Paces 88 Restaurant At The St. Regis Hotel – Buckhead, Atlanta, GA [First Impressions]

Hot on the heels of places like BLT Steak and Craft Atlanta, while just ahead of Livingston, Paces 88 has opened at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead.  Though it will be supplanted by the new BLRG restaurant, Paces 88 currently serves as the flagship, and sole, dining option at the St. Regis.  This new entry into high brow Atlanta dining is a comfortable mix of old guard Southern style and new American cuisine.  Though far from perfect, my initial experience here leaves me very optimistic for the future.

The light color scheme, elevated ceilings, and snazzy wait staff scream something these other places don’t: welcome to 1950s Atlanta.  While I may be off on the decade, this is not to imply that the environment is dated.  Far from it, the ills of the world are left at the door in favor of a more “elevated” attitude.  Simply put: you don’t go Honda looking for an Aston Martin; so don’t go to Paces 88 for the everyman experience.

The staff is a poached sample of Atlanta’s best.  We recognized service staff from Bone’s (and a few other Atlanta hot spots).  Meanwhile, the kitchen is manned by Jonathan Jerusalmy and Mark Alba.  While Jerusalmy is an import, Alba has been around the Dirty South for some time now.  Interestingly enough, Paces’ website makes no mention of JJ.  Meanwhile, Hérve Pennequin, sommelier extraordinaire, previously dropped his wine stylings on visitors to Nicholai’s Roof.  Last but not least, Laurend Abraham has come over from Craft Atlanta to serve as gm.  Prior to serving as gm at Craft, Laurend worked at nearby Posh.

I found every employee, from the hostess to the water boy, to be extremely approachable.  Our waiter was particularly friendly.  He did little to artificially fluff up the food yet everything to describe it appropriately.  In fact, my biggest problem with my experience was with the people … but not the employees.  The Buckhead Betty’s, the trust fund babies, and people who got way too rich way too early in life were in full force.  I have never seen so many people ask for a different table!  ugghgh…

But I digress and must return to the meal at hand.  We started with the chicken liver pâté and the steamed mussels.  The mussels showed up nicely steamed and plated, while the pate caught my attention out of the corner of my eye.  Like the version delivered at Holeman & Finch, the pate comes in a little mason jar.  Thickly cut pickles and fresh bread slices, along with a side of spiced mustard, joined the pate on the plate.

The mussels were a hit.  Whether I call them very very good or excellent is simply a matter of semantics.  What’s important is that these bad boys were slurped down … and quickly.  Andouille sausage, leeks, and garlic mixed into the white wine broth with such subtlety, I immediately knew two things.  First, these chefs know what they are doing.  Second, they had just set a high bar.

The leeks were soft yet resistant to light pressure, the andouille popped at the bite and the mussels were spot on.  Neither too large nor too small, they maintained just a hit of the ocean.  In other words: they tasted exactly like they should have tasted.  The broth carried the dish.  Neither demonstrative nor meek, it stewed for just the right amount of time.  The garlic was a perfect addition.  In light sauces like this one, you have to be careful.  If you put in the garlic too soon … it will turn and overpower the dish – quite pungently at times.  Added too late and you will lose the flavor altogether.  Oh yeah, some fennel crostini showed up.  It was an after thought for me.

I cleaned my palate and made a beeline for that pate.  “HOLY SHIT THAT’S FUCKING GOOD” … the nice lady across the table nearly jumped from her seat.  Don’t worry, I wasn’t so loud as to disturb anyone else in the restaurant.  That said, I probably should have.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this dish as I probably won’t shut up about it.  While the bread was a give or take, everything else was flat out amazing.  The bread and butter pickles, made in house, were nothing short of perfect.  Sweet and savory at the same time, they paired perfectly with the pate.  In reality, it was a mousse.  I can’t tell you how many times I find a chicken liver pate (or mousse) where it is clear the liver was not cooked long enough to soften up.  In this case, it was … add in the whipping cream they must have used and you have the start of something beautiful.  Creamy and spreadable, this was easily the best pate I’ve had in this city (outside of my mom’s house), in the last 3-years.

