Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Taking it to my stomach - Bacchanalia

After years upon years of wanting to experience Atlanta’s best restaurant, I finally sucked it up and blew both the bank and my foodie load at Bacchanalia on Saturday night. Even making the reservation, I couldn’t help from feeling like a baller and was having a hard time deciding whether or not I should take the imaginary Lambo or Rolls there. Honestly, I can’t remember any other dining experiences where I was impressed to this extent before even entering the building. Beyond expecting a great meal, as I do at many other fine dining establishments, I knew this one would astound and leave me dumbfounded. And really, it did just that.

The problem with my pre-dining cognition was that it created quite a bias. Much like the Milgram experiment, when food authorities tell us something is the best, we often tend to believe or at least, go along with their opinions. So in this review, I’ll try to be as objective as possible and speak about my opinions outside of my prior groupthink mentality.
A very well hidden entrance

Props right off the bat: No valet parking! I know the area that is home to Bacchanalia pretty well and I knew that parking wouldn’t be an issue, but I despise valet parking and was so enthused that I could park my own car right next to the restaurant. Once parked, finding Bacchanalia proved to be a little confusing. Even though I’m familiar with the building that it’s housed in, the main entrance for Bacchanalia is actually towards the back of Star Provisions (the owner’s ritzy storefront and lunch/breakfast stand) much like Lazlo Hollyfeld’s closet in the Val Kilmer classic, Real Genius.
"Did you wanna borrow my pajamas?"

BTW-It may be hard to tell but Lazlo was played by Jon Gries of Uncle Rico/Napoleon Dynamite Fame

I made a reservation the previous night and the only times that were available then were 6:15 and 9:30. I took 6:15. I was still a little surprised that when we showed up, it was only filled half to capacity. The dining room was another surprise. It was very pretty inside, but not quite as… swanky as I had imagined it. Also much, much smaller than expected. Maybe 20 tables total? The crowd was actually an equal mix of younger and older couples and a few small groups. Contrary to what I thought would happen, the crowd actually got older as the night went on (I’m guessing they made reservations further in advance). One family brought their crying infant. Inappropriate. The atmosphere was a little stuffy, but tolerably so and got progressively better as the restaurant became more crowded and louder. One last comment on my first impressions: Both Kins and I were wearing dark clothes and we were both somewhat shocked that the servers left us with our white cloth napkins. We are not snooty, but when you go to the fanciest restaurant in town, you kind of expect these things.

The service was excellent - informative when you wanted it to be and not pompous or stuck up like some other nicer places. When ordering a soup, the bus boys will swiftly load a spoon in your utensil arsenal without causing an awkward pause in table conversation. I only have two minor qualms; our server was a little skittish, but not uncomfortably so, and our main course took a considerably long time to come out compared to our other dishes and other tables.

Now for the food. The menu is a four-course prix fixe (with expected periodic gifts from the chef) for seventy five dollars. For the most part, I adored, cherished, and loved the food here. I savored each and every bite and was already sad knowing that my next meal would not stack up in the slightest to my current one (And it didn’t. Don’t ever buy Archer Farms brand Belgian Waffle Mix). I’m going to review both Kins’ and my food since I tried a little bit of everything and it will give you, the reader, a more comprehensive idea of what the dishes are like.

Complimentary sourdough bread is brought to the table with delectable butter. This isn’t normal table bread - it’s perfectly soft and crusty and well, just great. We both hesitantly (as to not get too full) went through three slices over the course of the meal even though I was just using my last slice to soak up various sauces.

First gift:
We immediately received a gift from the chef. Cheese balls, for lack of a better term, wrapped in pasty. Pastry and melted cheese, straight from the oven. Can’t go wrong with that.

First course:
I chose an onion risotto and the dish was outrageously well done. The onion was a flavoring agent, much like an herb, and used in a manner that was subtle rather than overpowering as onion can often be. The texture of the risotto was perfect and I loved the mix of different types of onions in the dish. The risotto was topped with some thickly sliced, fancified mushrooms that were lemon flavored - unreal and original preparation of shrooms (and I don't even like mushrooms). This was probably the most impressive dish I had the entire night and in terms of flavor, was unlike anything I’d ever had.

Kins ordered the crab fritter. Hands down the best crab dish I’ve ever had. I’m not too crazy about crab or other shellfish, but I could eat this happily everyday. It comes in ball form and features some sliced avocado and fruit (I don’t remember what kind) in a Thai pepper sauce. The sauce is amazing and is the most pleasant use of heat I’ve ever experienced. It gently hits you right in the back of each bite – a little follow up of spiciness. So brilliantly done!

Bacchanalia had us completely hooked from this point on and we longingly awaited each subsequent course.

