For one of our first dates 20-some years ago, my wife took me out to eat in the suburb where she lived. A friend had told her it was the fanciest French restaurant in town, which I’m sure it was. An oleaginous maitre d’ who spoke with a (most likely fake) accent and upsold us at every turn served our food.
But of course, we had to order the house specialty steak Diane, more expensive than any other item. He finished it with greasy flourish tableside — flaming a skillet with brandy, then adding fat glugs of cream. “For madame and for monsieur,” he said, lavishing the peppercorn-crusted, cream-soaked, bloody meat onto plates. It was, of course, delicious and the right meal for a very fine date.
I hadn’t seen steak Diane on a menu until I dined at Three Blind Mice in Lilburn. Here it comes with much less flourish. Plated in the kitchen with an artful swipe of brandy cream, a hillock of roasted potato and onion, and a pepper-dusted New York strip ($22), it’s a happy reminder of old-school indulgence with a laid-back modern edge.
That describes most of the menu at this welcome surprise of a restaurant. Tucked into a little shopping strip that’s still looking for tenants, Three Blind Mice cannily straddles two worlds. At one glance, it is the nicest restaurant in town. Chef Matthew Murphy (who co-owns the restaurant with several operating partners) drops French words, gourmet ingredients and plenty of heavy cream into the menu. But take another look, and it’s a bouncy neighborhood joint with live music, an attached wine shop, decent prices and enough comfort on the menu to encourage a weeknight meal. The food is good, if sometimes too rich. But the energy and tone of this restaurant seems pretty close to ideal for the neighborhood.
You enter into a small wine “library” set with lounge furniture and stocked with shelves of wine to drink there or purchase. If you’re dining, the hostess will lead you around the corner of the bar into the long corridor dining room — a noisy space decorated with the kind of semi-finish that registers as cool. Look for painted concrete floors, billowy curtains for space dividers and butcher paper on the tabletops.
Murphy’s training background includes stints at well-known restaurants in Paris and New York (as well as Shaun’s here in Atlanta). He brings real game in an appetizer of cast-iron skillet seared scallops ($12) with French lentils, thick celery root sauce and a bright ruffle of watercress.
Celery root reappears in a soup ($8) on this seasonal menu — here finished with mushrooms, tarragon and a good bit of cream. When you get one of the mini cubes of actual celery root in a spoonful, the soup sings its tune well.
Murphy’s strength is his palate. Chicken saltimbocca ($16) arrives as three breast fillets, each seared with sage and slivered prosciutto sticking to the surface like a porky graft. Add in a bracing lemon-caper sauce, and you get all kinds of interesting flavors that come together as you chew. The accentuated salt of the seared prosciutto plays gorgeously off the tart sauce.
But perhaps the kitchen’s weakness — at least on busy nights — is its execution. A roasted beet salad ($9) with greens, pecans, blue cheese and the ingenious addition of roasted butternut squash is a gloppy, drippy mess. It’s a kind of gloppy, drippy mess that you want to shovel in because it tastes so good, but it palls quickly. And as much as I liked that steak Diane, it did come out a full temperature too cooked.
At dinner the crowd seems to favor couples on dates or double dates, though the bar — which features all kinds of house cocktails — seems a good destination for Lilburn singles. At lunch, however, the tables fill with wine-sipping ladies.
And the kitchen serves just the lunch they’re looking for. A thick slice of ciabatta is the foundation for a grilled vegetable tartine ($8) spread with peppered goat cheese and piled with juicy nubbins of mushroom, onion and roasted bell pepper. A croque madame ($8) is no ham sandwich in drag but the real deal — a bubbly concoction of bread-sandwiched ham with mornay sauce and a fried egg that adds runny yolk to all the richness.
These ladies manage to save room for one of the house desserts — preferably the tart key lime pie ($7) crested with a fluff of toasted meringue.
Three Blind Mice really knows how to deliver the experience that its neighbors need. Once the kitchen can execute the food more consistently, it will be a real draw for everyone.THREE BLIND MICE