St. Cecilia

Ford Fry’s Italian blockbuster aims to please the masses
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

You can walk into Buckhead’s St. Cecilia and simply be swept into its maelstrom, starting with the stark drama of the 11,000-square-foot room—the glass windows three stories high, the white-tiled columns, and the ceiling that soars twenty-six feet into the sky. The throngs cram in three deep at the twenty-seat marble bar. On weekends the mob nearly wades into the dining tables. I’d not be surprised to see a woman tottering on four-inch heels tumble into the laps of diners, her sangria splattering all over an unamused patriarch’s bespoke suit. Servers maintain neutral expressions to conceal their panic as they power walk through the madness with plates of pasta and seafood scorching their hands. The clamor, the pace, the crowd’s unflappable confidence: This is the restaurant of the moment.

But for those of us who recall Bluepointe, the previous tenant of this mammoth space at the base of the slope-roofed Pinnacle building, St. Cecilia is also a reminder of where we’ve been as a dining town and where we are now. Buckhead Life Restaurant Group opened Bluepointe in 1999, at the height of the company’s cultural influence. The space, designed by the Johnson Studio, was an embodiment of the freewheeling Clinton era, a ruckus of primary colors and curving walls and lighting fixtures swirling like fireworks. It served ambitious fusion cuisine—curries, sushi, dumplings, king crab tempura, and puckery passion fruit in various forms for dessert. Both the design and the food felt like a gaping rip in the space-time continuum when Bluepointe finally closed at the end of 2011.

Ford Fry (chef-owner of JCT Kitchen & Bar, No. 246, and the Optimist) signed the lease on that behemoth in 2012. It could be considered a regime change, the hot restaurateur moving in on the veteran group’s territory, except that coup already happened last spring, when Fry took over Buckhead Life’s former Southwestern-themed Nava and turned it into swank, clubby King + Duke. Fry has obliterated any trace of Bluepointe at St. Cecilia: In this town, he’s now the one with the resources and the track record (the Optimist and King + Duke have both garnered national accolades) to convert an unwieldy piece of prime real estate into a glitterati magnet with staying power.

Design is always influenced by the trends of the day, but as I gaze down the sweeping staircase at the restaurant’s entrance, I can’t help but think that in ten years St. Cecilia too will look like a relic of its time: Here are the reclaimed wood floors and the white subway tiles—climbing to the rafters on the wide columns—seen over and over again in au courant Atlanta restaurants. I get it: It’s the Southern-meets-urbane aesthetic. But is it true sophistication for a town to repeat the same look ad nauseam? Design firms, can you please nudge your clients in some novel directions?

Bluepointe had a gaudy glamour even from its inception, and certainly the clean lines and soothing tones of St. Cecilia feel more timeless. But if there was something to admire in Buckhead Life’s fusion blockbuster, it was its all-in bravado: It grabbed onto the theme and stayed committed until filling its final order of crab Rangoon. St. Cecilia, on the other hand, appeals in the safest sort of ways. The menu takes inspiration from the Mediterranean coastline, but that’s just gloss for a kitchen churning out Americanized, broadly pleasing seafood and Italian dishes. To put it in celebrity terms: When I saw daytime soap queen Susan Lucci gliding onto a gray leather banquette two tables down from me, I said to my friend, “Perfect. She’s the right star for this restaurant. Clooney would be down the street at King + Duke, sharing the bone-in ribeye for two.”

St. Cecilia divides its menu into four main parts: crudo (raw seafood dishes, a style popularized by Mario Batali a decade ago at Esca in Manhattan), antipasti (salads and small plates), pastas, and entrees. The crudo section changes daily and can deliver some of the kitchen’s most pyrotechnic creations. The standout one evening was razor clams, their long, shimmery shells tinged with black—resembling, I imagine, the outstretched finger of a dementor from the Harry Potter universe. The clams themselves were supple and saline, tossed with green apple for a dash of acidity, and fennel and pine nuts for earthy oomph. Not every crudo dish came off so deftly calibrated. A tartare of cobia, a fish that swims in Southern waters, had a salmon-like richness but was more delicate; fillips of salt-and- vinegar chips and creamy horseradish pummeled the minced cobia’s flavor.

Executive chef Brian Horn (who has helped Fry develop menus for his recent restaurants but adopted St. Cecilia’s kitchen as his own) takes obvious pride in his housemade pastas. They’re where you most discern some pluck in the cooking. Spaghetti tossed with frilly Jonah crab, just enough serrano chile for the occasional flash of heat, and a handful of garlicky breadcrumbs for crunch is the kind of dish that sounds simple enough to throw together at home, but the attention to every ingredient elevates Horn’s version to a dining-out treat. This with, say, an apple and endive salad in a crème fraîche dressing would make an ideal solo meal at the bar—if you can muscle your way to a seat. Cappelletti may sound similar to capellini (angel hair pasta), but the former are kerchiefs of sheer dough folded around chopped Georgia shrimp and dolloped with sea urchin froth that gives the faintest aquatic whiff. Brown butter and basil lend depth and brightness to gnudi (fluffy ricotta spheres). Risotto with clams achieves a soupy, comforting unctuousness.

Starters and mains need some of the playfulness lavished on the pastas. Oh, the precise circle of beef tartare, the hunk of charred octopus, the cod over savoy cabbage, an austere but crisp slip of skate wing with capers, brown butter, and lemon—they’re all competent preparations, the kind that make you nod earnestly and say, “Yeah, fine, thanks” when the server asks how you’re enjoying the meal. But too little at St. Cecilia’s excites or surprises. After the exuberance of the Optimist’s seafood spectacles and the smoky Americana of King + Duke’s finest efforts, the food here comes off as, well, corporate. And I trust that, come spring, some fresh fruit will find its way in among heavy desserts like bomboloni (ricotta doughnuts) and budino (chocolate pudding).

Stellar cocktail and wine lists from Fry’s go-to beverage guru, Lara Creasy, heighten the experience: I loved the 2011 Bisson Marea Cinque Terre, a Ligurian white with a scent of ocean mist that matched the food eloquently. And the service, considering the size and volume of business, excels at spinning a cocoon around you, so you don’t feel rushed or pressured by the next party waiting for your table (because, unless you’re dining at 10:30 p.m., you know they’re there). But I’m already looking ahead to Fry’s next project, a “Mex-Tex” restaurant in Inman Park’s forthcoming Krog Street Market that will hopefully knock the Texas native and his cooking team out of the safe zone they’ve created for themselves in Buckhead.

St. Cecilia
Rating: 2/4 stars (very good)
3455 Peachtree Road
Hours: Lunch: Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday–Thursday 5–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5–11 p.m.

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue under the headline “Safety in Numbers.”