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Sunday Column: Three French restaurants go quiche to quiche

Escargot at FAB strike a classic pose but need to be hotter

Escargot at FAB strike a classic pose but need to be hotter

The Atlanta area has always had plenty of little French cafes, like Buckhead’s Anis and Decatur’s Cafe Alsace. If you want to eat a salade nicoise under a framed Toulouse Lautrec poster, you will find your heart’s desire in this town.

We’ve also had a few great French chefs plying their trade in this city throughout the years — people like Jean Banchet at Riviera (now Antica Posta), Joel Antunes at Joel, and Arnaud Berthelier at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

But until recently we’ve never had much of a brasserie culture. We haven’t had those places that dispense that uniquely French vision of dining — a marriage of a grand, boisterous space to a menu steeped in the tradition-minded classics from the French comfort food repertoire.

Now we have three. French American Brasserie — aka FAB — reboots the menu from Lenox Square’s Brasserie Le Coze, once the only game in town. Au Pied de Cochon is a reproduction of a famous Parisian spot in Buckhead’s Intercontinental Hotel. A few months ago, Bistro Niko opened right across the street from Au Pied de Cochon — red awning to red awning — and has been drawing crowds for its made-in-Atlanta vision of a grand French dining hall.

I’m not sure what made me decide to visit all three in the course of one week and order the same menu, but the results were telling.

FAB's quiche is thick, creamy and crusty from reheating

FAB's quiche is thick, creamy and crusty from reheating

FAB, which inhabits a downtown complex meant to evoke a grand French train station restaurant, was filled with a fair number of business lunch suits and only one freakishly over-rouged older woman in gold jewelry and a Carol Channing wig. With more such characters in the dining room, the decor — glittery tile floor, cast iron railings, long waiter aprons and Haussmann-era statuary knockoffs — would feel, well, Frenchier. Squint a little, and it works, in a staid way.

I wish the food worked better. Escargot came in shells with a clamp and mini mollusk-extraction fork. They looked right but should have been garlic-sizzly hot. They should have radiated heat. But, no, they were tepid and springy and still tasted of their canning juices.

Croque monsieur at FAB: soft, gooey, rich

Croque monsieur at FAB: soft, gooey, rich

A thick wedge of very creamy quiche had seared edges from a reheat in a powerful oven, and a croque monsieur squished about under its lid of cheese. They were both fine, but I left thinking FAB is more of a fish special restaurant than a reliable old-school brasserie. The cheffier meals are better here.

The next day I found myself at Bistro Niko and, man, the preening females were out in force.

It was a fun, lively scene that left you feeling you were in the epicenter of something. Snails, served out of the shell in a dimpled snail plate, were much better than those at FAB — sharp and garlicky, and so hot the flesh turned creamy. Each little ball of snail was topped with a funny little puff pastry cap that looked like a Russian ushanka hat on a tiny head. We pushed them aside to sop up the butter with bread.

Wonderful, garlicky snails at Bistro Niko

Wonderful, garlicky snails at Bistro Niko

The croque monsieur looked grand on the plate under its glistening sheet of cheese, but fairly oozed grease and was packed with so much shaved ham it seemed more like a deli sandwich.

Bistro Niko's croque monsieur looks grand with its ham stacked like New York deli meat

Bistro Niko's croque monsieur looks grand with its ham stacked like New York deli meat

The quiche was 2 inches high, exceptionally rich and slightly curdled. Mini-ham cubes poured from it.

Quiche at Bistro Niko suffers from a curdled custard

Quiche at Bistro Niko suffers from a curdled custard

I took my daughter, who asked, “How come French people aren’t all fat if they eat like this?” Good question, kid. I’m not sure they actually do eat like this.

Thankfully, we switched gears and finished our meal with a wonderful salade nicoise.

Snails at Au Pied de Cochon don't photograph well, but are just right

Snails at Au Pied de Cochon don't photograph well, but are just right

I ended the week at Au Pied de Cochon, with its uproarious walls covered in murals of twining vines and flying, fat-bottomed cherubs. I’ve always had the feeling this restaurant appeals less to native Atlantans than to visitors. Service can be slow — escargot slow — and the menu makes few concessions to prevailing tastes, though a slab of Coca-Cola-braised pork belly has a sense of place.

