Chef Czajka cooks up new culinary identity for Augusta landmark

When Chef Bradley Czajka took over the former P.I. Grill at the Partridge Inn, a $5 million renovation was scheduled for the hotel.

“So I said, ‘OK, great,’ took the menu and threw it out,” Czajka said.

Before a horde of torch-bearing protesters descend upon the newly renamed Verandah Grill, Czajka said that this decision was a needed change. The menu had not been updated in years and had become a mishmash of influences disconnected from one another including Southern, pan-Asian and Americana.

“It was too eclectic of a menu. It just needed to be cleaned up and revitalized,” Czajka said.

To honor the history and locale of the Partridge Inn, the restaurant needed a solid identity as a great Southern restaurant with a steakhouse feel. Czajka’s new streamlined menu weaves familiar ingredients into distinctive dishes: fresh trout is crusted with sweet potatoes, a seafood cocktail becomes a meal of a Bloody Mary, and fried green tomatoes pair with candied pecans and goat cheese. Newly added crispy calamari with lemon aioli and she-crab bisque get appetites started off right and Czajka has had particularly good feedback on his grilled pork chops that crown green chili grits.

“It’s already one of those dishes that’s becoming a signature item for us,” he said.

While a certain degree of apprehension is normal when a landmark undergoes change, Czajka foresees broad acceptance — after all, the grill still serves up choice steaks and fresh fish, and the bread pudding isn’t going anywhere.

“So far, I think that the one word that stands out from people is, ‘finally,’” he said.

It is a sentiment that Restaurant Manager Reese Dorsey echoes. Although he joined the Partridge Inn just six weeks ago, Dorsey said that he is already working to bring “the P.I.” from quaint historic property to a world-class hotel with what he termed “aggressive hospitality.”

“Before the guest can even think about what they want — boom! — we have it there for them,” he said.

The managing firm — West Paces Hotel Group — is implementing a system of personalized service that it uses at its other properties, such as the Auburn Hotel, where Dorsey and Czajka worked before moving to Augusta. The recording system allows the staff to save and retrieve a guest’s preferences, such as whether a guest prefers feather or foam pillows, has a chocolate addiction or — like one guest — prefers being served
beer in a white wine glass.

The goal, he said, is to improve service and to maintain the characteristic charm that is as much a part of Augusta as county commission squabbles. The Partridge Inn legend, preserved in framed photos on hallway walls, goes back a century.

“I learn a new story every time a regular comes to the bar,” Dorsey said.

Some of the hotel’s improvements meant going backward, rather than forward. The former Bambu restaurant has been reorganized, changed back to the original Bamboo Room name, and outfitted with a grand piano and dance floor. Other changes have dictated modernization. Guest
rooms on the first and second floors have been redecorated in soothing tones of sage, cream and khaki. Upper floors are scheduled for completion by August. Everything from light fixtures to elevator walls have been updated, including high-speed Internet connections and two-line cordless phones in guest rooms, plus wi-fi in meeting rooms and the restaurant.

So the Partridge Inn is not resting in the chronicles of time. The hotel is busy writing new tales, including the opening of a fourth season hosting the Best Chefs of the South dinners in its sumptuous ballroom. The 2006 showcase will bring chefs from Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah, Asheville, Greenville, S.C., and Swainsboro, Ga. to Augusta. From James Beard-featured chefs to Four- and Five-Star recipients, these visiting celebrity chefs will prepare elaborate, four-course gourmet meals of signature items from their own restaurant. Each course will be accompanied by wine pairings from some of the nation’s top vineyards and hors d’oeuvres from Czajka.

The first dinner will feature Chef Charles Bostick from Flat Creek Lodge in Swainsboro, formerly at the highly acclaimed Little St. Simons Island. Bostick’s kitchen at the lodge offers four-course dinners prepared from organic and seasonal foods raised or grown on the land. Guests and members may have their own fish or game from the day’s hunt prepared for evening meals.

Future featured chefs include Chef Rodney Freidank of Greeneville’s Restaurant O on June 15; Chef Laurence Gottleib of Savannah’s Gottleib’s Restaurant and Dessert Bar on July 20; Chef Richard Boyer of Asheville’s Inn on Biltmore Estate; Chef Ken Vedrinski of Daniel Island’s Sienna on September 21; and Chef Carvel Grant Gould of Atlanta’s Canoe on October 19.

Guests may purchase tickets for all six dinners for $429, or single dinners for $79 per person. The Partridge Inn is located at 2110 Walton Way. For reservations or more information, contact The Partridge Inn at 706-396-2620.

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