Mealtime at the mall

Holiday haste with a little taste

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? It's a holly jolly Christmas. I'm dreaming of a white Christmas. All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.

God, walking around Lenox Square this time of year is torture to the ears. I mean, why can't I spend a couple thousand dollars on a cartoonish shirt from Versace without listening to hideous drivel? Why can't people take their children to sit on Santa's lap for pictures that cost a fortune without sound pollution?

Lenox, of course, is the city's primary shopping destination this time of year. The frenetic ambience offers very little relief. The only true oasis I know there is Brasserie Le Coze (3393 Peachtree Road, 404-266-1440). I do love Prime. (I'd rather eat in the food court than at the hyper Clubhouse.) But Prime itself can be noisy as hell and feel very rushed. Le Coze, like a genuine Parisan brasserie, is at once intimate and lively and I've never felt rushed there.

If you read this column regularly, you know that I've lunched at Le Coze several times recently. I decided to return for dinner because the restaurant has had a change in staff. Chef Jon Schwenk has left. Replacing him is Jean Luc Mongodin, who was sous chef at Joel. There's also a new sous chef, Joshua Laban Perkins, who was executive chef at Alpharetta's Di Paolo.

I was joined by my friend Bill from Los Angeles. Bill works in sales for the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood and was here trying to peddle that minimalist, glamorous Ian Schrager property to local folks. I arrived at the restaurant gasping for air, my eyes bright red from sniffing some crap in a bottle at Sephora. An employee had shoved my face in a jar of coffee beans to try to clear my head, but I was still reeling.

"Are you sure I'm dressed OK for this place?" Bill asked.

"This is a mall restaurant. You see everyone in every kind of outfit," I told him. "This isn't like Asia de Cuba at the Mondrian where you don't show up in anything but black designer wear, collagen-inflamed lips, a Botoxed forehead and a West Hollywood 'tude."

"Oh," he said.

As we were seated I asked the host if the new chefs had changed the menu. "Any changes on our menu are the work of the owner, Maguy Le Coze," she said. "They may make a few changes, but the main difference is in the execution." Ms. Le Coze also owns Le Bernadin in New York and when Bill learned this, he got very happy. "I've eaten some of the best fish in my life at Le Bernadin," he gushed.

Our server Saurabh, herewith declared Waitron of the Week, was as educated and personable as all of the other servers at Le Coze. I only tricked him up once when I asked which lettuce was used in the creation of an emulsion for a special. He ran to the kitchen and returned to announce it was iceberg and Boston lettuces. "The lowly iceberg!" I repeated. "I'm afraid it's true," he cried.

The cuisine here is, as it's been from the start, classic brasserie fare, with a heavy accent on fish. I ordered a special starter — slices of lugubrious, seared yellowfin tuna served over a barely crunchy tapenade of cauliflower and horseradish ($10) with tomato oil. Faboo. Bill of L.A. ordered lentil soup ($5) — an enormous portion that caused him to whine.

Bill chose the most rococo-sounding entree — pan-roasted red snapper over jasmine-coriander rice with mango salad ($19.50). It was served with a broth seasoned with lemon grass and ginger. Ironically, since the very same thing occurred in a restaurant I reported about last week, Bill found the fish undercooked in parts. When I mentioned it to Saurabh, he rushed the small remaining portion of the fish back to the kitchen like it needed emergency treatment. Bill meanwhile protested that he was sure it was cooked just right, but, being from Texas, he likes everything cooked a bit more than usual. Saurabh returned to say that indeed the chef declared the nearly raw pieces perfectly cooked. Still, he was not charged.

My own entree, coq au vin ($17.50) satisfied a craving I've had for weeks. Le Coze's is the best in town by far. It's half a chicken in a deliciously reduced red wine sauce with potatoes, pearl onions and sliced mushrooms. The only thing missing that I often find in the dish in Paris is turnips.

For dessert, Bill — after whining about the huge portion of soup — ordered a chocolate souffle with vanilla ice cream. The dish took a while getting to the table and Saurabh explained that the chef's first effort had collapsed. Such honesty.

And, honestly, Brasserie Le Coze continues to be our city's best example of brasserie cuisine in the city. And it is Lenox Square's best refuge from its own raison d'etre.

Do not panic

I have received at least five e-mails in the last few months from people on the verge of a nervous breakdown because they have heard that Little Szechuan (5091 Buford Highway, 770-451-0192) may close. Usually these e-mails take the form of this one from reader Will Lloyd:

"I need you to don your superhero togs and rescue Little Szechuan. The head waiter told us last week that they are probably going to close soon. Business is bad, and shows no signs of improvement. They would like to move to a new location, but haven't had luck finding a place they can afford in a neighborhood that would support food like theirs. I'm already suffering at the thought of not eating soybean paste topping noodles several times a month. There are few good Chinese restaurants in Atlanta, and losing one this good will be painful."

I put on my Foodman suit and rushed to Little Szechuan with my sidekick Wayneboy. I was determined to get the straight dope. I asked our server if the restaurant was closing.

Her eyes darted around. "You heard that, huh?" she asked. "You ask my manager."

The manager, Mr. Kong, admitted that the restaurant may indeed close. He said, as Mr. Lloyd wrote, that the restaurant's owner has been looking for a better but affordable location.

I find this a bit confusing since Little Szechuan is worth a trip from anywhere in the city. It's in the same shopping center as Bien Thuy, which seems to do well enough. But I'm happy to do my part to trumpet the cuisine here.

My favorite dish here has long been the tiny fried anchovies with peanuts and hot peppers ($9.95) — an entree that also makes a great shared appetizer for the table, especially for beer drinkers. We also ordered squid with chive flowers in sarchar sauce ($10.95). Actually, we didn't see any flowers in the dish but it was loaded with very tender stalks of chives and pieces of squid. It's a fascinating dish, the kind that introduces you to flavors and textures you rarely encounter, including a very piquant undertone that was surprising with the tender chives.

A whole fried salt-and-pepper pomfret ($13.95) was bone-polishing good. The tender flesh was scored for easy access with chopsticks but you'll want to clean the bones with your fingers. Finally, we ordered one of the restaurant's signature dishes, tofu with black bean sauce and pork ($7.75). It's the best tofu dish in the city in my opinion.

Do yourself a favor. If you're in the mood for Chinese, visit Little Szechuan soon — if not to save it at least to do yourself the favor of sampling some spectacular food before it becomes unavailable.

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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