But we were here to try the classics. The escargots arrived hatless in the dimpled dish, sizzling under bread crumbs. Tender, delicious, a riot of garlic and fresh parsley flavor. The quiche was an individual tartlet filled with a scant half-inch of nicely seasoned custard plumbed with slivered asparagus. On the side: a pile of greens dressed in a sharp shallot vinaigrette. What a nice little lunch.

Asparagus quiche at Au Pied de Cochon: a perfect little lunch

Asparagus quiche at Au Pied de Cochon: a perfect little lunch

Our croque monsieur was an anything-but-flashy triple decker of crusty sandwich bread with scant ham between the layers and a smattering of mornay sauce and broiled cheese on top. Exactly right! A little crust, a little goo, a bit of good ham, a bare hint of nutmeg in the sauce. Absolute, stick-it-in-your-face comfort food and nothing more.

Au Pied de Cochon's croque monsieur is crusty, melty and wholly satisfying.

Au Pied de Cochon's croque monsieur is crusty, melty and wholly satisfying.

My British companion appreciatively ate his half and said, “This isn’t one of those restaurants in America where I feel like I have to unbuckle my trousers after eating!” Well said.

The week of quiche came to an end, and I left thinking that these three restaurants together were the perfect brasserie. FAB gets that great sense of legacy; Bistro Niko captures the excitement and joy. But Au Pied de Cochon nails the food — which can taste so special precisely because it isn’t.

20 comments Add your comment

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Bob from Accounttemps

April 12th, 2010
9:57 am

Bistro Niko – arrogance personified, which is what I have found at other Buckhead LIfe restaurants over the years. Even though the food is good, I prefer to dine where my business is more appreciated. I miss Brasserie le Coze – FAB is less accessible and more expensive – it feels very corporate to me. Haven’t tried Pied de Cochon, but look forward to doing so after this review.

Puerquito

April 12th, 2010
10:39 am

Bistro Niko is to French cuisine what McDonald’s is to burgers…
I dare you to bring a Parisian to Bistro Niko and not have him/her be confused and disgusted.
Adding insult to injury, the placed is always packed. But I guess since McDonald’s has served more burgers that anyone they must be the best.

LindaK

April 12th, 2010
10:58 am

My husband and nephew (age 11) swear by the escargot at Atmosphere. They sound more like what you had at Au Pied de Cochon.

Madge

April 12th, 2010
11:05 am

I’ll second the quiche at Au Pied de Cochon; it was tasty and the side salad was a nice counterpoint. However, the prices are steep and the restaurant was practically empty on a recent Friday during the “lunch rush.” My favorite French place remains Atmosphere, where you can have excellent food, wine, and service at a fraction of the prices at Au Pied.

Jenny

April 12th, 2010
11:39 am

I’m not sure why all the Buckhead Life-bashing… I love Bistro Niko (and many of their other restaurants). The servers there have always been friendly, knowledgeable and attentive and the food, overall, terrific. I have been to Paris and have many friends who frequent there… and all of them say that Bistro Niko is their favorite French restaurant in Atlanta. People seem to be irritated that a LOCAL business man (Pano, of BLRG) is actually doing well. It would seem a success story that should be celebrated instead of picked apart.

Ron Seidner

April 12th, 2010
12:29 pm

I couldn’t disagree more with the author of this article. I question if he has ever been to the original Au Pied de Cochon In Les Halles, Paris. The Atlanta version is much like McDonalds. Although I have been to Bistro Niko; I definitely will return. Great “French” food and super service! I was a resident in Paris for a number of years and do have a reference.

BPJ

April 12th, 2010
12:36 pm

All three are quite good (and my wife, a Paris native, agrees). When we went to Bistro Niko on a Sunday afternoon, it was not crowded, by the way. At FAB, my favorites are still the white bean soup and the skate in brown butter sauce. As for Au Pied de Cochon, I’m glad to see it get some attention; too many Atlantans seem to regard hotel restaurants as just places for the hotel guests.
We love Atmosphere, too – it’s more of a bistro.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cho Pei Chin. Cho Pei Chin said: Sunday Column: Three French restaurants go quiche to quiche: Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) What a nice littl… http://bit.ly/9UGjGF [...]

puerquito

April 12th, 2010
1:40 pm

does anyone know the difference between a bistro and a brasserie? because it does not seem like it? Brasserie Niko’s has to many straight-from-culinary-school-manual items. A little creativity would by nice. Then again, that’s not what BLRG is about…
Unfortuately, au pied de cochon has had to adapt to its hotel location. The one in Mexico City is better than the one in the ATL (and neither can touch the original).
At the very least FAB is honest about its drastically americanized menu.

