First Look: St. Cecilia

The newest addition to the Ford Fry family impresses early

Monday March 3, 2014 04:00 am EST

You might not be familiar with the name Rocket Farm Restaurants, but you're surely familiar with the group's ambitious leader Ford Fry and his string of high-flying Atlanta restaurants. The first was JCT. Kitchen, which opened back in 2007, then No. 246 in 2011, then a succession of hits with the Optimist in 2012, King + Duke in 2013, and now St. Cecilia, which debuted in early January. Less than two months in, St. Cecilia is already another Rocket Farm hit.

The restaurant is located at the crossroads of Buckhead shopping nirvana, between Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza on Peachtree Road. The look of the place is shiny and modern, but with rustic twists you might find in a Ralph Lauren fashion spread: stuffed game birds tucked into wooden bookshelves, bright white tiles, stark metal light fixtures hanging from the sky-high ceiling. The expansive glass wall along Peachtree looks out over Saks Fifth Avenue, and the valet area seems permanently stocked with Ferraris. The lengthy but bustling white marble bar is also stocked, with pretty people as glamorous as the exotic cars outside.

But St. Cecilia is not just Buckhead theater. The menu doesn't sacrifice substance for style, the service is friendly despite the sometimes maddening crowds, and the prices are a bit lower than what the well-healed patrons would surely pay (though the portions of crudo can be as miniscule as the cargo space in a Berlinetta).

Loosely described as "coastal European," St. Cecilia's cuisine combines the Italian finesse of No. 246, the Optimist's seafood savvy, King + Duke's comfortable Buckhead opulence, and the cocktail-fueled bar scene of ... all of the above. Executive chef Brian Horn, a Rocket Farm vet who's had a hand in shaping all of its restaurants, oversees St. Cecilia's diverse menu. Beyond the six or seven crudos is a lengthy selection of antipasti, pasta, mostly seafood entrées, and a handful of vegetable sides. The pasta dishes have been consistently impressive — especially the cloud-like ricotta gnudi in brown butter and the meaty braised short rib agnolotti.

The crudo section features pristine raw seafood with flavorful accents like the crisp green apple and assertive fennel paired with creamy slices of Nantucket Bay scallops. The langoustine crudo, while shrimpy in size, is an elegant combination of sweet shrimp, citrus, bits of pork, chili oil, and garlic. Another standout, the hearth-roasted octopus, was similar to BoccaLupo's slightly superior version of the dish. St. Cecilia's features large, smoky hunks of octopus, a smattering of sweet cured tomato, and a citrusy Italian bean salad punched up with red chili pepper.

The whole grilled loup de mer arrived skin, head, and tail on, slit down the middle for easy access to the tender meat inside. An aromatic sprinkle of fresh dill and parsley topped the fish, along with toasty pieces of marcona almond, good olive oil, and powerful strips of citrus zest. (The bones may get in the way a bit, but everything else comes together in perfect harmony.)

At lunch, the menu is an abbreviated collection of dinner offerings, with the addition of several open-faced, impossible-to-eat-without-a-knife-and-fork tartines. I tried two: one with overcooked and underseasoned shrimp, the other with overly fatty porchetta slathered in aioli. St. Cecilia may still be working out the lunchtime kinks. Until then, pasta dishes are likely a better bet.

Dessert is another area that could use a little TLC. According to our waiter's eager (and well-rehearsed) descriptions, the menu draws inspiration from Italian and American classics. A Nutella torta with burnt milk gelato, for example, was pitched as a riff on milk and cookies, but came out crumbly and dry. The ice cream sandwich (ahem, panini di gelato) was made with waffle cone-like pizzelles and Marsala-heavy zabaglione gelato, but it still lacked the contrasting flavors and textures that make an ice cream sandwich great.

For now, the beverage menu is a better place to indulge. Veteran bartender Lara Creasy, also the mastermind behind the other Rocket Farm bar programs, has compiled another strong mix of smart cocktails and eclectic (Euro-focused) wines, as well as a modest selection of bottled beers. A wintry white sangria dubbed A Hazy Shade of Winter tastes like a liquid pear tart, full of baking spice and crisp fruit. The whiskey-centric Let It Bleed is pleasantly fruit-forward, made with fresh tangerine juice and spicy Cherry Heering liqueur.

Eight weeks in, St. Cecilia is a Buckhead-ready ode to looking good and eating well, and yet another successful launch for Rocket Farm.

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