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.