How gratifying to see Fabrice Vergez back in Buckhead where he belongs. This dapper Frenchman used to run Brasserie Le Coze in Lenox Square, Atlanta’s last great mall restaurant. Brasserie was an awkwardly shaped and altogether wonderful space. You passed by the indoor patio facing the mall corridor, where designer-clad women with handfuls of shopping bags picked at salads and chardonnay in air-conditioned splendor. Next came a windowless bar filled with smokers and wealthy malcontents. This room opened to a jewel box belle époque dining room, all tile and happy clatter. If ever a restaurant knew its constituencies of customers, this was it.
When neighboring Neiman Marcus gobbled up this fine restaurant’s space, Vergez decamped to downtown’s Allen Plaza — a collection of shiny new towers and high hopes that opened during the early part of the Great Recession. There, he rebooted his restaurant as FAB Atlanta, a much larger an ostensibly more glamorous place that tried to evoke the grandeur of a Parisian train station restaurant. Black-and-white tiles and brass railings seemed to stretch into infinity. It was built for the kinds of crowds, parties and and energy that never materialized, and so the restaurant just hulked on its windswept street corner by the highway. Though it had much of the same staff, signature dishes and hallmarks of the old Brasserie, it wasn’t the same restaurant at all.
Now Vergez is back with the people who love him best. He and Cindy Brown, his life and business partner, have opened F&B Atlanta on the ground floor of the Ritz-Carlton Residences, just up the street from his old haunt. This is a much less ambitious restaurant than the previous spot, with a dining room that seems little larger than FAB’s patio and a much-condensed menu. But it seems to be working far better — the right restaurant for the place and the times.
Old-timers will recognize the uninterrupted bloodline in sundry details. The warm rolls and soft butter that waiters deftly deposit with two spoons clutched like tongs. The wine list that focuses on affordable French labels, such as a crisp, minerally Simmonet-Febvre chablis ($36). The roster of signature dishes, such as that white bean soup ($7) — still appealing — that introduced the city to truffle oil.
What may surprise old fans most is the decor. With this iteration, Vergez has traded in his urban brasserie design for a thickly applied rustic look, one so different from the bland Ritz-Carlton lobby beyond its doors that it seems like a stage set.
Wooden beams hang at jaunty angles from the ceiling, stacks of crockery pile on shelves and lamps with beaded shades lurk in corners. The walls are cut out in funny shapes and sponged ochre, and when you look into the kitchen you see an antique wood stove fronting the cooking line. Most surprising are the waiter’s uniforms. Vergez has traded out their classic black vests and long aprons for a French farmer look, with suspenders and brimmed caps. They look like they might just break into a number from “Newsies” at any moment.
How’s the food? Chef Chris McCord does a fine job of recreating the style of Mediterranean French cuisine that was so popular in upscale restaurants in the 1990s, tweaking the formula now and again with smart updates. His house salad ($8) — a colorful tumble of greens with heirloom beets, radish and tomato — celebrates local vegetables the way we expect a salad to these days. And he has smartly retired the old Brasserie’s never-great coq au vin, sliding in a truly great plate of beer-braised chicken ($20) with truffled polenta gnocchi, tiny turnips and mushrooms.
But McCord and Vergez know their guests come for competent renditions of old favorites, and that’s what they get. A slab of duck pâté with mustard and cornichons might be a tad springy in texture, while escargots in pernod butter ($12) lie alongside their shells rather than sizzle within. But we miss these dishes, which have all but vanished elsewhere.
I think this kitchen is at its best when it thinks light. Arctic char ($22) with snow peas, lemon, dill and tomato water does seem like the specialty dish of a fancy fat farm, but the bright colors and clean flavors will satisfy. Likewise, a special of gorgeously crisped loup de mer ($24) over a neat puck of compressed tabbouleh hit that “I’ve got to lose 10 pounds but want to eat well” spot with élan. I almost wonder if this is where chef McCord’s heart lies.
But Vergez knows that some of his clientele — particularly the double-X chromosome crowd that packs the room at lunch — want to eat light. Others want a well-seared rib eye ($34) with bone-marrow butter and a potato-leek gratin or that roast skate wing ($20) with brown butter and capers that has been a specialty since the early days of Brasserie. Don’t forget the perfect, crisp frites ($5) for the table.
Desserts seem perfunctory French to me. Profiteroles ($7) with a weak chocolate sauce and spongy pastry and icy house sorbets ($6) are pretty disappointments. Coconut panna cotta ($6) with tropical fruit, again, seems a nice enough diet dish.
Which makes sense. Some F&B customers diet. Others splurge. All are happy to see this restaurant — and these restaurateurs — back where they belong.F&B Atlanta 3630 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-254-1797 Food: Clean, competent modern bistro fare Service: A little tentative but sweet Best dishes: Arctic char, beer-braised chicken, house salad, bone-in rib eye Vegetarian selections: A few expected ones Credit cards: All major Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Children: Not a great spot for kids Parking: Valet Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Lively but not to make you shout Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes