A big hand for Atlanta's Little Bacch

For more than 20 years, Anne Quatrano, along with her husband, Clifford Harrison, has been giving Atlantans the restaurants they didn’t know they wanted and needed.

When Bacchanalia opened in 1994 in its original Buckhead location, it suggested that American food could be just as worthy of fine-dining ritual as European. Floataway Cafe in 1998 served the city’s first mindblowingly good summer tomato salad before the phrase “farm to table” was a cliche. Abattoir in 2009 put tripe and lamb liver on its menu when diners were still unsure of pork belly.

Now comes Little Bacch, located in the small, courtyard-level space beneath Bacchanalia.

What is it? A huge surprise, if the name leads you to believe it will be a more casual follow-up to Big Bacch upstairs. Instead, it is a luxury jewel box, a room that strikes a tone unlike any restaurant in Atlanta. You might not even know what to think of it until you are deep into your meal and realize you are having a grand time — really dining, as opposed to grabbing a meal out.

The space previously had been Quiñones at Bacchanalia, a venue for extravagant multi-course meals, and its decor had a kind of creamy, sitting-parlor-in-a-rich-home swankiness. Now, the walls are a nonsubdued shade of teal, the lighting a series of dramatic spotlights, and the tables are set with lovely linens and cutlery.

The menu arrives on a sheet-metal slab the size of an iPad Mini, and its brevity casts off the rigamarole and coding of trendy dining today. There are no hints that this menu speaks the language of style, but every indication that it’s about finding the best meal for right now.

You will consider a handful of small plates, one fish, one meat and one chicken. What this menu calls “shrimp cocktail” or “oysters Rockefeller” will be more interesting that what its terse language lets on. And that chicken? Just you wait and see.

Is this restaurant formal or casual? Should you order plates for the table to share or your own appetizer and entree?

Here’s the real question, though: Does it matter? Find the meal that makes you and your dining companion or posse happiest.

That, of course, has always been the genius of Bacchanalia — the way it became the city’s favorite special occasion restaurant by avoiding the binary division of casual and upscale. People love it because, however they dress or whatever they expect from the meal, they are put at ease.

So it is at Little Bacch. If, say, you are wearing khakis and a golf shirt but your date goes for a vintage dress with vamp makeup and a fascinator pinned to her upswept hair, you will both feel dressed exactly right for this room.

Order a nice bottle of Billecart-Salmon champagne from the terrific wine list, and don’t act surprised when it arrives with stemless prosecco glasses. Easy intimacy, not tippy flutes.

Chef Joe Schafer (formerly of late, lamented Abattoir) knows that tone is everything; the food must be beautiful and soulful, but not precious or trendy.

That shrimp cocktail arrives in a bowl of summer’s distillate — a limpid tomato water — and garnished with marble-size scoops of tomato sorbet. It is cocktail sauce for the soul. Those oysters are creamy West Coast kumamotos, heated with herb-flecked Pernod butter just until their edges curl and topped with the sheerest, driest crisps you’ve ever had.

A salad with cucumbers, celery and torn lettuce and endive arrives in a rustic, unvarnished wooden bowl and is meant for sharing, maybe with the right people, maybe with just forks going into the bowl.

And here’s the chicken, served in a deep bowl: everything but the cluck. The leg quarters go on and on, right down to their spindly legs, feet and claws. The head nods off to the side. The breast comes sliced into thick sections, each with foie gras breadcrumbs stuffed under the skin. I believe this preparation is an homage to the signature chicken at NoMad in New York. I wish the skin were as crisp as that at NoMad, but I have nothing but praise for the remarkable flavor of this Green Circle chicken’s flesh.

On another visit, I was with a friend from work, and we were both celebrating new life adventures over a 28-day dry-aged New York strip, which was roasted on the bone and cut away into fat slices. It arrived on a board with crispy smashed potatoes, and it was the most luscious steak I’ve had all year. “It tastes better when you eat it right off the board,” said my friend, and she was right.

I’ve been to Little Bacch twice, and on both visits I experienced the delicious sensation of just falling back into the spirit of the place, not thinking about my food so much as seeing it as one component of dining well.

I might wish this expensive meal was flawless. The gruyère cheese soufflé arrived perfect on one visit and deflated on the next. The house canelés — a French pastry with a caramelized surface that gets so sticky when cooking that the molds must be coated with beeswax — were tasty, but too dense. Terrific little snails swimming around in too-big shells with not enough garlic butter were almost there.

But those are execution issues at a new restaurant — small-potatoes concerns.

The bigger picture is that Little Bacch strikes a tone, sets a mood and says something about the art of dining I had not heard before. For that, I am thankful to Quatrano and Shafer, and all Atlanta should be, too.

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