Bacchanalia (be warned: it’s a long one)

Friday night we celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary (a week late) by maxing out all five senses with feasts of food and music. It was almost too much. The night started with a traffic jam on 85 south that had me nervously wringing my hands in the passenger seat, considering whether my new black wedge heels would handle a quick 4-mile jog to the restaurant after abandoning our car on the interstate. I decided they couldn’t handle it (notice how I blame the shoes), but Tim artfully exited and took an alternate route. We were only 20 minutes late for our 6pm reservation.

Bacchanalia is located in what appears to be an old warehouse or industrial-use building. Its storefront is Star Provisions, the sister venture where you can buy gourmet foods and wares. I was a little confused at first, thinking I’d walked through the wrong door. But after strolling lustfully past food items that I cannot even begin to afford, I caught a glimpse of the restaurant entrance in back.

We apologized for our tardiness, but it seemed easily forgiven by the hostess who turned out to be one of the owners. She seated us at a corner table, and we both quickly surveyed the scene to see if our dress was appropriate. It was, and we probably could’ve gotten away with going more casual. We saw everything from coats and ties to bluejeans, but the atmosphere definitely lends itself a bit more to the former, so while I don’t think a tie is necessary, I wouldn’t wear denim. But that’s just me.

We were immediately greeted by a server who asked us in a very soothing voice if we’d like to start off with a drink, some champagne perhaps? We declined, and as he walked away, another white-coated server appeared with menus, describing how the prixe fixe ordering works, and after he walked away yet another server appeared bearing gifts “from the chef” — two puff pastries filled with cheeses. As we munched our pastries a fourth server appeared, asking if we had any questions about the menu. Our habit is to ask for recommendations — and take them based on the level of knowledge and/or excitement communicated in delivery — but this particular server just looked a bit confused and said something about everything at Bacchanalia being recommended. He turned out to be our least favorite — and yes, we did have about five different servers. That was a bit hard to get used to, and I can’t say I really liked it.

But, on to the food. I’ve been trying to come up with a good analogy to help describe what we experienced. It’s not enough to say that what we ate was “good” or even “fantastic,” because that necessarily puts it on par with any other meal that I’ve described in the same way. See, by a course or two in (it was a prixe-fixe, four-course meal) we were keenly aware that what we were experiencing was not like any meal at any restaurant ever before. The best analogy I’ve come up with is a fashion one (my analogies are usually about food, but that obviously fails me here): the meal was like having a couture dress fitted precisely to my size and shape (or, Tim having a custom-tailored suit). Owning a dress like that would be like owning a piece of art. It couldn’t be compared to a dress I bought at TJMaxx — a cheap dress that is a favorite, is more appropriate on most occasions, and more comfortable. But it’s not fine art. What we ate was just that. And it helps to go into it with that in mind.

The menu changes almost daily, so I won’t bore you with an exact description of all we had. Instead, a selection of personal favorites:

