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First look: Harry Bissett's

When a friend saw me perusing the website for Harry Bissett's (360 Pharr Road, 404-425-5995), he got excited. A Georgia Bulldogs fan, he's eaten several times at the Athens restaurant, which has been serving New Orleans-style cooking since 1986. He was happy to learn that a clone of the restaurant opened here a few months ago. "You'll enjoy it," he promised.

I've never eaten in the Athens restaurant, but if the restaurant there is anything like the one here, my friend has either lapsed into a culinary coma or was playing a practical joke on me. I've seriously not had such an unpleasant experience in a restaurant in memory.

I don't feel good about writing that this restaurant is a landmark in poor service and food, but the missteps were so bold and so obvious, we felt like we were watching very bad theater. The lead actor, the server, did such a miserable job that, halfway through the performance, I couldn't look at him without flushing with embarrassment, much less point out to him his most recent error.

There was no crowd to explain the incomprehensibly bad service. On a Monday evening, the restaurant had only a few tables of diners and maybe eight people at the bar. This is generic space in a generic mixed-use building in generic Buckhead. Mardi Gras beads and a few other visual clichés make you suspect les bon temps are not going to roulez too good.

Not long after we were seated, our server appeared at the table and asked for our drink orders. I ordered my usual tonic water. I thought it might be an oversight that I received a lukewarm glass of tonic that was about half-full, with no ice. But the server twice replaced the glass during the meal in identical fashion.

He then stood by the table and asked for our order. I told him we weren't ready to order yet. He said that was cool and continued to stand by the table, staring at us. I ordered the grilled andouille sausage as a starter and the crawfish etouffee, my usual test of New Orleans kitchens. Wayne, very frazzled by the vigilant server, finally ordered the shrimp and grit cake and trout amandine.

The server rushed away and began typing our order into the computer.

"I really would prefer to have the oysters Rockefeller," Wayne said.

I called the server over and told him we wanted to change one of the starters. He looked like a deer caught in headlights. "I'm not sure you can do that ... I mean, let me ask," he said.

Wayne and I looked at one another. After a few moments, the server reappeared and said that, yes, we were allowed to change our appetizer order. He hurried away.

Then a different server came to the table next to ours. He was reciting a menu of specials.

"Specials?" I said to Wayne. "He didn't say anything about specials."

By this time, I was very annoyed. I got up from my chair and walked to the computer where the server was laboriously re-entering our order.

"I'm sorry to bother you," I said, "but I'm hearing another server tell a table about specials. You didn't tell us about any specials. We'd like to know what they are."

I returned to the table. He followed forlornly. He took out a piece of paper and began reading. But apparently he couldn't make sense of several of the dishes. "It looks like turtle soup. Yeah, I guess it's turtle soup," he said. And so on.

We decided to stick with our order.

The appetizers were delivered. I'm not sure why I thought grilled andouille sausage with mustard sauce would, at $8.95, be something besides some sausage cut into bite-sized slivers with a cup of the sauce on the side. Silly me. Honestly, the flavor was pretty good and quite spicy, but the plating was just this side of the Vienna sausage party plate at a 1970s trailer park.

Wayne's oysters Rockefeller, a dish I've eaten since I was a kid, didn't have a hint of anise or Pernod about it, but was retro fun. I bored Wayne with stories of eating the dish at various times in my life.

The server removed our dishes. "Your entrees will be out soon," he said. He looked at Wayne and said, "You know that trout amandine is covered with etouffee, right?"

We looked at one another again. "Are you sure?" I said. "I've never heard of putting etouffee on trout amandine."

"Yes, I'm sure," he said.

I looked at the menu. The description included no etouffee. When he came back to the table, with another half-glass of tonic, I told him the menu disagreed with him. He said he would check. He returned and said I was right, that he was confusing it with another dish.

The entrees arrived. Their appearance astonished me. Wayne's two trout filets were arranged in a "V" on an otherwise empty plate. His jambalaya was served on the side in a tiny cup like the ones restaurants typically use for serving butter or ketchup. In fact, all of the sides were served that way. You need a spoon to eat them.

My etouffee really did not deserve to be called an etouffee. It was glutinous, almost floury, with none of the delicate but decisive flavors of an authentic etouffee. My thimble-sized side of jambalaya was just ridiculous – cold, with slimy tomatoes. Maque choux was better but not by much.

Wayne's trout, topped with almonds and a buttery lemon sauce with chunks of crab, was not bad, in the same retro way the oysters Rockefeller were not bad. It provoked another rush of nostalgia.

For dessert we split an order of bread pudding – too dry for my taste and in need of about double the whipped cream served with it, but not horrible.

This is a first look and the menu here is very lengthy. Perhaps when my editor, Besha Rodell, returns to write the definitive review, she will find that the bons temps are all roulez, after all.



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