Bacchanalia: Always Tasteful

Art of the Meal

Bacchus has a bad rep. Most people don't know that the God of the Vine grew out of his frat-boy-style vernal binges, called bacchanalia, later becoming known not just for inebriation, but also for the spark of inspiration that informs great work.





So Atlanta's most gracefully inspired restaurant, Bacchanalia, is properly named. This is no wine-soaked party out of bounds, but a respectful celebration, as regenerative as spring. Atlanta's most knowledgeable foodies usually place it among the city's top three restaurants, trading off with Seeger's and BluePointe, but Bacchanalia's Clifford Harrison, who founded the restaurant with partner Anne Quatrano, sums up what sets the place apart from those two brilliantly ambitious enterprises: "There is no ego in our cooking," he says. "It's all about the product."





The dinner menu changes daily, depending on that product, so the choices are height-of-season. You can always count on a good running fish (trout, snapper), oysters whenever possible, as well as duck and veal. Two menu items are fixtures: The blue crab fritter with Thai pepper essence, and Quatrano's warm Valrhona chocolate cake. And increasingly, Bacchanalia's astonishing cheese selections are becoming as much a trademark as Harrison and Quatrano's cooking. (The two won the James Beard Foundation's award for best chefs in the Southeast last year.)





The $65 prix fixe for four courses is an incredible bargain for the food's quality and nuanced artistry. Bacchanalia has a fascinating and lengthy wine selection, but it's most fun to put yourself in the restaurant's able hands and choose the suggested matching wines for each course, typically between $8 and $12 per glass.





At Bacchanalia, a discriminating palate does not translate to off-putting or even challenging combinations. On the contrary, the defining quality of this cuisine is its homey, easily accessible deliciousness. Take, for example, the veal sweetbreads with grits and pancetta. The sweetbreads are creamy, the grits mountain-style with a rivulet of pan juices reminiscent of red-eye gravy, the pancetta a thick, smoky cut of naturally cured Italian bacon that won't leave you parched with nitrates the next day. The California snails are as fresh-tasting as iced oysters, even in this Francophilic gratin of butter, crisp bread crumbs, butter, shallots, and butter.





Subtlety comes in layers in the superb roast halibut with white tarbais beans, or the Copper River wild king salmon with velvety leeks and potatoes. For gutsier flavors, roast rack of veal with chanterelles and potato gnocchi fills in the checklist for meat-and-potatoes urges with the highest level of skill. Only two dishes seemed less than sublime: The half-shell oysters (half dozen of the day's best selection) were magnificent, steamed Hawaiian prawns simple and good, and the lamb crepinettes (sausages) wonderfully gamy, but the combination of the three just didn't work. While the duck with confit and roast turnips and parsnips was delicious, a thick layer of fat lay under the crisp skin.





For the cheese plate, you may either select from the day's choices (always three each of cow's, goat's and sheep's milk), from all over the world: such as a dense Kirkham's Lancashire, grassy Fontina Val D'Aosta, creamy Anteigado, dressed with sherry vinegar. Or try one of Bacchanalia's juxtapositions, such thick shavings of parmigiano-reggiano with Medjool dates, or shaved pecorino romano with local arugula.





You'll still have dessert to look forward to: And if you've never had the molten chocolate cake, you'll understand immediately why customer demand keeps it on the bill of fare. The Meyer lemon pudding cake, with its pure ingredients and mix of flavor and texture, lends Bacchanalia's cuisine an old-fashioned goodness.





It's the kind of high-minded inspiration that would make Bacchus proud.





Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.





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