Next gift:
A sipping portion of celery or possibly fennel soup topped with apple and some infused oil. I don’t even like celery, but this was simple and tasty. I’m pretty sure apples were a featured local ingredient of the night as they were featured in a number of things on the menu and in all of the remaining gifts.

Main course:
I ordered what was essentially a pork medley. I would have honestly gone with the red snapper or the lamb, but the sides were real turn-offs for me. My dish featured pork tenderloin, house-made sausage, and braised pork belly. This dish was pretty disappointing (for the standards I had going into the meal and coming off the appetizer high). The pork tenderloin was cold and overly salted. The sausage was interesting in that it was very loosely packed. It just fell apart upon first chew, but was under-seasoned in my opinion. The pork belly was awesome, but how do you screw up pork belly. The best part of this dish was the Vidalia onion purée/young vegetable/house-cured bacon bed that the pork was resting on. I savored as much of the remaining broth as I could by sopping it up with my last slice of bread. I’ve had a dish very similar to this at 4th and Swift (3 Little Pigs) and the pork was arguably prepared better than Bacchanalia’s.

Kins went for the Lobster. Admittedly, I don’t have too much experience with Lobster and the dish did nothing for me and judging by her reactions, I think she thought it was only O.K. I didn’t even touch the cucumber and fennel salad that accompanied it.

Cheese & Contrast:
I opted for the gouda which was served with a crunchy green bean salad speckled with bacon and hazelnuts. This course was a great success with because of both the flavor pairings and quality of ingredients.

Kins opted for the Brie. Enticing me by telling me it smelled, well... bad(she’s quite the saleswoman), Kins offered me a taste. I didn't think it was as bad as her initial reaction let on, but I’d be the first to tell you – it was some stanky cheese! This is not the sweet, buttery brie I’m used to from Publix.

Third gift:
Mini apple smoothies served in mini highball shot glasses with rims dipped in sugar and salt. Very tasty, especially the sugar and salt rims but the texture was a little odd in that it was not as creamy as I anticipated. It was served with a lime leaf-shaped shortbread that was the perfect compliment. Not wanting to let any of it go to waste, we both made loud straw slurping noises when we hit the bottom of the glass. A touch of class we are!

Churros with what I now have come to find out was Mexican sipping chocolate. Whoops! I thought it was Mexican dipping chocolate and treated it as such. These were kind of under-whelming - they were just too crispy and not doughy enough. I attribute this to their thin size, but I can get better churros at La Churreria on Buford Highway. But not better sipping/dipping chocolate. This was kind of a throwaway effort.

Kins went for the apple buckle and it was beautifully plated. It had a butterfly like sliver of apple shooting out of the top and the plate featured perfectly circular dribbles of sauce. The flavor was uniquely delicious and the crust was crumbly perfection.

Final gift:
Mini cookies from the pastry chef. The first was a double/chocolate truffle and was just OK. It was rolled in sugar and tasted like your run of the mill truffle. Albeit a very rich one. The second was an apple cookie topped with an apple gel, for lack of a better term. Also very tasty. But the real joy in this round of gifts was the lemon brownie. Mind-numbingly wonderful blend of flavor and texture. They should most certainly make this a larger portion and make it a permanent fixture on the dessert menu.

Overall, Bacchanalia is the nicest dining experience I’ve had in Atlanta, or ever. I think it’s minor shortcomings can be overlooked because the meal was that satisfying. My main course was unacceptable for the $75 price but that’s my only real complaint.

Side Notes:
What I genuinely appreciated about Bacchanalia was that it wasn’t hoity-toity, flowery food. Sure it was pretty, but the focus was on taste and not entirely on presentation and I feel that many upscale restaurants fail on this front. They’ll give you small portions with exotic looking plates painted with brightly colored sauces. But do they really satisfy your mouth and stomach, or just your eyes? The plating and image of the restaurant was an afterthought and the food shined because of this. They gave us hearty portions of the most delectable vittles and for that, I thank you Bacchanalia. We left happy and extremely full.

As for the price - I knew how much the bill would be but seeing it was still shocking. With other fine-dining meals in the city marked with $20-$50 price tags, $75 is stratospheric in comparison. Is it worth it? Is a Mercedes worth twice as much as another luxury sedan? Is that pair of designer jeans really that much more fashionable than the GAP pair? I guess that judgment is only to be made by the consumer. Both Mercedes and Diesel Jeans seem to be doing just fine. To put things more in perspective however, you cannot get this quantity (4 large courses) of quality food for seventy five clams anywhere in Atlanta. That being said, I would return to Bacchanalia and find it completely acceptable and fitting for special occasions even if the bill hits you right in your satiated stomach.

Bacchanalia on Urbanspoon

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