  • The favorite appetizer: Gulf Crab Fritter with Thai Pepper Essence
    This wasn’t something I would’ve picked off the menu, since I was a little wary of the “essence” (blame Emeril for my newfound distaste of the word). But it was recommended by a more helpful server, and described as one of their signature dishes. And it was just flat out and up front delectable. Sweet and spicy, perfectly textured, worth fighting over the last bite.
  • The favorite entrée: Poached Prime Tenderloin Pot au Feu with Roasted Marrow, Kobe Short Rib & Aromatic Broth
    Oh, my, I am so glad I’m not a vegetarian. This tenderloin brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. I don’t know how, but it got better with each bite — every forkfull brought clearer realization of perfection in texture and melt-in-your mouth flavor, unlike any beef I’ve ever had. It was three slices of tenderloin, with sides of marrow and kobe rib. You heard me. Marrow. I even got a fun utensil to scoop the marrow out of the bone that was standing upright on one end of my plate. I hesitated for a moment, but plunged in, with reward. It wasn’t like the tenderloin, but was reminiscent of a rich mushroom broth, with a texture not entirely unlike a raw oyster. The kobe short rib was the flavor punch — one server explained that it was braised 3-4 hours in wine and condensed veal stock. It was very nearly the most tender beef I’ve ever tasted, with flavor to match.
  • The favorite cheese/contrast: Shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano with Medjool Dates
    This was a tough call. Our other cheese selection was a more subtle goat cheese with a selection of beets, one of which slipped from beneath my fork and ended up on our table, staining the white cloth a bright magenta-red. But the parmigiano and dates were phenomenal. They could’ve passed for our desert — the dates were so sweet and soft, it made me question whether I’d ever before eaten a real date. The cheese, with its salty, slightly crunchy texture, perfectly balanced the date, creating the ideal segway to desert. This might be my “must-have” recommendation from the evening.
  • The favorite desert: both.
    Strawberry Soufflé with Chocolate Créme Anglaise, and
    Coconut Tres Leche with Lemon Basil Gelato
    When the server brought the deserts, he stuck a spoon into the puffed soufflé and poured the warm anglaise into the middle. I could’ve drunk the anglaise straight from its tiny pitcher, but it belonged in that soufflé. It was a luxurious take on the classic duo of ripe strawberries and chocolate.

    The tres leche was a finely textured cake, soaked with sweet coconut milk (and two other milks, apparently, hence the “tres” part), but between the slightly tart gelato as an accompaniment and the spicy chipotlé-laced cookie on the side, this take on a traditional latin-american desert was over the top.

Other things are worth mention. We were brought no less than six extra tasting items from the kitchen. A small cup of chilled asparagus soup, an orange and fennel float, tiny pastries that included homemade marshmallows and chocolates, and a cupcake in honor of our anniversary (don’t worry, they didn’t sing to us). The wine — two of the cheapest glasses of red on the menu — was probably some of the best wine we’ve ever had. The wine that makes you realize how much cheap wine you drink. And the service. I had the distinct impression for the entire night that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. We were being pampered, as was everyone else in that room. I tried to check my insecurities at the door, and was happily free from them the minute we started eating. The last reward came as we were leaving. We were caught gazing into the windows that line the kitchen, and the co-owner of the restaurant asked us if we wanted to go in. I looked quickly at Tim, since I knew we were late for our show, but found myself saying, “Sure!” as I caught his gaze. So she took us in to the quietest kitchen we’ve seen in our limited restaurant experience. It was running like a well-oiled machine as we stood there watching, with Anne Quatrano describing the working order of her kitchen. Call me a food geek, but it was almost as good as the time I stood speechless in front of Hugh Acheson at the Five Points Bottle Shop.

The only negative aspect of the whole experience: harken with me back to the first paragraph of this post, where I stated that “it was almost too much.” It reminded me of the times I’ve been in a really good, really big museum, like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Orsay, or the Louvre. It’s so staggeringly overwhelming to see so many priceless works of art in one place, feet apart, that the pieces start to lose their significance. I would find myself, after an hour or so, walking past lesser-known Picassos or Cézannes, thinking, yeah, whatever, I’m ready to get to this other room. I didn’t give the respect or attention to pieces, lost in their sea of masterpieces, that I’d give them if they were in, say, someone’s house. Or even in a smaller exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. The same with this food. Everything we ate was nothing short of perfect, but the plates that had subtler or less familiar flavors (say, the foie gras) were overshadowed by the louder, more rambunctious, front-of-the-palate headliners. I feel like I could’ve spread the whole meal over a week, and given it more justice.

But alas, it was only one night. One night in five or so years (that’s about how often the budget will allow the extravagance). And a full one it was — from there, we saw a characteristically mind-boggling performance by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, at the Fox. But, some friends noted yesterday after we described our evening that we seemed more excited about the food. And neither of us could disagree.

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