Un-American dining activity

Violette, plus Sundown and Mom & Pop's

With all the Francophobia in the air, Wayne, the ultimate Francophile, and I decided we'd do our unpatriotic best by visiting Violette (2948 Clairmont Road, 404-633-3363) last week. It's been well over a year since we'd dined here and on the night of the Academy Awards, we had the dining room basically to ourselves. However, a 90-year-old woman was celebrating her birthday with her extended family in the partitioned back area of the restaurant. It was a poignant scene, rare in a culture that warehouses the elderly.

Violette, like the birthday scene we glimpsed, is a restaurant with a big heart. Chef-owner Guy Luc has always brought a delightfully eccentric touch to his restaurant and his passion drenches the restaurant. For example, in the old days, in an earlier incarnation in an old bank building, Violette regularly featured a prix fixe menu that included entertainment by a singing waitress. I count the experience of watching the woman sing her heart out as she delivered dishes to the table, then disappeared into the kitchen, still singing, as one of my favorite memories of dining in Atlanta.

There is no singing server at Violette these days but there is a good piano player. When he played "Evergreen," Wayne felt prompted to burst into song. Perhaps, if he tires of epidemiology, Mr. Luc will hire Wayne, who speaks French with no discernible American accent, to wait tables.

The restaurant's ambience is cozy: plants and table lamps, a big wood sideboard, walls that are mysteriously blue, stuccoed and hung with art. Prices are reasonable and the food, much of it with an Alsatian influence, is good. I just wish the place weren't stuck on Clairmont but was closer to town.

The signature starter here is the huge assiette Violette — a slice of pate surrounded by four salads, with cornichons on the side, garnished with tomatoes. There's a remarkably juicy carrot salad, a potato salad, a pasta one studded with Roquefort and a piquant red-cabbage one. It's more than enough for two people and absurdly cheap, $6.95.

Wayne ordered the pork rillette with toast, mustard and cornichons ($4.95), earthy and fragrantly pungent. I love the stuff. Other starters here include quiche Lorraine, escargots, mussels steamed in white wine and served with a ginger dip, skewered shrimp and several salads. None of the starters costs more than $6.95 and you could have quite a good time here at the bar, noshing on one or two of them while you swill French wines.

I confess I have never cared for the pastas here, though I do like the skewered lamb served over couscous with harissa sauce ($13.95). I ordered my favorite, the coq au vin. I regard Violette's as the city's best. It's made only with dark meat that has been well marinated in burgundy and then cooked until fork tender. The sauce is glossy, with just the right texture to melt into but not liquefy the accompanying mashed potatoes. Some vegetables — squash, broccoli, tomatoes — were also on the plate. It's a total bargain at $8.95.

Wayne ordered a special, swordfish grilled on a skewer and served with a ginger-green peppercorn sauce ($14.95). Some of the fish tasted a bit overcooked to me but Wayne was tres happy. Other dishes here include stuffed veal breast, duck cooked with fruit, grilled lamb loin, several salmon dishes and several steaks. I prefer the New York strip topped with herbed butter, garlic, capers and mustard. It'll flash you to Paris.

We could not face desserts after the huge portions. I was disappointed to learn the dessert assortment, a mind-boggling creation that challenged all comers, is no longer available.

The restaurant is open for lunch and there's pleasant outdoor seating too.

Changes at Sundown

Sundown Cafe (2165 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-321-1118) reprised, after a long absence, the special menu that put it on the map years ago: a four-course meal that duplicates the cuisine featured in the Mexican book and movie, Like Water for Chocolate, an exploration of the erotic properties of food. Unfortunately the menu won't be available by the time you read this, but the restaurant is debuting a new menu next week.

It's largely the work of Chef David Waller who was at the restaurant a few years ago and went culinary-adventuring in the American West. He has returned to work with Eddie Hernandez, who apparently is spending more time at the operation's two sister restaurants, Taqueria del Sol. David was in California, Wyoming and Santa Fe, where he became corporate chef for Guess Jeans, traveling here and there to feed the starving models during photo shoots.

The restaurant's new menu will be one page and feature far more daily specials than it does now. The weekly specials, like the Water for Chocolate menu, will continue, but they will be augmented by dishes that are only practical to produce a day at a time.

David did a spectacular job with the Like Water for Chocolate menu ($23.95). Chiles en nogada, surely one of the globe's culinary sacraments, were fabulous. It's a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with a sweet picadillo (ground meat) and white cheese, swimming in a pool of walnut cream sauce. Wayne instantly noted that the dish suffered one flaw. It contained no pomegranate seeds and substituted some raspberries placed in the sauce. David later told us that he had scoured the city for pomegranates to no avail. He considered, he admitted, using a spoonful of pomegranate molasses but decided on the raspberries.

Next was a big bowl of caldo de res, a soup made of beef stock in which oxtails have been simmered. It was full of potatoes and green beans, along with chunks of meat and a piece of bone. Then arrived the entree, two whole quail grilled and served with a rose petal sauce made with chicken stock, jicama, chestnuts, garlic, honey and rose extract. A few rose petals floated in the sauce. It's as close as I've gotten to that rose-petal tagine I ate in Paris a few years ago and still dream about.

Finally, we were served three wedding cookies, rich lumps full of pecans and rolled in powdered sugar.

If you haven't been to Sundown lately, plan to visit soon. The new specials are likely to echo David's skills with this special menu.

Here and there

I visited the new Mom & Pop's (1935 Piedmont Circle, 404-810-9055) a few weeks ago. It's in the location of a former Denny's. It's all cleaned up and glistening, with a big deck built out front.

Gone is the entertaining trannie server who used to torment masochistic diners. But the place is no less strange. Mom & Pop are represented by a photo up front. They look a bit like Vestal and Howard Goodman.

The lunch buffet would be scary if it weren't so cheap ($5.95). But meatloaf was perfectly acceptable, as was some barbecued pork. Vegetables were less agreeable. Maintain your high-protein diet and you might be happier here. Grab a slice of red velvet cake at the meal's conclusion. It's included in the buffet.

Mom & Pop's serves breakfast, but I remain loyal to the nearby Pot 'n' Pan where I've eaten dirt-cheap breakfast on weekends off and on for years. Two eggs scrambled with feta, three strips of bacon, some grits (that always need salt) and a couple of biscuits are always reliable. I eat at the bar and chat with the hungover.

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

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