Both Oars in the Water

Art of the Meal

I've always wondered why Atlanta doesn't fully exploit its potential as a riverfront town. Other cities have bars and restaurants right on the banks of its lazy streams and rushing rivers; yet, despite the Chattahoochee's bucolic setting, few restaurants offer a perch to contemplate the swirls and eddies.





Canoe tries to make up for this local hydrophobia with a manic celebration of all things riparian - framed photographs commemorate the site's early '60s incarnation, Robinson's Tropical Gardens, complete with pastel-tinted water-skiing beauties. Wrought iron forges oars and waves and buoys where you least expect them - on light fixtures, across the bar, holding up tables. The bar burbles with businessmen and singles; diners, murmuring in the high-ceilinged main room, are an audible undertow. The big windows overlook a winding path and the banks of the 'Hooch.





The food, however, isn't remotely "resorty," that plague of serious eaters everywhere. Nothing frou-frou, nothing frivolous, no forced "fun." Canoe's laser-sharp menu is the effort of chef Gary Mennie, Canoe's rudder since it opened in 1995. He updates it regularly, and rotates specials on his "market menu" (a five-course tasting menu for $55 per person).





The wine list offers only a few selections by the glass, but it's well-matched to this exploratory menu. Overwhelmingly West Coast, the list boasts lots of Willamette Valley (Oregon) pinot blancs and pinot gris, as well as the familiar Napa and Sonoma selections, and a few (true French) Champagnes. Dessert wines, ports, sherries and single-malts are equally sure-footed, from Amontillado to Hennessy.





It's a hard bill of fare to categorize, unless you cast the fine-mesh net of eclectic, often a code word for confused. Here, however, it describes a cocoon of flavors swathing the carefully culled catch - Prince Edward Island mussels, Maine peekytoe crab, George's Bank diver scallops, Carolina rabbit. Mennie loves the deep, earthy taste of root vegetables, and he uses them in gutsy sides like candied shallots, red swiss chard with country bacon, glazed salsify, butter-braised escarole. Drizzles of the rich, sweet and fruity (truffle oil, huckleberry sauce, citrus champagne vinaigrette) expertly contrast the ethereal with the primal, like phosphorous glowing in a night current.





The big, seared Nantucket Cape scallops are a soft opener, the pickled Jerusalem artichokes and little pool of avocado cream the only hints of the complex tastes to follow. Surprisingly, the house salad of young mixed lettuces is more emphatic, with its tangle of crisp-fried taro and yucca, and a sherry-wine vinaigrette.





Mennie's affinity for basic, loamy flavors works especially well with game - the roasted rabbit has been a customer favorite for years. I can see why: Moist as stewmeat, sweetened with candied garlic, it's wreathed with red swiss chard-stuffed ravioli. Bits of crisp country bacon perfume the dish like incense.





You'll find more smoky pork wrapped around disks of monkfish, often called "poor man's lobster" for its dense, sweet meaty flesh. Gently sauteed shiitake mushrooms melt over celeriac puree, with braised leeks and a cider vinegar brown butter over all. It's one of the best balanced dishes I've ever sampled, every bite a revelation of the monkfish's nuances against its woodsy accompaniments.





Pastry chef Sara A. Koob turns out tempting concoctions of bittersweet chocolate cake with espresso foam and orange honey confit, a caramelized banana tart with walnut brittle ice cream, or roasted pineapple bread pudding with coconut rum ice cream. But we could not resist a beautifully burnished Marienberg 12-year-old tawny port, with small slivers of cheese - blue, goat, sheep's and cow's - from Georgia's own Sweet Grass Dairy.





Take a passage by Canoe, a carefully plotted singular adventure, powered largely by ingenuity.





Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact her at gtcritic@mindspring.com.





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