In this era of hyperlocalism and regional pride, the popularity of French cuisine has been on the decline. That’s especially true in the South, where French food can be perceived as too heavy and French restaurants as too stiff; Atlanta’s dining scene has been bereft of French refinement since the closure of Joël on Northside Parkway in 2010. But there is hope. The wild success of modern, high-end restaurants such as Trois Mec in Los Angeles and Le Coucou in New York leaves little doubt that revolutionary French cooking is staging a comeback. In Atlanta, that comeback has arrived at one of the city’s most curious locations: inside the recently transformed Hotel Clermont and directly above the lovably grungy Clermont Lounge. Yes, the French resurgence has materialized above a strip club. The restaurant even bears the name of a dancer who once disrobed in that space: Tiny Lou’s.
Steve Palmer of Indigo Road restaurant group (Oak Steakhouse, Colletta, and Donetto in Atlanta, similar concepts in Charleston) has been itching to open a French restaurant. In chef Jeb Aldrich, who cooked at Joël for two years, Palmer has found the ideal mix of professional and daredevil. Aldrich describes himself as one of only four Americans in Joël’s kitchen brigade, and he subsequently worked alongside his father, Jay Swift, at Old Fourth Ward’s now-shuttered 4th and Swift. Fine-dining pastry chef Claudia Martinez, fresh from Atlas in Buckhead, also is a tremendous asset to Tiny Lou’s, and the servers gathered by Nick Hassiotis, Hotel Clermont’s director of restaurants, are way more polished than expected given the hotel’s hipster context.
Based on the descriptions alone, many of Tiny Lou’s dishes come across as rich and traditional: Hudson Valley foie gras torchon with grilled Asian pear and sauce caline; duck consommé with foie gras dumplings, breakfast radishes, pickled apricots, and fine herbs; plump Burgundy snails with foaming parsley pistou and pickled champagne grapes. But this food possesses far more restraint than those phrases suggest. Aldrich’s Vidalia onion soup with apple cider isn’t overcaramelized. His warm fromage brulee with toasted sourdough has the mouthfeel of a soufflé. A mastery of sauces is part of what makes the kitchen so good, as evidenced by the harissa beurre monté that graces a whole roasted loup de mer. Classic steak frites made with tender Angus culotte and crisp, thin french fries (“same as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon,” Aldrich says) and a beauteous Carolina poulet rouge with smooth aligot (mashed potatoes whipped with cheese) are particularly faithful to France’s core culinary values. Aldrich makes his seasonal Parisian gnocchi with pate a choux, serves thick-sliced housemade brioche with soft butter and crunchy salt, and buries his crudités in a bowl of crushed ice, with green goddess creme fraiche on the side.
Whatever you order, don’t skip dessert. Who else in Atlanta but Claudia Martinez can fashion such a splendid multilayer crepe Suzette cake, with orange cream and a thin, glossy layer of burnt sugar on top? And there is no strawberry mousse more ravishing than hers, served with black-pepper crumbles, basil-lime sorbet, and strawberry consommé. Her talent is equally apparent in a whimsical muscavado custard tart buried in toasted meringue, a chocolate mousse of supreme textural interest, and a brown-butter blondie that pays homage to the downstairs lounge’s endearing star, Blondie, who’s been performing for decades.
There isn’t a bottle over $100 on a mostly French wine list that’s still evolving. And while the cocktails could be a little bolder and less concerned about trendiness, no one can complain about the seasonal Pimm’s Coupe (a riff on a Pimm’s Cup, subbing sparkling wine for lemon soda) or the thoughtful inclusion of zero-proof options.
Of the two dining rooms, one is well lit and borderline sexy, with cute corner booths and frivolous trinkets; the other, larger one is clamorous and dull. After dinner, do not miss the opportunity to venture up to the hotel’s lush rooftop terrace (Tiny Lou’s customers get first dibs). No one should forgo the view and the charming ambiance up there, especially after dining in the moody depths of the hotel.
Tiny Lou’s may be named after an Austrian burlesque dancer from the Clermont’s 1950s glory days, but it’s nothing if not serious about its food. The resoundingly French menu revives the classics without rendering them unrecognizable. And whether you venture upstairs to the rooftop bar or downstairs to the salacious lounge, no restaurant in town offers such magnificent post-dinner diversions.
★ ★ ★ ★
789 Ponce De Leon Avenue,
This article appears in our October 2018 issue.