with old Parisian glamour must have struck Fry as right for a restaurant where men can impress their business and romantic conquests with their money to burn.
They’ll need it. The prices at Marcel are stupendous. From the moment you do a double take at the menu, you’ll wonder why you would pay them. And when the check comes (if you can flag down someone to bring it), you’ll still have no idea. Virtually every aspect of the chaotic, fragmented service feels clumsy or neglectful, and the kitchen has one instinct—leaden excess. It’s rare to see such a calamitous collision of ambition and execution.
Maybe the collision was inevitable with such a compressed timeline. The service at Marcel was so haphazard I could only conclude there wasn’t time to sufficiently train anyone. (I made four visits; the first was well into Marcel’s third month.) The staff is divided in the classic steakhouse ranks—captains in black jackets, servers in white—yet no one seemed to own a table. The captain we assumed would be our point person would vanish, never to return; other servers or captains would randomly appear (or more likely not appear) to take our next order or run the food. The host who seated us came back to ask if things were going well at the very end of our meal, too late to track down missing servers or orders—and they do go missing—let alone the check. This was particularly puzzling when servers and captains continually paced the rows between tables in the rectangular room like prison guards. They looked but didn’t see: empty glasses in need of refilling, long-finished plates in need of clearing, dirty tables in need of wiping. The parade was as mute and unstoppable as the mile-long freight train that passes nightly on the tracks outside.
Nor did we get much assistance in selecting steaks, a matter that acquires unusual import when any single order puts your next car payment at risk. Aside from an entrecôte—Marcel’s version of steak frites, for what is by comparison a bargain $30—steak starts at $45 and immediately climbs to $70. And that’s for one. The 30-ounce porterhouse for two is $125; 42 ounces for three is $165. For those prices, the servers should be able to sell steaks with descriptors beyond “dry-aged,” “wet-aged,” and “marbling,” which mean little to the uninitiated. But two out of three servers we asked could get no further, nor did they mention char level or texture or flavor, nor ask us our preferences in steak.
So then: How’s the beef? Blah. Bland. The butter and beef-fat basting after a turn on the wood grill added richness but didn’t compensate for missing flavor. The one dry-aged cut, côte de boeuf, which two servers told us was their favorite, had little of the blue-cheese tang that one server (who did offer the descriptor) promised; aside from a denser chew, it seemed little different from the wet-aged cuts. Porterhouse arrived already carved and decorous on its small platter, with none of the drama the bone-in cut usually has—though the bone did offer the best chance to gnaw your way to some of the flavor the inert meat lacked. The best option (and value) was the steak frites. The meat doesn’t have the butter-tallow basting, so you can taste through to the beef flavor; the absence of a fat-soak gives it some gusto, as does the herby green sauce.
The rest of the menu offered little relief. Sole meunière was just a blond, bland piece of fish—and, like the other non-steak options, blanketed in butter and startlingly expensive ($37). The three kinds of potatoes sounded interesting but were nearly indistinguishable. Stick with the puree, which—unlike aligot (with cheese curd and Gruyère) and dauphinoise (with cheddar and garlic cream, smeared with crème fraîche)—didn’t pretend to be more than a buttery, creamy mash. The few vegetables, including roasted asparagus and creamed corn gratin, seemed to be chosen for visual appeal, with no regard for seasonality or discernible taste. Spinach gnudi, rather than the light-as-air spinach-ricotta dumplings they should be, were solid-cheese disks with no loft; another time, a blizzard of shaved grana and garlic breadcrumbs made them seem less larval than the naked, oil-slicked pupae we were first served, but they tasted even more like uncooked flour.
Fry told Evan Mah, our food editor, that the sticker shock is a reflection of the prices charged by the Chicago-based meat supplier he chose after many blind tastings, which meant higher food prices and lower profit margins for him. My hunch is that in blind tastings I’d choose the beef from, say, Kevin Rathbun Steak or Bones, or the stellar chuletón—a bone-in ribeye—at Cooks & Soldiers, all of which cost less ounce for ounce. The 2.2-pound “King” bone-in ribeye at King + Duke (another Fry outpost) is grilled simply over wood and judiciously salted—and it beats any tallow-basted beef at Marcel, while seeming a positive bargain at $87. But whatever the reason for Marcel’s high prices, they need to deliver value you can taste. Alas, they don’t.
There is one time to sample Marcel at its best: Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., when you can try the steak frites at a bargain-basement rate; all entrees on the brief and shapely late-night menu are $10. You can also have the best beef dish the restaurant serves—a cheeseburger, also on the lunch menu.
And there is one place where you can find a clubby, effortlessly masculine room that invigorates the kind of spendthrift classics—particularly appetizers like oven-browned oysters and escargots—that Marcel takes a swing at and misses. That’s Little Bacch, the snug boîte beneath Big Bacch, just over the railroad tracks behind Marcel, to which owner Anne Quatrano and chef Joe Schafer retreated after they couldn’t make Abattoir work. Rectangular plates at Little Bacch are recycled from Abattoir, name visible and intact, perhaps as a reminder of how you can reinvent yourself on a much smaller scale. Maybe it will take another Atlanta star to make the Marcel space finally work. And maybe we’ll be seeing Marcel memorabilia in a smaller Ford Fry creation next year. Or, given the pace at which he opens new restaurants, at two or three.
Good to know
Marcel’s definition of doneness (rare, medium, etc.) may differ from yours. Ask your server in advance.
1170 Howell Mill Road
This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.