Bacchanalia has been around for a very long time. Before I even moved to Georgia, I was aware of Bacchanalia, notoriously mentioned in every list of elite restaurants in the city of Atlanta. So how do I go about covering a restaurant that has garnered every accolade, been featured in every major publication, and been pelted with award after award?
One way would be to act as the contrarian. Play the Toby Young / Simon Cowell card and try to garner street-cred by calling their finest days behind them; being oh so trendy and flocking to the newer, exciting spots and declaring Bacchanalia passé. Last night, I could have very well played that part. Bacchanalia’s food wouldn’t let me.
I was dining alone and on my first mission where the management was aware beforehand of my intentions to cover the restaurant. I almost felt like Anton Ego from Ratatouille. I walked into Bacchanalia with deliberate, careful strides. Still clad in my work garb, my shoes knocked loudly on the wood flooring and reverberated conspicuously throughout the empty Star Provisions . My gigantic camera weighed heavily in my hand and made it impossible for me to be on my best, demure behavior. The hostess had been expecting me. Game time.
Thankfully, a familiar face was working that day. She is an acquaintance from my days when I was obsessed with Abattoir and she was expediting that evening. My server comes over and explains the menu, a 4-course prix fixe (with the occasional supplement for truffles and other goodies) where you select one from four categories: appetizer, entrée, cheese & contrast and dessert. I felt saucy tonight; I told the server to let the expediter decide my fate.
Now for reasons that I haven’t figured out yet, requesting a blind tasting, explaining that I trust them completely and that I’m in for whatever journey they are willing to take me on is hard. The restaurant wants you to be happy, so they proceed carefully: suggesting rather than surprising. I explained again: do whatever you want, I have no allergies and I trust you completely. I also decided on doing the suggested wine pairings, by the half glass.
I sipped on the champagne that I ordered at the bar to summon my appetite and open the palate when the first gift from the kitchen arrived: a lilliputian gougere in a silver tray. Bacchanalia is a very dark restaurant by photographic standards. The lighting is soft and very flattering to your fellow diners, but it makes it almost impossible to photograph without artificial lighting. I am desperately trying to make my camera cooperate, but without using speedlights or a tripod. However, I was still there as a diner and not a photographer, and it began to sink in that this was going to be the most difficult photo assignment I’ve ever undertaken. I found a combination of exposure settings that made the chronicling of this meal plausible, if mediocre. I knew that it wouldn’t be pretty, and we wouldn’t be able to do any prints, but for the web and for this initial review, it would have to suffice. If anyone out there can let me take pictures of the food in the brightly-lit kitchen, please let me know.
The first gift from the kitchen arrived: a single shot of sweet potato soup with an apple salad. Absolutely delightful and instantly transported me to the heart of the Fall season.
As I eagerly awaited what delights might come from the kitchen, it dawned on me how quiet it was. Sepulchral and intimidating, the atmosphere weighed heavily as the music was off for the night and the diners had apparently just egressed from finishing school and were on their more polite, soft-spoken behavior. Relax fellow diners, it’s just food. Sure, Bacchanalia is ostensibly a monument of fine dining, but a meal has to be more than a sum of its parts. A meal should be a joyous experience punctuated by enthusiastic dialog. I even made a comment to my involuntarily-deputized sherpa guide for the evening, and her take was that the lack of music was driving the silence.
The first course arrived: Glazed Veal Sweetbreads, Pearled Barley, Braised Escarole, Blood Orange Gastrique. I was served a magnificent beast, a colossal sweetbread that was done “General Tso’s style”. This is, without a doubt, the best sweetbreads dish I’ve ever had in my life. Phenomenal doesn’t begin to describe it. It was playful and whimsical with the General Tso’s theme and it hit the precise chord that paralleled true fine dining and comfort food. I was intoxicated with it, and I couldn’t stop eating.
But the kitchen wasn’t done with me quite yet: they threw in a second appetizer, the Gulf Crab Fitter with Citrus and Thai Pepper Essence. The fritter was delicious and the thai pepper essence provided a heat level that was assertive but not unpleasant. The oranges and the avocado were portioned perfectly and created a fantastic flavor profile. Great as it was, it was hard for me to get over the sweetbreads.
I waited for my entrée and sipped carefully on my half glasses of paired wines. I couldn’t help but notice that several patrons were celebrating. A birthday, a couple of anniversaries. And still, eerie silence and robotic composure from the guests. Seriously folks, relax. The entrée made its appearance: American Kobe Shortribs, Young Vegetables, Hedgehog Mushrooms, Natural Consommé. The dish came out and was sauced with the consommé tableside.
The dish was beautiful and the shortrib was extremely generous in size. To describe the shortrib simply as fork-tender is an egregious understatement. However, the dish as a whole had an impressive mix of textures and techniques represented in the young vegetables. The hedgehog mushrooms were gorgeous, impish in scale and personality. Tiny fungi in their natural habitat amongst the young vegetables.
It was cheese time. A dish of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, Medjool Dates, Saba and Honey was placed before me, intricately plated with the cheese shavings standing up like shark fins. This dish was good, but a tad too sweet, betraying the section’s title and not providing enough contrast. Perhaps a bit more acid could have brightened up the offering. Maybe a bit more salad.
The server asked me, and I answered honestly, so a more exciting cheese and contrast option was brought out: Vermont Butter & Fresh Goat Cheese, Roasted Beets, Young Greens, Beet Sorbet. Although up to this point my pictures had been uniformly horrible, this was one dish whose pictures I can’t bring myself to post. I just did a very poor job. The dish was good though, though strangely proportioned. It had slices of raw beets, roasted beets, a beet sorbet quenelle and two dollops of the goat cheese. The flavors were fantastic, particularly the beet sorbet, but there was too much of the roasted beets. The dish itself was also a bit large and after the generous portions so far, I was getting very full.
Another gift from the kitchen, this time from the pastry chef, was brought: Hot Chocolate With Marshmallow, Gingerbread Cookie.
Finally, dessert came: Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Tangerine Sorbet, Black Pepper Biscotti. Black Pepper Biscotti? With a tangerine sorbet? I have to admit, it worked. However, I thought the dessert took a voluntary back seat to the rest of the meal. It was well-executed and competent but didn’t inspire the awe that some of the other ones did.
The meal drew to a close. There was a round of petit fours and later, a madeleine. I took my time to sip on my water and contemplate the meal I’d just had. Between the Proustian recollections of the sweetbreads and the quirkiness of the mushrooms, I had enjoyed a superb meal. Minor nit-picking aside, it’s impossible to not fall in love with Bacchanalia’s food. But like I said, a meal is always more than the sum of its parts, or in this case, the courses. The restaurant was far too empty on this Monday, and the exuberance of a crowd that’s really digging their meal was missing. I suppose that I’ll have to return for another tasting, on a busier night, with music.
I can only hope that the weekend crowd agrees with me: You shouldn’t go to Bacchanalia as part of a celebration; eating at Bacchanalia is the celebration.