My heart sank as we finished our first course; I was sad to see it go.  It was as good as I could have asked … in every way.  As we moved on to the main part of the meal, I had high hopes.  On the table: a sandwich that was essentially a bagel with salmon, a shrimp salad over fresh greens, and grilled salmon with corn-bacon ragout.

Their lunch menu is made up primarily of sandwiches.  A handful of selections show up that are also available at night; however, I don’t think this menu is really up to par.

The shrimp salad was a serviceable meal, but nothing more.  While it was not bad, the shrimp, in a light  sauce with hints of citrus, were simply just there. The greens were fine, the baby shrimp were cooked properly, and the sauce was applied appropriately.   Individually, each ingredient was a fine example; however, the dish as a whole lacked any real personality.  As such, I’m left with this non-descript recap.

The bagel was as far away as I could have expected based on the description found on the menu.  My notes say the following: smoked salmon over fontina dill cream on rye with cucumber with side of caper buds. Being a bagel and lox aficionado, I know good smoked fish when I see it – this, my friends, failed epically.  Again, let’s keep this in perspective:  This was a far cry better than anything you’d get at a J. Christopher’s or Einstein’s.  For the level of excellence put forth by the apps, this was a pretty substantial flop.

Even worse, the bagel was toasted for too long.  You can tell when a bagel has been toasted even if it was already past its prime.  This was one such case.  The ingredients were beautifully laid out over the base of the bagel; unfortunately, the top was simply not necessary.  It was placed angled over the edge so as not to cover up the beautiful presentation of the cucumber slices.  It was thick and fairly unnecessary.  I had hopped for two open faces, what I got was one with a throw away on the side. The salmon was in nova form, meaning that it was cured without salt.  Meanwhile, the fontina was actually a thick fonduta, the name given to fontina when whipped with eggs and cream.  Again, all the elements were here, and they showed reasonably well on their own.  However, the dish lacked punch and the bagel was atrocious.  Given the high brow approach, I expected much more.

Last up was the grilled salmon with corn-bacon ragout, spinach, & matchstick potatoes.  I seem to see a pattern developing … fancy preparation, fresh ingredients, and something that just doesn’t add up.  The salmon was fresh and cooked to perfection, the “corn-bacon ragout” did little to remind me of what it intended to be.  It seemed more of a creamed corn with bacon.  The sweetness of the corn, the steamed spinach, and the salmon mixed well together.  But alas, I expected something inspiring.  Instead, what we got was a nicely cooked piece of fish that was worth the cost but not much more.

In what seems all to common for me … i just can’t get out of too many places here in town without something “not right.”  In addition to the food, some other hick ups occurred.  As I alluded to previously, the service here is top notch.  The staff is trained and trained well.  Unfortunately, the St. Regis is known for its extremely rigorous staff requirements.  As such, it looks like not enough people have made the cut.  They are understaffed, or at least, they were while we were there.  I’m not sure what they should do about it.  Would you rather have poor and attentive service or high quality sporadic service?  I suspect that this will fall away with time.  More people will be brought on and appropriately trained.

Before I forget, I did have an Arnold Palmer.  The half-tea, half-lemonade concoction is a staple of my diet.  Unfortunately, they use just too much lemon juice here.  While that lemon juice is obviously fresh, the drink just comes across as “trying to hard.”  Not everything needs inspiration behind it … and this is one such example.

I’m glad to have Paces 88 here.  The apps here were transcendent and the main courses, while under delivered based on my expectations, were far closer to good than to the alternative.  The salmon entrée was the best thing main.  It is available on the evening menu, which leads me to believe that lunch just needs some work.  I glanced at the dinner menu and found creativity and appeal there at face value.  I’ll be back, and can certainly say this place is worth a reservation.  Only experience will tell me how this place stacks up in the long term.

A note to their web guys: DO NOT HAVE MUSIC PLAYING ON A WEBSITE! IF YOU DO .. MAKE SURE I CAN TURN IT OFF!!!! SCRATCH THAT: TURN THAT SHIT OFF!!!!! ;-)

Paces 88 Restaurant Address & Information:
88 West Paces Ferry Rd, Atlanta, GA 30305 // P: 404.563.7910 // Paces 88 Reservations // Paces 88 Website
Paces 88 on Urbanspoon

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