Restaurant Review - Pleasant Peasant redux

It’s back to basics at Midtown’s spirited trendsetter

The casualization of Atlanta restaurants began on a rainy night in February 1973 when partners Dick Dailey and Steve Nygren opened the Pleasant Peasant in a former drugstore on Peachtree Street in Midtown. An almost instant success, the restaurant introduced the staid city to flamboyantly gay male waiters, formularized country-French food, chalkboard menus and checked-shirt informality. Coats and ties were not required for men. Reservations were not accepted. Uncomfortable cafe chairs, wobbly tables and shamelessly weak mixed drinks were tradeoffs for large entree portions, modest prices and a campy ambisexual scene.

Soon dubbed “the Peasant” and “PP,” the restaurant attracted trend trackers and professional insiders of almost every age, class and persuasion. It eventually spawned a chain that once reached as far as Washington, D.C. The chain survived the AIDS crisis and made rich men of Nygren and Dailey, who sold out several years ago. The chain and the original stand itself — tin ceiling, uneven tile floors, white ironstone china, cramped restrooms and all — subsequently changed hands, with many units closing or spun off under various owners.

Today, the Pleasant Peasant is among the few restaurants in my phone file that dates from well before I began writing about restaurants professionally. In my former life in school public relations, I shared an office with a man who moonlighted making the Peasant’s celebrated cheese toasts in a toaster oven. He never got enough sleep, eventually quitting both jobs and moving to California.

“It may be the same little oven,” current owner Maureen Kalmanson laughed recently, explaining that she’s trying to revive the restaurant’s most popular original dishes, along with the Peasant’s stagnant reputation. A former Peasant executive, she and her investors have acquired a handful of other Peasant and Mick’s properties.

The first cheese toasts delivered to my table were dismal specimens — soggy, oily and about as crisp as microwaved Kleenex. Kalmanson, a former neighbor, had spotted me as soon as I hit the door. She hovered while I tried one, then another.

“Not quite there,” I said sadly. “Not what I remember.”

Snatching up the basket of faulty first tries, Kalmanson explained that she’s having trouble finding the cheese specified in the original recipe.

But that wasn’t the problem. The second time around, the toaster oven-operative managed to coordinate proper temperature with cooking time. The resulting brown-gold, nubby textured toasts were moderately crisp, sharply cheesy, pleasantly salty, in short, well worth a hungry foodie’s attention. A third basket was the same, as were two more during lunch two weeks later.

Other fondly remembered items hit the mark more often than not. Scallops Parisiene — scallops steamed in white wine and served in a cheese-laced cream sauce — taste exactly the same as always: cheesy, creamy, saline and rich as Rockefeller. A couple of differences crossed my mind as I ate, however. The entree now costs $21, versus less than $10 a couple of decades ago. And the portion is half the size it once was. In his introduction to the menu, the waiter promised six scallops. I counted four and a fraction. The portion was formerly eight or more.

Times change and so do food costs. Peasant potatoes — freshly fried chips that accompany the scallops as well as other entrees — are still crisp and sizable enough to use as spoons for dipping up the delicious cheese sauce. Like the throwaway dinner salads (once memorable, not now), they are included, not served at an extra cost.

Plum pork, another retro favorite, is combined with real-tasting mashed potatoes, French beans and a fruity Port wine reduction at a more affordable $16. For that, the portion includes four medallions that are seasoned with mustard before grilling, then warmed in the savory gravy.

French onion soup topped with what tasted like whole-wheat toast and a slice of Swiss cheese was close to right ($6). Had the beefy broth been hot rather than warm, and the cheese partly caramelized rather than merely melted, I’d have been happier. Maybe the person who operates the toaster oven also plates the soup.

A burger au poivre at lunch was lean, tasty and cooked as ordered ($8). It recalled the glory days at Mick’s in the 1980s. So did a slice of Key lime pie with Graham cracker crust, dense tart filling and real whipped cream topping ($6). Talk about going back to basics.

Talk about going overboard: Blackened chicken breast on tortellini with pesto cream sauce was a warm, wet mess in a great white bowl ($10). More cream than pesto, the sauce resembled soup in both consistency and quantity. The slices of chicken displayed no evidence of blackening. An appetizer, fried squid encased in what may have been intended as Cajun breading with two sauces, reminded me of low-end convenience products ($8). We didn’t finish it. So much for innovation.

The Peasant style of service remains in force. Attractive, fit young men (and a few women) are back, all smiles. They open proceedings by introducing themselves (“Hi, I’m Bruce and I’ll be your server tonight”). They sing-song the menu’s unstated explanatory notes (“It’s a boneless BREAST of chicken topped with a mushroom WINE sauce”) like apprentice news readers. After delivering the plates, they earnestly ask if there’s ANYTHING else they can bring to complete the guest’s TOTAL satisfaction.

They could talk less, of course. The rote-learned patter of the 1970s is now an artifact. But then so are scallops in creamy cheese sauce, cheese toast and Key lime pie, no matter how delicious.

Back in the late 1970s, I took my cousin and my aunt, both proper Nashville married ladies, to the Peasant for dinner. A tall, good-looking guy walked in, spotted one of the hunky waiters — clearly an old, dear friend — and greeted him with a bear hug. The two men went into an ass-grabbing, kiss-kiss clinch that was clearly visible to a third of the guests in the fully packed room. Aunt Peg looked up, stared at the two men a long while, turned to me and said brightly, “Well! Shall we have just one more little drink before dinner?” The revolution had begun.

On the whole, I’ll take the chatter with the cheese toast. Gay-owned and -accented restaurants are much more common today than when I came to town 30 years ago. Conversely, however, the people who run them are often much less open and uncloseted than were Nygren and Dailey. To have the in-your-face Peasant spirit back again is not only comforting and reassuring but a great big kick in Atlanta’s corporate closet.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hot or 404-614-2514.??