French with a German accent

A visit to Cafe Alsace

Isn't downtown Decatur the best? I always feel like I'm on a movie set over there. I expect Jimmy Stewart to come strolling through the courthouse square, saying, "It's a wonderful life, neighbor!"

I used to complain about parking in the area, but there are plenty of lots on streets off Ponce, and I've gotten so I enjoy strolling the few blocks to one of the zillion restaurants in the area. Of course, one's face hurts after the mandatory smiling during this stroll. But eating relaxes the facial muscles, yes?

Recently, I paid a return visit to Cafe Alsace (121 E. Ponce de Leon, 404-373-5622) for the first time in several years. It's near the intersection of Ponce and Church Street. As I've noted here several times recently, we are in the middle of an explosion of French restaurants, most of which have a heavy Provencal accent. I was interested in visiting Cafe Alsace in part to give myself some variation, a taste from one of France's most interesting but under-represented regions here.

What's unusual about Alsatian cuisine? Here's what the James Beard Foundation says about Alsace on its website: "Although it is the smallest department in France, Alsace by virtue of its history and location, offers a wealth of culinary treasures, including world-famous cheese, pate, rye breads and wines. Since 1919, this beautiful region of picturesque villages, lush green pastures and tree-covered slopes has been a part of France; for centuries before that, the Germans and French fought over its control. The effect on its food has been a happy one, with influences from both countries distilled into a unique cuisine. Alsatians eat pungent munster cheese; hearty casseroles of pork, sauerkraut and sausages; succulent dishes cooked in pork and goose fat; and outstanding pate de foie gras. They drink spicy Gewürztraminer and powerfully aromatic eaux-de-vie."

Undoubtedly, the restaurant has made a few compromises to not overwhelm the anorexic American palate, but I had a very good meal, and an authentic one, for a very good price. Everything about the restaurant is likable these days. It is as nattily and charmingly decorated as any French restaurant I've ever visited while driving that country's back roads. The restaurant also has become quite popular. In fact, I made two earlier attempts to dine there but was discouraged by long waits. You may want to go early.

A warning. Portions are enormous. My friend Tommy Brown and I could barely walk after eating, so you may want to order only one appetizer, since entrees come with a decent salad.

The pate, made with chicken liver seasoned with bacon, shallots and port, is an unctuous sacrament ($6.50). It's served with a sliced baguette and a heap of cornichons. Tommy's onion tart was mildly flavored with a custardy filling almost like a souffle, it was so light ($4.45).

For an entree, I selected cubed lamb cooked with cognac, bacon, onions and cream and served with puff pasty ($15.95). I'd eat the stuff with a spoon every day. Tommy ordered a cornish hen roasted with honey ($14.95). The browned skin-covered moist flesh whose sweet notes were strong but met by a savory jus of white wine and rosemary.

You'll also find beef bourguignon, steak, a crepe that changes daily, and baked Alsatian noodles with a variety of ingredients. There are also specials and, best of all, there are themed weeks now and then.

This week, in fact, is devoted to coq au vin. And the week of June 4 is devoted to one of my all-time favorites — choucroute, sauerkraut cooked with sausages and pork.

You should call for a reservation for that week, since it is popular and the restaurant has to plan well ahead because the dish takes forever to cook correctly.

Here and there
I also made it back to Soleil (3081 Maple Drive, 404-467-1790) last week, where Jacques Hourtal continues to produce some of our city's best Provencal cuisine. Rose D'Agostino, just back from Amsterdam where she swilled bowls of escargot soup, joined me.

For an appetizer, we couldn't resist splitting the day's risotto made with shrimp and scallops ($17). My entree? More lamb, of course, and also a special ($19). It was a rack of lamb (cut into chops before serving) in a very light mint sauce with mashed potatoes and some veggies. Rose picked the menu's pork tenderloin roasted with sage and served with grain mustard ($17).

I still miss the brandade Jacques occasionally made when he was chef years ago at Anis.

Wayne and I landed at Marisqueria 7 Mares on Buford Highway for Cinco de Mayo. It was mariachi hell. We watched a large table of people slowly lose their smiles, turn angry and virtually fall asleep somewhere around stanza number 500 of "Besame Mucho" (or something).

Mariachi bands should be permanently banned from performance. I mean, you have to pay them for silence! My worst experience ever was, of all places, in Istanbul.

A mariachi band came to our table playing and one of the performers demanded money. Wayne handed him some cash, the guy frowned and said, "Not enough." Wayne replied: "Fine, play all night. We can take it."

I'm afraid our meal at 7 Mares was disappointing and ridiculously expensive. There is better Mexican-style seafood at Mariscolandia, farther up Buford Highway, and you won't have to empty your wallet for overpriced catfish dishes.

Everybody's Pizza in Emory Village is still reliable. The cheese pizza crisp — onions and three cheeses on a thin crust — remains one of my favorites. Ask for it well done, so it's nice and crackery, and then pour olive oil on it.

Joey Masi wrote to advise me that he is no longer chef at La Tavola. He is heading to Italy to spend the summer with his family and when he returns, he plans to open his own restaurant in Sandy Springs or Decatur.

This is from the diplomatic Aron Glinsky following my recent review of Coco Loco and a few other Cuban spots: "As the son of Cuban parents, I am an enthusiastic connoisseur of this cuisine. You have left out at least one important restaurant from your article. Little Cuba is located on Chamblee Tucker just inside of I-285. I have found their food to be very accurate, delicious and a great value as well. I strongly encourage you to try it out and even mention your oversight in the paper. To review Cuban restaurants in Atlanta and leave them out is to talk about quality local newspapers and leave out the Loaf."

This is from Edward Krugman, following my review of Atmosphere: "I've had three meals there and, with the exception of the mussels, which were average, everything else has been excellent. The fish, in particular, is outstanding. From a food standpoint, it is one of the best new restaurants in Atlanta. As for the service, the first waiter we had I doubt had ever eaten in a restaurant before, much less served in one. I don't think he is working there anymore. The others seem to require better instruction."

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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