"Gah, it's like a quick trip to Paris, except that we don't have to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers," Wayne said soon after we took our seats at Bistro Niko (3344 Peachtree Road, 404-261-6456).
"But I want to rub shoulders with zillionaires," I replied. The new restaurant from the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group is located in the Sovereign Building near Lenox Square. The mixed-use skyscraper includes 82 condos listed as high as $9.5 million. Here, the recession is merely an inconvenience – mainly to one's slightly poorer friends. The bistro was packed, with waits, during my lunch and dinner visits.
Bistro Niko is named after Niko Karatassos, who runs the Buckhead Life Group with his father, Pano. This is the first Atlanta restaurant they've opened since Kyma (by far my favorite of their operations) in 2001. But, like all their restaurants, Bistro Niko excels at service and style.
Although the Sunday night crowd seemed almost purely composed of Buckhead types – yes, that's stereotyping – the lunch crowd was more diverse. I counsel you in any case to dress decently. You know, in lots of black to offset your bleached teeth. And borrow a good car if you're going to use the valet. And do use the valet, because parking will cost you $8 or more if you don't. Plus, using the valet allows you to loiter among the cluster of fox sculptures by Michael Stipe.
The restaurant was designed by the Johnson Studio, and the look is classic with lots of dark wood, brass, mirrors and lamps. It will remind you of the defunct Brasserie Le Coze or New York's Balthazar ... or just about any bistro you visit in Paris, but much roomier, as Wayne noted. The kitchen, in the restaurant's entrance, is in full view, separated from public space by gigantic panes of yellow-tinged glass. As far as I could tell, the messy work is out of view and the foreground is reserved mainly for the theatrics of a dish's final preparation.
Despite the moneyed location, Bistro Niko's prices are actually quite reasonable. Most of chef Gary Donlick's entrees are under $20. Two- and three-course specials are available for $24 and $29, along with sandwiches and salads. Caviar, charcuterie and fresh oysters will satisfy more decadent palates. And those who crave the manliest of French fare can have a steak with french fries. "We call them 'freedom fries'," Wayne told our young server, who responded with silence and a puzzled look.
That reminds me. Don't go here planning to practice your French. Wayne is fluent. The only French speaker we encountered was the hostess.
The menu, which is the same at lunch and dinner, is mainly bistro classics. A few dishes, such as the white bean soup with truffle oil, will immediately recall Brasserie Le Coze (reincarnated as French American Brasserie). Brad, with whom I lunched frequently at Le Coze, ordered the soup and shared a considerable portion with me. I had to agree with him that it wasn't quite as good as Le Coze's, mainly because it was a bit thin.
My favorite starter was the roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with brandade, a puree of potatoes and cod. Donlick serves the bright red peppers over an almost lividly green parsley sauce, creating what amounts to an edible Christmas ornament. This is one of my favorite things to eat on the planet – I've frequently eaten it in tapas bars in Spain – and you need to try it.
My friend Frank, who joined us for lunch, started with ravioli filled with a rabbit ragout and slathered in buttery jus. Its flavors simply fell flat and the pasta itself was overcooked. I know it's got trendy appeal. All the foodies are gobbling up bunny these days. But say no.
Wayne and I tried two other starters – the "faux" gras terrine, chicken liver mousse with slightly sweet cognac, and classic raclette. Both were straightforward, although tiny pickled mushrooms atop the raclette, a dish of melted cheese, were a surprise. They didn't adhere well but you won't mind using your fingers. They are a terrific, cornichon-like contrast to the oily cheese. Warning: Both these dishes are eaten with bread and they are generous servings. We'd already eaten a basket of bread when they arrived, so we were stuffed halfway through our entrees. Pace yourself!
Among entrees I've sampled, my favorite was a braised Elysian Farm lamb shank that reflected Parisians' obsession with Middle Eastern cooking. The gigantic shank was served in a bowl over couscous with currants, apples and prunes drenched in a flavorful jus. My impression was that the bowl held extra meat. This was the first time I ever remember not polishing off a whole lamb shank.
My next favorite was the shepherd's pie that Frank and I both ordered at lunch. It wasn't very picturesque – a rectangular casserole dish with no garnish – but its blend of mashed potatoes and celeriac over chunks of braised veal in a vegetable-studded gravy was perfect for a wintery day.
Ranking third among the entrees was Wayne's roasted Palmetto Farms whole young chicken. I actually found it on the dry side, especially with its accompanying pommes frites.
The only outright failure I encountered was Brad's croque madame, the classic sandwich of grilled ham, Gruyère and Mornay sauce topped with a fried egg. The Mornay sauce was all but missing, and the overcooked egg's hard yolk couldn't compensate.
Desserts are all classics. I was disturbed that ile flottante, meringues adrift a pool of crème anglaise, weren't on the menu, but Wayne's favorite, profiteroles, were, so we split a dish of them. It's not my favorite dessert even when it's prepared perfectly. Wayne shrugged and announced that the Shed at Glenwood's are better, but I think he said that because he eats the whole plate alone there.
I make no secret of the fact that a visit to Buckhead is always a mixed experience for me. I still see a few people who remind me of the truly wacky characters I encountered there in my youth. (Imagine Grey Gardens before the fall.) That makes me nostalgic. But then I also see the hordes of nouveau riche who have turned the area into a ghetto of conspicuous consumption. Then I think how my nostalgia is rather elitist. Then I get a headache. I guess I should learn to eat without sociological rumination. Yeah. I liked Bistro Niko. Mainly.
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