No-doze Le Coze 

Never a dull moment at this Buckhead institution

The older couple across from our table starts their meal with dessert. I'm too intently engaged in conversation with my friend to properly eavesdrop, but in brief glances, I note the man's unnaturally tanned skin and the woman's Lauren Bacall savoir-faire. Are they European, or European wannabes? I watch their faces as they banter jauntily while they swiftly polish off an impeccably symmetrical apple tart and a banana concoction wrapped in pastry. A server glides over, whisks away their empty plates and then presents them with appetizers.

Observing the eccentric customers is one of the integral pleasures of dining at Brasserie Le Coze. Open since 1994, the restaurant's true-to-France menu and only-in-Atlanta location in Lenox Square mall have been a magnet for a rangy cast of individuals: ex-pats, suits, tourists, bar flies and, of course, the shop-til-you-drop set. It's easy to let your eyes glide around the room and concoct quirky, imaginary lives for madame chatting away interminably to her companion, or monsieur with his oversized mustache.

The servers running around in their monkey suits can be included in the roster of fascinating personalities. They look dignified, but you never know what lurks behind the facade. At lunch, after I consumed a special of seared cod served over a mix of beans in an aggressively vinegary basquaise sauce ($17.50), I flag our server down so I can get to a haircut appointment. "Can you grab our check?" I ask the chap. "I need to run." "Need to go, huh? Was it the beans?" he replies and chuckles. My friend and I laugh uneasily and look at each other like, No, he didn't just make a fart joke!

If the patrons (and staff) seem like characters from a John Irving novel, the place itself is straight off the set of Amelie. Tile and wood-paneled walls, translucent floral light fixtures and black-and-white stills of long-gone beauties all contribute to a twilight, dreamlike atmosphere. The Parisian illusion -- particularly with that empty condom dispenser next to the urinals in the men's bathroom -- is much more convincing and satisfying than anything Disney could pull off.

Most folks who frequent Brasserie Le Coze stick closely to habitual menu favorites. But recent shakedowns in the kitchen are making experimentation worthwhile.

Chef Jean-Luc Mongodin, late of Joël, and sous-chef Joshua Laban Perkins, who was responsible for taking the cuisine at Alpharetta's Di Paolo to a higher level, signed on at the end of 2002, and there are new signs of life among the staid French offerings. Take an appetizer of yellowfin tuna ($10): thin, sheer slices of neon pink fish are arranged in a circle, scattered with a diced rainbow of vegetables and lemon confit, with a barely acidic tomato water glazing the bottom of the plate. It's obvious Mongodin learned a trick or two about sophisticated fusion from his former boss, Joël Antunes.

Two seafood entrees -- red snapper over jasmine-coriander rice with a dollop of mango salad ($19.50) and poached halibut in orange-ginger broth with wild mushrooms ($21.50) -- come from the same school of thought: classic French preparations spiked with light, bright Asian flavors and contrapuntal textures. Ordered alongside their classic brasserie peers, these dishes stand out like RuPaul at a Promise Keepers convention.

Not that the dishes you know and love are suffering. Quiet luxuries are still the cornerstone of a meal here. A large, seductively silken slice of foie gras au torchon ($15), poached to a light salmon color, is playfully paired with a sweet, sharp eggplant chutney. They never seem to bring enough toast on which to slather the foie gras, but their signature crusty rolls substitute nicely in a pinch. Rack of lamb with melting ratatouille and a cylindrical potato gratin is just the kind of rich, Gallic dish you want to savor in this slightly surreal space. Along similar lines, a sandwich of thinly sliced lamb with garlic mayonnaise on olive bread is a pungent, satiating choice for lunch ($9.50).

A few items seem tired. I know there would be a revolt if Brasserie ever took its white bean soup with white truffle oil ($5.50) off the menu, but I'm so sick of stinky white truffle oil, I go out of my way to avoid it. And the fried goat cheese in the endive salad ($9.50) doesn't hold the same novelty it once did, nor does it seem to gush as temptingly when you cut into it.

Filet mignon is the biggest disappointment (and, at $25, it's the most expensive disappointment as well). The beef is flabby and lacks a gutsy, seared crust. If you're in the mood for meat, go for the lean, juicy skirt steak ($18). Watch your plate -- greedy hands will be reaching for the accompanying pile of garlic-herbed frites.

And for dessert? There's a molten cake that oozes green pistachio créme anglaise like the innards of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a clever tasting of three diminutive chocolate pots de créme, each spiced differently ($5.50 each). I'm smitten with the red berry cocktail, an intricate layering that includes fresh strawberries and blackberries, housemade currant jelly and raspberry sorbet (also $5.50). It's refreshingly sweet and puckery in all the right ways, and I may just start my next meal at Brasserie with this little gem. No one will bat an eyelash.


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