Tic Toc: The Pendulum Swings

Art of the Meal

When Carey Pickard gives feedback, he doesn’t mess around. “Please give Krista Reese a new map of Georgia – one with Macon on it!” the Tubman museum director thundered (via e-mail) in response to the 2003 Silver Spoons Awards. He was right: I’d left Macon out of the state’s best dining spots, simply because the restaurants I’d tried there in recent years ranged from not-very-exciting meat-and-threes to boring upscale chains, often in the suburbs. I hadn’t yet discovered what so many Maconites are enjoying: a burgeoning downtown dining scene, complete with jazz clubs, bars and restaurants, along with a growing interest in good food all over town.

The Tic Toc Room is a great example: This downtown brickface storefront is a repository of Macon history. Once a nightspot called Ann’s Tic Toc, its stage helped native son Little Richard get his start. James Brown also performed here. Years after downtown Macon went the way of most Georgia cities – that is, to the outlying commercial strips – life is returning to the beautiful old buildings near the Victorian courthouse dome, and the Tic Toc Room is back in business.

It’s a sleek, contemporary spot, where a cross-section of fashion-forward Maconites sip cocktails near the copper-ribbed light fixtures at the bar. Owner Cesare Mammarella mans the host station. His parents help out in the kitchen, here and at the Mammarellas’ more traditional, checkered-tablecloth restaurant Luigi’s, just across the way.

Macon’s downtown dining scene is growing up in fits and starts, with bold assertiveness followed by bouts of self-conscious shyness. Tic Toc’s former chef had created a modern American menu, with witty touches like the toast-your-own S’mores, served with marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate sauce, complete with a miniature flaming grill at your table. The new chef, Peter Fassbender, is cooking up a more complicated contemporary Continental menu, with Asian touches. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s weighed down with too many flavors and frou-frou, but it’s always interesting. The wine list, however, is confidently adult, with about 100 labels from the West Coast, Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand. The specialty cocktail menu includes the Tic Toc ‘tini, with Jose Cuervo, Rose’s lime juice and Midori.

Starters include sushi, salads and small plates. The salads are straightforward enough, with mixed organic greens and Romaine with asiago cheese, cherry tomatoes and the like. But the rest of the menu proves the maxim: How do you know what’s enough until you’ve had too much? “Enough” here qualifies as the good-quality ingredients, such as excellent, rare tuna; “too much” as the additions of Boursin cheese and dribbles of out-there, too-sweet sauces.

Take, for example, the fried green tomatoes: The kitchen gets the toughest part right, with an armor coating of fried cornmeal crust, just melting the green tomatoes inside. The layers of asiago cheese are also fine; but the barbecue sauce is sugary and the dribbles of strawberry puree push the pinball table to “TILT.” The crab cakes are less successful, with too little crab uncompensated for by the nothing-special mango remoulade.

The entrees, however, show Fassbender’s promise: At first bite, the seared, sushi-quality tuna seems another victim of excess, plated with papaya and celery salsa and coconut-scented rice, drizzled with ginger-orange teriyaki sauce. Slowly, however, the flavor layers grow in appeal, each complementing the other. However, the old-style osso bucco is an instant success: Slow-cooked, fork-tender, oven-braised beef with a concassee of vegetables, polenta and barely wilted arugula is the kind of dish you’d find in a smart Manhattan bistro.

Fassbender has yet to change the dessert menu, and his lack of attention shows in the dry-hearted “molten” chocolate cake. He also intends to remove the S’mores from the menu – and that’s too bad, since they’re a hoot. So what if you have one and remember why you haven’t toasted marshmallows since summer camp?

Categories: Art of the Meal