Buckhead Life restaurant group is known for a certain kind of glamour – big, brash, flashy – and Bistro Niko certainly delivers on that front. Beyond the wide entrance hallway with a glassed-in kitchen to the left, the main dining room sprawls in grand brasserie style: red booths, mirrored walls, columns, and a ceiling adorned with swirly molding and twinkling lights. If Buckhead Life owner Pano Karatassos and his son Niko know how to do anything, it's make a first impression. The bistro named for Niko is no exception. But it's a brasserie the restaurant channels – it's scale, feel and huge menu have none of the cute intimacy of a bistro. It's semantics, perhaps – Brasserie Niko doesn't roll off the tongue with quite the same cadence.
Bistro Niko is the first Buckhead Life establishment to open in Atlanta since Kyma's 2001 debut. Despite the lack of openings, the group's restaurants continue to be some of the highest grossing in the country. Bistro Niko appears primed to bring in the big bucks as well – you have to book more than a week in advance to get a table between 5 and 9 p.m. on a weekend. This debutante is as popular as she is beautiful, and for the time being, her dance card is close to full.
The combination of the restaurant's scale and popularity presents an issue Buckhead Life has always excelled at addressing: how to tackle both volume and quality. But at Niko, the best food is the stuff that's simple to execute or can be done ahead of time.
Niko has what may be the best French onion soup in town – dark, rich broth, teeming with onions, and that crusty/soggy/cheesy muddle on top. There's nothing groundbreaking about it, just a classic version done right. Salads, including the frisée and the niçoise, are dressed and prepared correctly. And patés – from country to the (lamely named) "faux gras" chicken liver to the actual foie gras – all stand out as meatily delicious, seasoned flawlessly and made with obvious skill.
I had considerably more trouble when getting into items that require special attention at the moment of execution. Gougères – pastry puffs laced with Gruyère cheese – arrived at the table lukewarm every time, the hot, cheesy pleasure potential lost to a tepid puff of mediocrity. A beautiful piece of salmon was overcooked and sat atop a red wine reduction so stickily sweet it obliterated the flavor of the leeks, the dish's only other component. A true beurre rouge would suit the fish far better.
The kitchen does well when doling out the classics, but it falters when it tries to tweak those classics significantly. I was baffled by the boeuf bourguignon, a dish that traditionally turns a lesser cut of meat into magic with the melding of wine, onions and carrots. At Niko, it's made with Kobe beef cheeks, and served over the weirdest twist-tie shaped pasta. The thin and pointy "macaroni" fails to fulfill the task – generally accomplished by egg noodles or rice – of soaking up the juice. Furthermore, the beef and vegetables seemed to have been cooked separately, with all the components put together at the last minute. This may ensure portion control, but it robs the dish of its alchemy, turning something that should be pure comfort into a dish you have to think about too much.
Servers at Niko are generally of the seasoned, lifelong, and male variety, providing a kind of old-school service that can be delightful or annoying, depending on the individual you end up with. One evening, it was heartening to be in the hands of a waiter with a slight French accent who whipped around the table with grace and aplomb. Another evening, I encountered some of the most outrageous gender bias, as if we had landed in a supper club circa 1950. The waiter in question patently refused to bring me a more complex cocktail, insisting I would only like one made with lemonade or puréed berries (I didn't). I ordered the wine, the waiter presented it to my male companion. When I asked for the check, it was delivered to my guest, and when I paid, he got the change. Many of these longtime professionals harbor an attitude with a pushy, jaded, world-weary undertone, and it's easy for that brand of professionalism to slip into insult.
Niko hits all the right notes when it comes to Paris-meets-Atlanta glamour, and delivers on some of its promises when it comes to classic French brasserie fare. But the lows are too low for a restaurant of this caliber and price point, and the highs not high enough. I hope that in the coming months, the powers that be won't take the copious crowds for granted.
Bistro Niko may be beautiful and popular, but this debutante is going to need a bit more substance if she wants to achieve longevity and respect.
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