French hit 

Rue de Paris takes the place of old Cafe Diem

When Lulu the expatriated Parisian returned from two weeks in Barcelona recently, she called me to commiserate about having to return from that northern Spanish city drenched in soul and eros.

I suggested we head to Andaluz to try the restaurant's new lunch menu but Lulu balked. "Zere is one zing zot was not zo good about being in Spain," she said. "I got zo sick of ze food. Cleef, how much blood sausage can one eat in a week? On my last night in Barcelona I had to find a vegetarian restaurant."

I laughed. I had done the same thing during my visit to Barcelona. Although spending nearly three months in Spain during the last year has finally taught me how to eat there without the compulsion to graze on people's lawns, the high-protein diet remains daunting.

So, we decided to postpone a visit to Andaluz and headed instead to sample Lulu's native fare at the new Rue de Paris (640 N. Highland Ave., 404-881-8944). I should say at the outset that I am very

psyched about this restaurant. First of all, it's located in the space formerly occupied by Cafe Diem. The owners used to operate the excellent but under-appreciated

Le Saint Amour on Piedmont near Ansley. That restaurant, which they sold, discontinued operation the day they opened Rue de Paris.

The re-do of the old Cafe Diem space has been masterfully done. The charm of the original space, adjacent to an old hotel, has been maintained but cleaned up considerably. The room is big, airy and light-filled. There's a wooden bar and a huge wine rack worthy of a Provencal cafe. The terrace, once one of my favorite places for a leisurely lunch, has been retained and cleaned up, too.

The restaurant fills an important void. Though Cafe Diem effectively reincarnated itself as Aprés Diem at Midtown Promenade, it lost much of the appeal of its former ambience. So it's nice to have a French spot back in the old location. Moreover, the restaurant has the potential to fill the other void left by the closing of Cafe Boheme in Little Five Points.

The menu is appealing if limited, despite a few daily specials, and that's my main complaint. There is not the variety of dishes served at either Cafe Boheme or Aprés Diem. (There's not even a paté on the menu.)

It's a bit pricey for French philosophy students. At lunch or dinner, the exception is coq au vin for only $8.95. Lulu and I both ordered this and agreed it was tasty but insufficiently sauced. The chicken is served in a big white bowl over rice that seemed to have absorbed most of the sauce. I'm sure it was the usual opening problems, but we did have to wait a ridiculously long time for the dish. Our poorly educated server kept making lame nonsensical excuses that prompted Lulu to brainstorm opening a servers' school in Atlanta.

I've returned twice for dinner and not had the experience of an interminable wait again. And I've eaten very happily both times. Chef Dan Le Noble seems to have a special touch with salads, combining ingredients, temperatures and textures in striking ways. Thus a starter special, though inaccurately dubbed a "seafood Napoleon," featured a little grilled crabcake layered with three smoky, sweet scallops and nova-like salmon ringed by chopped greens in a tarragon vinaigrette on a plate drizzled with gastric, a sweetened red-wine reduction.

I also sampled, with my friend Will Bonner, a similarly served special of huge scallops and a regular dish of salmon tartar with greens, red onions, lemon, parmesan cheese, boiled eggs and tarragon olive oil. My favorite starter has probably been the simple carpaccio -- a straightforward version dotted with capers and parmesan with a bit of tarragon olive oil. All have been under $10, but not adequate as more than starters unless you are half the size of Lulu, and she is a tiny little French woman.

Entrees are divided into seafood and meats. Besides a rather ordinary grilled tuna provencale ($15.95), I've only tried meat dishes, all of which I've liked and incidentally found to be larger-than-average portions. The duck confit, two legs and thighs, is a guilty, garlicky pleasure served with haricots verts and carrots, along with the restaurant's perfect roasted potatoes -- salty wedges with herbs, at turns crunchy and smooth. They show up on many plates.

Rack of lamb ($19.95) is a generous eight little chops, seasoned simply with thyme and black pepper and grilled, served on a plate with a reduction swimming about those flawless potatoes. Pork tenderloin is roasted in Calvados and served with apple confit and a few walnuts ($14.95). It's the best version of this dish I've tasted in years.

There are sandwiches and salads at lunch. Dessert offers some classics like Ile Flottante, seldom seen on Atlanta menus despite its popularity as an Old South dish. Unfortunately, I can't recommend it. The meringues are inadequately baked and almost dissolve into the custard sauce. Much better is the dramatic Grand Marnier soufflé -- lusciously eggy with faint notes of orange. Actually the liqueur could be turned up a few notches but it's a small complaint.

Service has improved in just a week of meals at the place, but it remains a bit loopy. The servers were themselves excitedly agog when they brought the soufflé out, asking if it tasted as good as it looked. Another time, I ordered tonic water and was twice presented soda water. Such quirkiness is not without its charm but betrays a need to better educate the staff.


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