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Atmosphere: We'll always have Paris

If you can't afford France ...

"Damn the euro," Wayne said.

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We were dining at Atmosphere (1620 Piedmont Ave., 678-702-1620) and, as usual in a French restaurant, we were mired in nostalgia. We used to travel to Paris and Provence fairly frequently and then the euro arrived and, with the dollar's deflation, everything effectively doubled in price.

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Lucky for us, at least, French cuisine has made something of a comeback in the city. Two relatively new restaurants, Trois and French American Brasserie, are heavily capitalized large restaurants specializing in the cooking of the people who once ruled the world, learned a lesson and had the sense not to participate in George Bush's Iraq folly.

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I decided to visit a couple of bistro favorites last week, starting with Atmosphere, which has been open about four years now. We visited on a Sunday night and found a light, staid crowd of mainly retiree-age people. I like it when I can feel young.

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The restaurant is located in a cottage with what appears to be its original floor plan. It's elegantly decorated but I have never shared people's enthusiasm for dining in old houses turned into restaurants. When I go to a restaurant, I like to be able to watch all the action, not just survey four other tables crowded into a small former bedroom.

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Fortunately, when we visited Sunday night, we got a table up front, near the bar, next to a window, where we could survey the patio, usually my favorite place to dine here. But the hot weather made that unthinkable for all but two women roasting there with a bottle of wine.

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We had a really good meal of classically prepared dishes.

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I started with a puff pastry tart topped with goat cheese and tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and oregano. No, it was not fluffy pizza. The flavors were layered and, like the best of French cooking, intense. Wayne ordered a salad of frisee, Anjou pear slices, Roquefort cheese, walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette.

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Entrees were superb and beautiful to behold. I ordered (boneless) beef back ribs stewed with red wine, served with torteloni stuffed with ground portobellos. The bowl also held leek confit and glazed baby carrots. The torteloni alone made the dish worthwhile: tender and absolutely blooming with the flavor of mushrooms. The beef was suffused with its bordelaise sauce. The leeks were buttery, the carrots just slightly crisp.

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Wayne ordered a cassoulet of monkfish and shrimp served over fennel and bell pepper confit in a saffron fumet sauce. Like my own dish, every flavor rang clear and made us particularly nostalgic for Nice.

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For dessert we ordered Wayne's favorite, profiteroles with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. You should order them, too.

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Complaints? The service was quite erratic. It appeared that only two people were waiting tables, so they were in constant motion but gone for long stretches of time. It's a small worry. If it's been awhile since you dined here, I heartily recommend you return.

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Violette

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"Wait a minute. I know who you are!" our server, Melissa, said. I was impressed since it had been easily three years since I visited Violette (2948 Clairmont Road, 404-633-3363), which was once my favorite French spot in town.

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"You wrote that I was 'pleasantly neurotic, like someone in a Woody Allen movie,'" she said.

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"I don't remember that," I replied, "but, hey, it fits." She had a few minutes earlier followed me out to my car where I'd gone to get something. "Is something wrong?" she had shouted.

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"I didn't mean to stalk you," she said. "It's just that sometimes people sit down and get up and leave."

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So, full disclosure, I was recognized at this quirky café whose original owner and chef, Guy Luc, was murdered three years ago. The original restaurant was in a former bank building and was famous for its weekend dinners featuring a singing waitress.

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The food here has always been a bit odd. When Luc was alive, he often prepared pasta dishes that I didn't much like at all. He was from Alsace, so the menu had a pretty strong influence from that region, and that continues somewhat.

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What is different, I'm afraid, is the overall quality. Entree dishes themselves are decent. Wayne ordered a filet of sesame-crusted salmon. It allegedly also featured peppercorns, but we never picked up that flavor. It was anointed in a decent citrus sauce.

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My dish, confit of pork, tasted like your mama's Sunday roast – succulent meat with a slightly crispy, fatty exterior.

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Side dishes were the problem. Carrots and green beans, served with both entrees, tasted canned. In any event, they were cooked to death. My plate also featured uninspired mashed potatoes. There was also cabbage, the only winner, cooked with juniper berries.

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It didn't help that my appetizer filled me up. I ordered the decent pate with cornichons and the portion was big enough for four people. I ate half of it and took the rest home. Wayne ordered unimpressive French onion soup.

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We finished the meal with what Melissa accurately described as a "humongous crème brulee." It was the meal's highlight.

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When Wayne, formerly the Nicest Person Alive, complains about a meal, I know it's been unusually problematic. Of course, he never says anything explicitly critical. When I asked him what he thought of our meal, he replied, "French food should sparkle."

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"So you didn't like it?" I asked.

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"The flavors should be bright," he said.

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"And you found these flavors to be ....?"

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He changed the subject. "Remember the chocroute you ordered that New Year's Eve in Paris?"



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