Restaurant Review - Frolicking at Philippe’s

Casual and chic, good mussels and frites

Ever wonder where the Beautiful People of Atlanta go to consort when they’re getting on in years and, though they’ve still got cache, aren’t quite as shimmery as they once were? Well, I’ve stumbled onto the answer: They’re hanging out at the bar at Philippe’s Bistro in Peachtree Hills, and it’s quite the convivial scene.

There’s a man tickling the ivories by the restaurant’s entrance and, if you’re lucky, a fabulously retro xylophonist. Mustard-sponged walls, cliched though they may be, give off a suave air in the buttery light. A calico granite bar, upon which remarkably blond women pose, runs the length of the downstairs dining room. The upstairs dining room — at treetop level — must be lovely in the height of summer, but it just feels lonely and drafty on chilly spring evenings. Stick to the ground floor, where chef/owner Philippe Haddad (with his James Brolin good looks) is often schmoozing the crowd.

Philippe’s menu can best be summed up with the C word — Continental. Belgian in origin and former chef of the Abbey in Midtown, Haddad brings an old-fashioned sensibility to his cuisine that suits the well-to-do neighborhood, though for non-regulars the price tag of a meal here may raise eyebrows in these parsimonious times.

Dover sole meuniere ($24.75), a classic from the Continental repertoire, looks safely dull bathed in butter and served with precisely cut potatoes atop spinach coulis, but the flavors are unexpectedly delicate and harmonious. Supple filet mignon in shallot-port reduction ($24.95) has more finesse than several steakhouse renditions I’ve tasted around town.

What shares the plate with that filet, however, is one of Philippe’s chief attractions. I’m talkin’ about the pommes frites, y’all — crispy, piping hot French fries, or Belgian fries in this case (no “freedom fries” cracks, s’il vous plait) Order them as a side ($3) and they come bundled in a small terra cotta planter along with aggressively tarragon-ish bearnaise that can rapidly grow tiresome. Tablemates pick right up on that, and soon they’re dunking them in every sauce they can find. They’re also wonderful with the traditional pairing of mussels ($18), which are cooked in one of five sauces. Try the white wine Mediterranean or the tomato and saffron variations.

When the kitchen strays into trendy territory, things get dicey. There’s a token fusion dish: an uninspired appetizer of those all-too-familiar little pink rectangles of seared Ahi tuna, dolled up with a lobster salad and too-sweet hoisin vinaigrette ($12). There’s also an obligatory New Southern app of oddly chewy smoked trout and tired fried green tomatoes, stacked and glued with a capered mayonnaise ($10).

For a menu that was supposedly revised at the beginning of March, there are some inappropriately autumnal dishes on the menu. Rabbit braised in beer with prunes and pureed root vegetables ($23) is a fine compilation of ingredients, but in these warming days, I’m yearning for friskier, lighter preparations. Same goes for the sturdy brown beef stew with large chunks of potato and carrot ($20).

In that spirit, best to veer toward seafood. Seared halibut with asparagus, spinach and champagne sabayon is light and subtle, an apt serenade to spring ($24.50). A Hoegaarden beurre blanc gives a debonair lift to a sea scallops starter with leeks and mushrooms ($11), and makes a winning dip for the pommes frites to boot.

The wine list is undergoing a slow reconstruction, so I hope the staff will be inspired to uncover some more attention-grabbing choices in the $35 to $45 range, particularly among the reds. If you’re looking for a good Belgian beer to go with your mussels, there’s not much of a choice, at no fault to the restaurant. Georgia’s bullshit blue laws strike again: Some sanctimonious legislators along the way determined that most Belgian beers are too high in alcohol to be imported into our puritanical state.

Jazzed for a Belgian waffle for dessert, my heart sinks when it arrives at the table. The waffle itself is fine, but it’s drizzled with a vague, thin chocolate sauce and topped with a few slices of anemic strawberries. And talk about sticker shock! You pay $7.95 to be treated to Haddad’s homeland specialty. Um, Waffle House, anyone?

The odd mix of servers here make for nearly as good people watching as the clientele. An older gentleman waits with a stoic expression for the kitchen (in plain sight behind the bar) to finish plates for one of his tables, while across the room a chatty young woman peeks in her check holder to make certain she’s remembered the night’s specials correctly.

Despite the uneven food, Philippe’s scores points with a chumminess that’s hard to resist. It’s refreshingly un-American to find a spot where the crowd is so grown-up and self-assured. If you’re not up for blowing some hard bucks on a full-out meal, swing by, have a seat in the bar and order some mussels and frites. Even if you’re by yourself, the sight and sounds of the lively, gossipy bunch clinking drinks and slinging bon mots by the piano will leave you with a sated, urbane glow by evening’s end.