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Keeping It Casual

by Bret Love | Jezebel magazine | February 9, 2011

The area surrounding the intersection of Lenox and Peachtree roads is like some crazy, genre-bending mash-up on “Glee.” On one hand, you have the dapper businessmen and fashionistas attracted by Phipps Plaza; on the other, you have the decidedly more mass appeal of Lenox Square.

In these uncertain economic times, opening a new restaurant in the area becomes something of a delicate balancing act. The fact that even a storied legend like The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, can go the way of the dodo is proof positive that people aren’t as willing to drop hundreds of dollars for a dynamite dinner as they used to be. But if you go too far in the opposite direction, you risk alienating the upscale clientele that makes up a significant portion of your local traffic.

Enter Truffles Café, which opened in the old Ruby Tuesday location (next to Houston’s) in early December. Owned by Price Beall and his wife, Karen, the restaurant has been a popular favorite in its native South Carolina for nearly 30 years, with three locations in the Hilton Head area. Now the brand is aggressively expanding into other Southeastern markets under a development deal with Ruby Tuesday, which, it turns out, was founded by CEO Sandy Beall, Price’s brother.

Fortunately, Truffles Café puts a decidedly different face on the old space, with a warm, romantic interior redesign that will make you forget it was once a mediocre chain restaurant. Oversized lampshade-like chandeliers and candlelight lend the dining room a surprisingly intimate feel, with rich hardwood tables and chairs, open-beam ceilings, and convex mirror murals, giving it a classic appeal.

Given the restaurant’s surprisingly budget-friendly prices (most entrees are less than $20), you might be surprised to read Executive Chef Steffen Gaebler’s resumé. Before being hired to tweak Truffles’ traditional menu, he worked in the kitchen at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta, served as general manager at Prime and Goldfish, and opened both Seasons 52 Atlanta locations. And while Truffles Café is not exactly what you’d call a chef-driven restaurant, Gaebler’s menu offers several standout dishes that give it an advantage over other restaurants with similar price points.

We began by sampling several soups, including the delicious tomato dill as well as the Westside chili pie, a hearty serving of chili topped with homemade cornbread so sweetly Southern, it belies Gaebler’s German roots. But the can’t-miss appetizer is the baked Brie in puff pastry–French bread stuffed with gooey cheese that oozes over the tongue like a slice of Gallic heaven, served with Kahlua pecans and fresh fruit. Honestly, if we weren’t there to review the restaurant, we could have simply ordered two of them and called it a day.

Instead, we dove into a robust tuna Napa salad, with grilled tuna served over Napa cabbage, toasted almonds, crunchy noodles and sesame ginger dressing. The Asian-influenced balance of textures and flavors was delightful. There are plenty of meat-heavy dishes on the menu, including a meatloaf grilled with honey barbecue glaze and a 14-ounce New York strip with Cajun seasoning and blue cheese butter, but in both cases we found the seasoning overwhelmed the natural flavor of the meat. (Our suggestion? Ask for them on the side instead.) But we loved the grouper, with fresh basil Parmesan glaze, and especially the shrimp linguini. The addition of Brie to the simple mixture of shrimp, pasta, tomatoes and fresh basil felt like a culinary revelation I couldn’t wait to try making at home.

The original Truffles Café is known for its Blondie–a blond brownie with butterscotch and chocolate chips, served warm with vanilla bean ice cream, caramel sauce and drizzled with chocolate–but we actually preferred the homemade key lime pie and decadent chocolate peanut butter pie. It may not be four-star foodie fare, but, in offering three-star cuisine at two-star prices, Truffles Café may have the right combination of quality product, service, timing and location to become Atlanta’s next big restaurant franchise.