The French Paradox

Our columnist speaks her Parisian mind on local Gallic gastronomy
FAB Downtown has that certain French je ne sais quoi

French cartoon master Jean-Jacques Sempé, whose big-nosed, slightly bewildered characters often appear on the cover of the New Yorker, once drew two old men wearing berets and riding rickety bicycles with string bags of identical long baguettes hanging from the crossbars. I remember that each man sported a little mustache and a limp cigarette dangling from a mouth set in a sour expression. The absurd caption—“We are becoming more and more American every day”—made me laugh out loud.

For all the media reports about the French adopting American culture, I postulate that it is the Americans who have become more like the French in their obsession with handcrafted food and slow cooking and their newfound love for off-cut meats. Thirty-five years ago, as a new arrival, I missed everything about my country: the bread, the cheese, the croissants, the bottled mineral water, the charcuterie, the plump chickens cooked in red wine, the espresso, the dark chocolate. Yes, those crazy Americans had steaks of shocking size and tenderness, but I preferred the chewy, more flavorful grass-fed beef I had grown up with. Every one of those items is now available to me in our metropolitan area.

By contrast, the French restaurants I encountered in Atlanta three decades ago did little to soothe my nostalgia. I cried over the Continental disappointments at Chateau Fleur de Lis, then the supposed leader in local French cuisine, and I discovered Petite Auberge to be essentially German. Strangely enough, the places where I felt most at home were the few Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall, which reminded me of the backstreets of Paris.

I threw myself into my new surroundings and learned all there was to know about fried chicken, Brunswick stew, pimento cheese, deviled eggs, and Southern cakes. All were far better than the approximations of French cuisine my fellow Atlantans seemed taken with.

France has its own culinary Mason-Dixon Line: butter to the north, olive oil to the south. When cute little bistros such as Anis started opening in Atlanta in the early 1980s, I liked them well enough, but their sunny allegiance to Provence meant as little to me as the cooking of Alabama does to a born New Yorker. I kept giving French restaurants the cold shoulder. Jean Banchet threatened to throw me out of Ciboulette, his benchmark nineties restaurant, and many other chefs cried foul.

I fell in love with Brasserie Le Coze the day it opened in Lenox Square. The food, the decor, and the service felt fiercely, authentically French to me. Reincarnated Downtown as FAB and still run as a first-class establishment by the unflappable Fabrice Vergez, the restaurant feels more French to me than all of Atlanta’s Gallic eateries put together: Au Pied de Cochon in the InterContinental hotel is too much like a theme park, and an empty one at that. Bistro Niko is too Buckhead. Joël has been ruined by ruthless downsizing (chef Cyrille Holota hits some high notes, but the menu panders more and more to undemanding corporate customers). Amuse in Midtown is too much of a hybrid. Cafe Alsace in Decatur doesn’t make good Alsatian choucroute. La Petite Maison on Roswell Road is riddled with cliches. And although I adore its modest version of cuisine grandmère and its homemade desserts, Brookhaven’s Au Rendez-Vous has never looked anything but flimsy and junky in a uniquely American way.

The good news is that I no longer have to turn to French restaurants when I want steak frites, beautifully cooked sweetbreads, homemade rillettes and pâté de campagne, crusty bread and sweet butter with fleur de sel, raw-milk cheeses served at room temperature, and fruit desserts with more flavor than sugar. The upper echelon of American chefs is all over such things.

Who knows whether other people read BLT Steak in the W Atlanta–Downtown as a French restaurant, but I certainly do. The kitchen is starting to cut a few corners, as evidenced by its much-reduced complimentary charcuterie board, but after a special such as snails sauteed with fresh peas and mint and a blood-red hanger steak with lush sauce béarnaise, I want to hug chef Jean-Luc Mongodin, who runs the local show for New York–based chef-owner Laurent Tourondel. Despite its unfamiliar temperature, the baked chocolate mousse is a divine taste of Paris, and the magnificent popovers (not really a French dish!) call my name.

Sometimes, though, I want to dine in a French context. I need someone who says “Bonjour” to me at the door and pours me a little drop (une petite goutte) of Calvados at the end of the meal. The highest compliment I can pay to Atmosphère near Ansley is that it is always correct. The soups are never too rich. The salads are tossed with tenderness. I usually eat charcuterie or some snails in garlic butter and a steak. Christine and Jean-Marc Métairie, the least snobby French couple you’ll ever meet, run the restaurant as if it were an extension of their home. I would never think of their terrace as merely a deck, and I like to dine under a parasol.

Le Triskell, which opened a year ago in the bottom of a small high-rise, makes crêpes au jambon that remind me of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris’s Latin Quarter. And while I have always relied on Vietnamese bakeries for petits pâtés chauds (a savory pastry stuffed with ground pork), I was floored to find homemade yogurt that tasted exactly like its French counterpart (not thick and chalky like most available here) in the cooler of the new Viet Tofu on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. Candied orange peels dipped in chocolate from Maison Robert and petits fours at Douceur de France in Marietta flood me with happy memories. Couscous night (every other Saturday) at Downtown’s Social is the newest way I see France insinuating itself into Atlanta. Owner Rheda “Ray” Chikhaoui, a young Frenchman of Tunisian background, has emerged as a champion of a dish that France inherited from its former North African colonies.

There are still a few things I pine for: a true French boudin noir made with pork blood, the indelicate gut sausage known as andouillette, and veal kidneys à la moutarde. But with more and more Atlanta gourmands trying to outdo the French, we may all be eating these delicacies soon.

Photograph by Lauren Rubinstein