When pigs fly

A first trot to Au Pied de Cochon

There is much to like about Au Pied de Cochon (3315 Peachtree Road, 404-946-9070). But problems begin as soon as you walk through the door of the glamorous new InterContinental Buckhead hotel where it's located. Let me amend that. They begin when you drive up and realize valet parking is going to cost you $10 or $12. Then, poorer already, you walk through the doors, cross the gorgeous red marble floor and look at a plaque that directs you to "Au Pied du Cuchon."

"Maybe," Wayne, who speaks fluent French, said with perfect sincerity, "it's some kind of play on words. You know, maybe the restaurant is named after a Mr. Cuchon or ..." Wayne perpetually apologizes for everything French, even when an obviously American-phobic waiter in Marseilles contemptuously served me olive oil in an ashtray. "It is their custom, I am sure," he said. Um, right.

When I observed the embarrassing misspelling to the hosts at the entrance to the restaurant, they collapsed into chest-touching French gasps. Meanwhile Wayne, gasping back, blathered apologetically about a likely play on words. "Is there a Mr. Cuchon?" he asked staffers repeatedly. I reminded Wayne that the restaurant is operated by the same people who operate the legendary Au Pied de Cochon next to Les Halles in Paris — the one famous for their pigs' feet — that we have walked by several times. His love of the French was once again blocking his rationality.

We were seated while someone rushed off to validate the misspelled sign himself. "I must to see this!"

What is immediately lovable about this new brasserie — besides the fact that it is open 24 hours — is its decor. Its walls contain 337 panels painted in fanciful rococo style — see pigs fly, see pigs at pasture — by the same artist who decorated the Mexico City location of the restaurant. Chandeliers are made of colored glass. A seafood raw bar glistens near the entrance. There are private dining rooms for trysting behind heavy red velvet drapes. A chef's table, which is also the site of the daily lunch buffet, offers a view of the kitchen.

The second lovable thing is the staff. The manager, Maxime de La Grange Sury, is an affable Parisian who has been in the States 10 years, working for the InterContinental chain, most recently in Houston. The rest of the staff is equally friendly and informal. When our American server asked us if we wanted still or bubbly water, I asked if tap water was an option. She looked around and said, "Well, it's not supposed to be. These French people can be very controlling. But, yes, you can have tap water."

The food, alas, simply is not up to the dining room's promise. Keep in mind that mine is a first impression of a few dishes after the restaurant was open only about three weeks, so I suspect things will improve. But they are going to need to improve a good bit if the restaurant wants to attract diners outside the hotel.

Forgive them the stone-cold bread and the rock hard butter. The butter knife itself is a novelty worth stealing. The blade's direction opposes the handles. I want a set. As usual with new restaurants, starters were better than entrees. Wayne ordered a gigantic pot of shellfish — mussels, little neck clams, oysters and shrimp — in a soupy gratinee of Emmenthal cheese. It was irresistibly gooey and creamy, the shellfish broth sweet and fragrant blended with the mild cheese. And its $18 price tag and huge size make it a good choice for sharing. My own starter, a tomato tart, featured sweet pastry topped with fresh, slightly cooked Roma tomatoes. Somebody went crazy with the salt, unfortunately. Lightly dressed arugula topped the tart.

I ordered the signature roasted pig's trotter served with bearnaise sauce. I confess I have eaten weird pig parts all my life. As a kid I loved pickled pigs' feet and as a teenager I used to eat pig ear sandwiches on English Avenue in downtown Atlanta. I used to go to the Salley Chitlin' Strut every November. I eat the Mexicans' stewed and fried pig fat, chicharrones. My favorite Cuban dish is pigs' feet stewed with yucca. And I've eaten the French's roasted trotters for years too. This version at Au Pied de Cochon was not my favorite. It is a simple, roasted affair, whereas most I have sampled elsewhere have been stuffed with duck liver or some other delicacy. Oh, the smoky flavor of the meat is just fine, and the skin is crispy, though not crispy enough. But I definitely prefer stuffed varieties. My server assured me, though, that the French have been devouring the brasserie's version and leaving only piles of bones on their plates.

Wayne selected free-range chicken roasted with fingerling potatoes, with a side of bearnaise. It was perfectly competent but didn't hold a candle to the version at Brasserie Le Coze. On the other hand, I'm not sure that Le Coze serves a bird that led a happy, joyous and free life before being executed.

Desserts. I was so excited to see Ile Flottante on the menu. The dessert of meringues in vanilla sauce is my Parisian favorite. Here the version is a single molded meringue and the sauce is scattered with toasted pistachios. It's purely personal, but I like a meringue with a bit more body to it, even lightly toasted. Wayne ordered profiteroles, his own Parisian addiction. They are midget-sized, chewy and served with the chocolate sauce on the side, along with some raspberries and strawberries.

The restaurant is open 24 hours and prices range enough that you can eat extravagantly or cheaply. However, I suggest you skip breakfast. I asked to see the morning menu and was flabbergasted by the prices — $22, for example, for a couple of eggs with ham and grits. I can only presume this is calculated to exploit the expense-account overnighters.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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