Not that many years ago, restaurants like La Fourchette used to open in Atlanta with some frequency. Nice places that were kind of French or kind of Italian, but preferred to blur the edges and call themselves Mediterranean. That would give the chef some latitude to, say, throw a paella on the menu or rub some North African seasonings onto his roast chicken. But the aesthetic was unabashedly European — with a careful eye for portion and presentation, gleaming plates to showcase each swirl of sauce, and a beverage list that carried the tacit assumption you’d be drinking wine.
Popular taste took a 180, and this kind of dining seemed to get swept away by the rising tide of burgers, bacon and beer. But its fans haven’t gone away, judging from the crowds I encounter each time I visit this appealing Buckhead newcomer. True, the La Fourchette crowd are not hipsters with pig tattoos on their forearms. We’re talking 50ish couples on double dates. We’re talking neighbors who consider 50 bucks a head a decent price for a weeknight dinner. We’re talking graying wine lovers in expensive eyewear and dark blazers who bring their own bottles and invite owner Mounir Barhoumi to sit with them and knock back a good Rhone.
Barhoumi, the former manager of Amuse , and business partner Salem Makhlouf opened La Fourchette three months ago in the former Agnes and Muriel’s (and, before that, Cafe Dupri) space with no advertising beyond word of mouth. They made a smart choice in hiring Jeff Wall, a line cook from the now-shuttered Joël Brasserie to run the kitchen.
This young chef is a dynamo. He bakes all the bread and pastries, and he keeps a standing menu with more than a dozen starters and entrees that include everything from homemade pasta, to duck confit, braised octopus and, yes, paella.
It’s a little much for even an experienced chef to pull off without a hitch, and you do occasionally get an over-composed $12 piffle or a piece of meat that needed more careful handling. But more often than not you enjoy smartly updated classics and appealing bistro dishes. You dine here, and well.
You know you’re in the hands of a smart chef with the first bite of Belgian endive salad ($9) — the curled spears chopped to the size of Fritos, all the better to cup cubes of soft local goat cheese and shattery-crisp candied pecans. A zingy cider vinaigrette revels in the bittersweet lettuce’s crunch. You’ll want to drag the astonishingly good crusty house bread across the plate.
Not only is this guy smart, he’s nimble. He prepares by-the-book torchon of foie gras ($14) — a round puck of unctuous pink fat, as well as the brioche toast to serve alongside. Switching gears, he offers a bowl of the most tender braised octopus ($13) you can imagine in a stew of peppers and tomato. Where did this recipe come from? Makhlouf’s Tunisian mother.
This chef’s a little like the Cat in the Hat: full of tricks that occasionally come tumbling down. I love the idea of a roasted eggplant and mozzarella appetizer, but $10 buys three little bites on a pool of tomato sauce. That same 10-spot buys a huge and surreally dry brick of pork belly (how did he do that?) over damp rice. I’m not convinced this young man has fully nailed his braising (or, perhaps, sous-vide-ing) technique, judging by a tender but parched slab of short rib ($28) with root vegetables, only redeemed by its plate-lickable swath of celeriac puree. Looks like baby food pears, tastes like divine grace.
I don’t want to focus too much on the misses because the hits make me so happy. Loup de mer ($27) with crisp fingerling potatoes, plump mussels and buttery saffron reduction gets that pinpoint delicate/assertive flavor pitch the fish demands. Fresh ribbons of fettuccine ($19) pull lumps of crab, zucchini and lemon confit into their snarl as you twirl them around your fork. Each bite is a tiny omigod.
And hallelujah for the dessert menu (all items $7), which breaks the orthodoxy of boredom at so many restaurants. Profiteroles are crisp and brittle (as well they should be) and come with hazelnut ice cream and salted caramel sauce. Crunchy bursts of toffee hide in the ice cream for a sweet surprise. There’s also a vacherin composed of meringue saucers, pastry cream and blackberry/red wine sorbet. Then there’s that whomping platter of hot Tunisian beignets with blossom honey ice cream.
The room gives off a feeling of sleek, Euro glossiness, and an unexpected dance-y soundtrack thumps softly and without pause. No denying it keeps things lively.
I do wish the service style would dial back just a smidge. It is the critic’s jerky job to complain about people who are super nice and super enthusiastic, so here I go. That whole “let me describe a few dishes so you can watch the paroxysms of pleasure ripple across my face” style of service needs to be rethought here. Some people don’t want to do the happy paella dance, they just want to order and find their water glasses full.
But that will come with time, and the servers do have reason to rejoice. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a promising new bistro on our hands.LA FOURCHETTE 3133 Piedmont Road, Atlanta, 404-748-1229 Food: Mediterranean bistro fare prepared with finesse Service: Super nice, though waiters all seem ready to burst into song to extol the cooking. Best dishes: smoked trout tart, loup de mer, fresh pasta with crab and zucchini, Tunisian beignets, profiteroles Vegetarian selections: side dishes and salads Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: 5:30-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays Children: best for older kids interested in good food Parking: valet Reservations: yes Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: moderate to high Patio: small one in front, which might expand Takeout: yes