Last year, when discussing our Best Of awards, my colleague Cliff Bostock suggested I visit Brasserie Le Coze as a contender for Best French restaurant. "It's closed," I told him. "I missed it completely."
"Already?!" he cried. He had heard it might close, but didn't yet know the doors were shut for good, the space having been gobbled up by the expanding Neiman Marcus at Lenox Square. Cliff seemed genuinely distressed that Le Coze was gone, and I regretted, yet again, that I had missed my chance to get to the restaurant.
No great city is complete without a grand brasserie. As Balthazar in New York has proven, true quality comes second; what's important is the feel, a mix of good old-fashioned French snootiness and charm, along with a lot of mirrors and large towers of seafood on ice.
And so I eagerly awaited Le Coze's successor, French American Brasserie, or F.A.B., as it has annoyingly crowned itself. While the monster restaurant was under construction, chef Kaighn Raymond spent time in New York, training under Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. Four floors, 15,000 square feet, and a ton of chandeliers and wrought iron later, owner Fabrice Vergez is back in business.
Stepping into F.A.B., most of the tactile notes the Frenchiest of restaurants must hit are achieved. Mirrors, marble and romantic statues make up the decor. There is the buzz in the daytime of happy lunchers, a kind of hushed jubilance that comes from women of a certain class enjoying themselves. There are also people of importance – in my few visits I have seen a good portion of the city's restaurant royalty being doted on by the knowing and slick staff.
The large, circular zinc bar conjures drinking scenes in classic movies, and if you didn't get that hint there are four large plasma screens above the bar playing highlights from those very films. Once the loud, dusty, ugly construction across the street is completed, the patio will seem very Parisian indeed, although Ivan Allen Boulevard will never exactly resemble the Champs Elysees.
And this being a new building on Ivan Allen Boulevard, there is an unavoidable artifice to the place. It kind of reminds me of the French restaurant at Epcot Center, where fanny-pack-clad Disney visitors go to get a taste of haute French cooking. Fortunately, at F.A.B. the customers are better dressed and the food is made for diners, not tourists.
I've discovered some of the dishes that ingratiated diners to Brasserie Le Coze in the first place: the white bean soup with truffle oil, silky and richly savory. The crispy skate wing with nutty brown butter, the profiteroles, the mussels cooked in white wine and cream. Like classic jazz standards, these dishes have a timeless appeal.
I find comfort in ridiculously hulking seafood towers – there's something about them that smacks of what I thought was fancy before I actually understood much about food, but I still get that giddy feeling from ordering them. At F.A.B., Le Plateau for two is easily enough for four to munch on as an appetizer, with 12 oysters, half a lobster, crab, shrimp and mussels. The only disconcerting component I came across was crabmeat that was frozen inside its shell, but the decadence of the combination is seductive.
Some of these classics cross the line from simple to slightly bland. The enormous bowl of mussels became tiresome about a third of the way through, the liquid lacking that addictive nature that copious wine and parsley bring to a seafood broth. Ahi tuna carpaccio was pristine but a little flavorless.
On the other hand, a tomato galette balanced delightfully buttery puff pastry with sweet, red tomatoes singing of freshness. Sweetbreads served with wild mushrooms and a black-truffle sauce had an amped-up decadence, and the foie gras torchon was a cool, creamy archetype of the form.
Disregarding my regular protocol, I visited F.A.B. very early on, after it had been open only a week or so, and found a strange saccharine theme running through the menu, from the watercress salad to the coq au vin. Seriously, it tasted as though someone had gone buck-wild in the kitchen with a syrup bottle. But weeks later, the sugar bandit seemed to have been vanquished, at least on the coq au vin front, and the sherry dressing on the watercress tasted less like Jolly Ranchers.
There is a large selection of steaks and chops, served with à la carte sides and sauces. The quality is good, but I'm not sure I'd come here for steak. Better to explore the seafood dishes, such as flounder with clams and Jerusalem artichoke in a Pernod broth, or monkfish with chorizo and a pleasing white-wine reduction.
Also pleasing are the desserts, especially if you've got a hankering for profiteroles, which are served with pistachio ice cream and brought me back to the streets of Paris like nothing else on the menu here. Also addictive are the tangy sweet Meyer-lemon crepes.
I do wonder what Raymond brought back with him from his time at Le Bernardin. I have spent many years actively trying to rid myself of my New York snobbery, with much success, but allow me one minute of snarkiness – this is no Le Bernardin, not even as a pared-down brasserie homage to that restaurant. Le Bernardin is known for its incredible, inventive French cuisine, and I see very little of that innovation or precision here.
What I do see is something that has been missing in Atlanta since my arrival here and presumably since Le Coze closed. That is, upscale and straightforward French food that is reliably good. This is a place to satisfy specific cravings, to visit when you need a good, crisp glass of white Bordeaux and a menu that won't trick you with acrobatics, but instead please you with old-fashioned luxury.
Hope everyone had a great weekend and got to eat some great food.
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