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