Paul From Milton

April 12th, 2010
2:26 pm

Just because you lived, worked, visited, dined, etc. in Paris doesn’t make you an expert on French food. When my friends from France come visit they can’t wait to eat waffles with strawberry topping and hash browns at Waffle House. They think it’s the best breakfast they have ever had.

This blog needs to turn down the snobby jackass factor today.

Bob from Accounttemps

April 12th, 2010
3:25 pm

Why is it that if one criticizes a Buckhead LIfe restaurant, it’s BL “bashing”? My experience at NIko mirrored one I had at Pricci some years ago (after which I never returned) where I had a reservation for a set time, then was unapologetically told that they were 45 minutes behind. 45 minutes passed (of course after you’ve had time to visit their bar) and was told it would be another 30 minutes, at least. I paid $150 for dinner, yet still had to pay $12 for parking (had 3 cars damaged by valets) in the lot they provided and was basically told, too bad. I said the food was good, but no place is worth that abuse. I can go to Joel, get a far better meal and be treated as a valued guest rather than the next in line at the deli counter. Eff ‘em.

Boil

April 13th, 2010
12:28 pm

Bob from Accounttemps – Because in Atlanta/on the AJC you are not allowed to criticize things – that is being a negative antisocial Atlanta-hater who needs to go back from where you came.

John Kessler

April 13th, 2010
1:18 pm

Ron — I have never been the original in Paris. I have eaten at a bunch of other Paris classics — Aux Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp, Brasserie Flo — and any number of no-name places. Again, I was comparing dish to dish. Agreed that Au Pied de Cochon was empty and the service was weird, but the classic dishes were most satisfying to my palate there. Prices were consistent among the three.

Liz

April 13th, 2010
7:10 pm

John you sure have disappointed. Not removing the comment calling Pano a Jackass before writing your own response defines why the majority of your followers are imbeciles. One has to have some class in order to have some taste. Sad.

John Kessler

April 13th, 2010
8:12 pm

Liz – Sorry I missed that, but the comment has been removed. There have been a lot of comments in the past couple of days, so I scanned through an administrator’s list for those directed to me rather than reading the thread. Thanks for drawing attention to this oversight.

S.C. Foodie

April 14th, 2010
8:40 pm

Oh, my word! I can’t believe the comments from this blog. I better keep my mouth shut about which restaurant is more true to the heart of French cuisine. I have never been to France or dined in a restaurant in Paris nor do I have any French friends. I did take some classes in French cuisine at school, but that does not make me an expert. I think I’ll play it safe by just commenting on the food.
It sounds like Pied de Cochon is the place to go for the best taste of French classics. It’s been a long time sense I took a bite of a nice hot plate of escargots. My grandmother from Michigan use to make them for my mother. I must say I would love to experience the thrill of taking a bite of my own quiche Loraine. I do hope it was quiche Lorraine. And trying a croque monsieur that is made just as the French intended it to be, what pleasure savory ham must taste like sandwiched between two egg batter dipped and browned slices of bread and then topped with cheese. Now if you could only tell me which place has the best crepes stuffed with nuttela and bananas? I could eat that and close my eyes and pretend I’m on the streets of Paris.

Cekker

April 15th, 2010
11:18 am

John, these pictures look remarkably similar to your recent dive into the fast food world. I find it interesting that you don’t discuss the calories or fat content of any of your fancy French meals yet you have two columns bashing KFC. Your colleague Goldman reports that the Double Down Sandwich contains 540 calories and 32 grams of fat. My admittedly unscientific research on your Sunday meals results in 970 calories and 62 grams of fat. Granted you did split the meals so that takes it down to 485 calories and 31 grams of fat. I guess it depends on how many fries, condiments and sugary drinks you had at either place that determines how (un)healthy your meal was. Oh wait…you didn’t even eat the KFC monster! The French win!

Lisa

April 15th, 2010
5:05 pm

Serious omission in leaving off Atmosphere Bistro. It is very french and has a wonderful outdoor patio. The escargot are hot and garlicky with little pieces of bread on them. The Coquille St. Jacque is fantastic.

[...] check out Kessler’s reviews of the three brasseries, visit “Three French Restaurants go Quiche to Quiche.” What are your favorite finds when it comes to French fare? var addthis_pub = ''; var [...]