"Violette -- on Clairmont Road, on the right. Across from the Sam's Club. If you reach the underpass to I-85, you've gone too far," I warn my dinner date.
These are not exactly the directions you'd expect to lead to a charming and cozy French restaurant, known for its falling-off-the-bone coq au vin. Once inside, however, live piano music, a fully-stocked bar, and a chorus of French-accented greetings welcome you. Eager to show off my français skills, I was disappointed when our waiter, although helpful, was an American.
An appetizer of rillettes, my motivation in selecting Violette, was far from disappointing. While both salmon and pork are offered, I went with the original pork version. It's hard to find this dish -- shredded pork mixed with rendered pork fat and served at room temperature -- in Atlanta. It's traditionally served, like pâté, with toasted bread, Dijon mustard, and a few cornichons. Velvety and flavorful, Violette's generous portion hearkened back to my summer in Tours, where they boast of having the purest versions of rillettes and French accents. The potatoes in the pommes de terre à l'Alsacienne, on the other hand, were bland and garnered little help from the accompanying dill sauce.
Against my better judgment, I opted against the celebrated coq au vin. Maintaining a pork theme for the meal, I instead chose a rôti de porc for my entrée. Served with mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots, it was dispiritingly ordinary. The waiter attempted to subtly steer me toward the rosemary jus as my choice of sauce with the pork. I unfortunately went for a pepper sauce that more resembled sawmill gravy than a delicate French creation. Filet mignon garnered a similar experience: It was well cooked and tender but not terribly interesting.
Dessert selections are scant, so we went for the most decadent: a crêpe stuffed with mousse au chocolat and vanilla ice cream, topped with chantilly and chocolate sauce. The overall effect was cloying; the mousse heavy, the crêpe so thick and rubbery it leaned into pancake territory.
Having had many authentically delicious dinners at Violette before, I realize that the trick to navigating its menu is to choose the quintessentially French dishes, like the rillettes and the coq au vin. I'll also continue hoping that ratatouille will reappear as a side dish. Within a quick drive of the increasingly crowded intown dining scene, Violette remains an intimate lunch and dinner escape. Even on a Saturday evening, they entertain a contained but steady mix of date-goers, families and friends. The service is affable and informative, offering honest opinions on food and the wine list. Quiet and satisfying French bistros seem to be a dying breed in Atlanta, but Violette remains an inviting spot.
Time to finalize your Valentine's plans. Following is a list of places offerings specials on and around Feb. 14:
Aqua Blue in Roswell will offer a $65 prix-fixe four course meal with seatings at 5:30, 7 and 9:30 p.m. 1564 Holcomb Bridge Road, Roswell. 770-643-8886. www.atlantahilife.com.
Avra Greek Tavern in Midtown will serve a $50, four-course special menu. 794 Juniper St. 404-892-8890. www.avragreektavern.com.
Di Paolo in Alpharetta will offer special Italian dishes on Valentine's Day as well as the weekend before, Fri.-Sun., Feb. 10-12. 8560 Holcomb Bridge Road, Alpharetta. 770-587-1051. www.dipaolorestaurant.com.
Murphy's in Virginia-Highland will be offering its regular menu in addition to Valentine's specials, including shrimp and crab salad, salmon Oscar, grilled New York strip with wild mushroom scalloped potatoes and a "tropical fruit heart." 997 Virginia Ave. 404-872-0904. www.murphysvh.com.
Oceanaire Seafood Room has planned a five-course menu -- including oysters, lobster and chocolate fondue -- for $75 per person. 1100 Peachtree. 404-475-2277. www.theoceanaire.com.
Pura Vida will offer a "Tapas for Two" special. For $70 per couple, the restaurant will offer a choice of six tapas, a dessert and a bottle of wine from a select list. 656 N. Highland Ave. 404-870-9797. www.puravidatapas.com.
Woodfire Grill will prepare a five-course meal including rack of lamb for two, truffled potatoes, beet salad, special heart shaped cheeses and a glass of processo. Cost is $75 per person. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-347-9055. www.woodfiregrill.com.
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