Zee French influence, mais oui!

Atmosphere in the former Le Saint Amour

Those French. They make us smell pretty, they dress us nice, they tickle our noses with champagne and convince us to eat snails and fungus dug up by pigs. Oh sure, we could talk about the implications of their election last week but it's nicer to still think of the French as the world's most civilized people.

They may no longer be a world power, but the French certainly continue to make a huge impact on our local dining scene. It wasn't so long ago you couldn't find a decent French restaurant in Atlanta and now you can't avoid one. The latest to open is Atmosphere (1620 Piedmont Ave., 678-702-1620).

A stone's throw from Cowtippers, the restaurant is located in the cottage that formerly housed Le Saint Amour. When the latter closed, the owners separately opened Rue de Paris and Indigo. Now, one of the employees of Le Saint Amour has, with two partners, opened Atmosphere.

The name of the restaurant might be construed as a warning. Although I had many good meals at Le Saint Amour, I never cared much for its interior of small dining rooms. You could easily be placed in a back room by yourself to eat a very good meal — but you'd feel like Marat in his cell. The annoying floor plan has been preserved — possibly can't even be changed — and the decor is a bit more informal, with lividly colored walls and a staff of way perky people. If you must eat inside, you'll want to eat near the front, where there's at least a view of the pleasant bar.

The best choice now is the patio. Of course, someone — the host, an owner? — seems to hang out there and has assumed the role of culinary pep rally leader. Leaping to his feet, clapping his hands and rushing from table to table to ask, "Are you hungry?" or to declaim, "I hope you like good food!" he worked my last nerve and, I later learned, of friends who have visited the restaurant.

"You're being openly hostile," Wayne told me after one of his visits to the table.

"He's screwing up," I growled.

"He's just being nice," Wayne said. For Wayne, this amounts to saying he has achieved humanly perfection.

Fortunately, the restaurant mainly redeems itself by offering good food at prices that don't produce the gasps that Le Saint Amour did. Chef Marc Plessis has created a one-page menu that is mainly slightly kinky interpretations of classic dishes. Thus you can have your mussels in the usual mariniere style or Pondicherry-style with lemon grass and curry accents or steamed in dark beer with fennel (all under $10).

You can order pork tenderloin over a tamarind sauce, supposedly served with baby turnips ($17.50). I ordered the dish reluctantly. I don't ordinarily like sweet treatments of pork but was interested to see how the turnips, which I love, might work in the dish. The dish was predictably cloying, even with the tamarind's undertone of sourness. So I looked for the turnips. There were none — just some scattered baby carrots. I don't like carrots much.

I called the waiter over. "Where are my baby turnips?" I asked.

"I have no idea," he said.

"Well," I said, Wayne glaring at me, "I don't want this without the turnips."

He carried the plate off. Soon, the pep rally leader arrived. "We are out of baby turnips," he announced.

"Well," I said, "you should tell people when you're substituting something in a dish."

"That's what I'm doing. I'm telling you now!" he said, beaming.

"I'll have the stuffed chicken," I muttered.

The young, completely boned chicken, featuring an artichoke and potato mousselline, was tasty enough ($16.50) but, being a bit dry, nothing to write home about. I'd definitely find another dish, such as the strongly Provencal halibut that Wayne ordered ($18.50). The fish was topped with a vinegary tapenade, served with eggplant ratatouille and a potato gallette. Delicious.

Our appetizers were also very good, especially Wayne's salmon tartare. The fish was cubed and arranged in a little cake, seasoned with lemon cream, cilantro and pickled radish and ginger crisps ($7.50). I couldn't resist the classic salade seguiniere, with smoked duck magret, goat cheese and pine nuts over frisee in a sherry vinaigrette ($6.95).

My dessert was a thoroughly wonderful scoop of passion fruit sorbet with fresh fruit in a sauce spiked with pepper and lemongrass. Wayne chose a pear tart topped with pecan ice cream, not too bad, but a far cry from my choice, which was a special that evening.

There is much else to explore on the menu here — lamb encrusted with goat cheese, roasted Peking duck, a fish soup — and if the restaurant can tone the atmosphere down, I think it's going to be a popular neighborhood destination.

Here and there
We hadn't dined at Sotto Sotto in Virginia-Highland in months when we visited a few weeks ago. If you haven't been, go and try the amazing ravioli filled with radicchio and ricotta, then bathed in a sweet gorgonzola sauce ($14). Velvet on the tongue, hell on the arteries, but you'll stroke-out happily.

I lunched recently at Gordon Biersch in Midtown on Peachtree. I assume the attraction here is the handcrafted beers, because the food is a litany of cliches — or, as the menu calls it, "a fusion of culinary influences created by our world-class chefs."

Apparently world-class chefs are these days piling mediocre turkey, green apples and gorgonzola on foccacia that tastes like slightly compressed white bread ($7.95). The better choice is the corned beef Reuben ($8.95) on rye. There are also pizzas, salads and pastas but the best choice is to walk a block to Eno.

The Terra di Siena folks are packing it in. The high-style, high-price Midtown restaurant is for sale. ... I received a call last week announcing that Paul Luna's new restaurant has opened in the old Peachtree Cafe location in Buckhead on East Paces Ferry. Although I earlier heard a Middle Eastern menu was planned, I now hear it's more generally Mediterranean.

Feedback of the week
This is from Nancy Larson, a vegetarian with a meat-loving Japanese husband who wrote to assure me, after a recent inquiry, that there is no yakiniku-style restaurant in Atlanta:

"Recently while browsing at Iwase, the local Japanese bookstore, I found a stack of cards advertising Yakitori Jinbei (2421 Cobb Parkway in Cumberland Square, Smyrna, 770-818-9215). My husband and I have sorely missed Yakitori Den-chan since it closed in Buckhead, so I thought it would be worth a try. ... Luckily, after making the 40-minute commute from Decatur, it was a pleasant experience.

"The staff are very friendly and accommodating. There wasn't a whole hell of a lot for the non-carnivore, which came as no surprise, but the eggplant and green pepper were grilled just right and my 4-year-old daughter and I went through two orders of hiya-yakko (cold tofu with toppings.) We were also given complimentary edamame (boiled soybeans) and marinated lotus root — both yummy. My husband tried about a half-dozen different skewers and said all were good, except the gizzard which was a little tough. His favorite item was a grilled saba (mackerel) appetizer, quite a generous portion, which was on the daily specials menu."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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