Review: Floataway Café

An oasis of dependable and luxuriant chill

If there's one restaurant in Atlanta that's a testament to the power of good food and good reputation, it's Floataway Café. Each time I visit, the drive down Zonolite Road never ceases to confound me. How could any restaurant survive or flourish in such a hard-to-find location, tucked between warehouses down a nondescript street in a part of town that's basically the outer edge of three neighborhoods and the heart of none? And then, walking from the car, glimpsing the aquamarine chairs and canvass umbrellas that make up the between-buildings patio, a sense of tranquility comes over me. Once I step through the door into the calming oasis of the restaurant, I'm smitten all over again.

Floataway is a place you come to be chill. To feel chill. To eat chill.

Two years ago, around the restaurant's 10th birthday, Floataway was given a slight makeover that included turning the former office and pasta-making station into a bar – about the most adorable bar in Atlanta. With the walls painted vibrant, Caribbean blue, clear, blue and green glass bottles lining the bar, and vintage fire-engine red accents, it's as if owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison splashed the essence of hipster indie craft aesthetic over the place and then toned it down just enough to feel fancy.

This approach to the décor is similar to the way the kitchen approaches food: Ramp up ingredient quality, then tone down dishes to the absolute essentials. Floataway will remind you of the joy in a uncomplicated salad of mixed greens with radish, perfectly dressed in a simple vinaigrette touched with a whisper of pistachio, and given the slightest hint of luxury with creamy sheep's milk feta.

As with all their restaurants, Quatrano and Harrison are listed as executive chefs, and they drift in and out of the kitchen here as much as their other projects allow. I'm told that currently, Harrison is needed at Abattoir and Quatrano is at Floataway more often – as much as her duties at Bacchanalia allow. But chef de cuisine Drew Belline, who's worked at Floataway for four years, is the guy who's there night after night.

Between them, Quatrano, Harrison and Belline regularly create masterpieces on Floataway's plates, as with a salad of beets that takes the ubiquitous beet and goat cheese combo and adds enough creativity to gain our interest back. The goat cheese here is feta, and the addition of avocado and pickled farm eggs adds creamy and gorgeous color.

The wood-grilled chicken liver appetizer, which has long been a staple here, is somewhat overwhelmed by the super-sweet red onion jam. But the surprise opulence of pâté slathered on the bread below the livers is a delightful touch.

Charcuterie, including a feather-light country ham and tangy, bold salamis, is the best I've had in town. And the unsung surprise here is that Floataway serves some of the best pizzas around – balanced, chewy but crisp, and perfect to nibble at the bar with a friend.

The execution on everything here is close to perfect, but occasionally I longed for something more raucous on the plate. Bucatini, hollow, spaghetti-like pasta, comes with octopus, shrimp soffrito and olives. That description had me expecting a bold seafood pasta. What arrived, however, was so subtle – a hint of ocean swathed in breadcrumbs – that I lost interest part way through. A dish of trout over farro and sweet peas was so buttery, with no acid or herb to cut through, that it too became somewhat tiresome. Floataway's kitchen is at its best when ingredients are left to shine, as with a simply grilled whole loup de mer, the white-fleshed fish barely touched by its accompanying lemon and garlic. But occasionally, I longed for a counterpoint to the too-subtle flavors.

The part of Floataway's menu that exhibits the most consistent interest and excellence is dessert. A rhubarb and brown butter tart is all puckery sweet nutty crumble, almost too rich to finish, but absolutely too delicious to abandon. Crêpes with grapefruit curd had me swooning over the curd's luscious texture and spot-on tang, wrapped in the most delicate crêpes. The principals of acid and salt that the best chefs use with savory but often forget with dessert are at work here, to marvelous effect.

The restaurant also excels at a seemingly forgotten aspect of service, and that's pacing. Meals at Floataway are languid affairs – never slow, but gloriously unrushed.

A few years back, when then-manager Susan Maschal was putting together the wine list, Floataway had one of the best in the city. These days, while admirably affordable, the selection leaves a lot to be desired. Heavily skewed American, and with only a couple of white wines that pair with the menu's simplicity, I miss the esoteric grapes and more Old World leanings of past lists. Reds fare slightly better, with a few fun Italian choices. Beyond those, the selections slip quickly into big American producers with a lot of name recognition and not much in terms of food-friendliness. Wine in general at Quatrano and Harrison's restaurants is a mystery to me: So much care and attention is given to almost every aspect, and in every other way they set the standard for what Atlanta expects in terms of excellence. But with wine they seem only to do barely what's expected. It's too bad, especially in a city that needs as many viniferous role models as it can get.

Far more thought seems to go into the cocktails, which are fruity but grown-up. Ingredients such as muddled fresh strawberries and lemon grass aren't cutting edge, but they remind us that before the rise of the cerebral cocktail, drinking used to be about simple pleasure.

And before the rise of hardcore offal worship and pig fat tomfoolery, dining used to be about simple pleasure. Floataway offers an oasis of dependable and luxuriant chill. Long may it reign.

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