Restaurant Review - Parisian Charm

The imperfect, endearing, and immensely lovable Fleurs de Lis Cafe

In my humble opinion, the restaurant in its most perfect form is not necessarily found in the hallowed rooms of haute cuisine. It's in the more humble places, where chefs have opened their hearts and allowed a piece of their soul to slip onto your plate. Sure, I will forever remember my meals at the famous, world-class restaurants I have visited, but the places I go back to again and again are more modest, infused with love — imperfect but endearing, and oozing with humanity.

Like all big cities, Atlanta has truly great restaurants that serve a fraction of the people. It also has little hole-in-the-wall places, many of them ethnic, that cater to our everyday needs. What I have been missing is something in between. A restaurant that is invested in dining — and when I say dining, I don't mean eating; I mean dining — but that is also accessible.

Les Fleurs de Lis Café is such a restaurant. I have been to plenty of places around the world that aim to bring the feel of Paris to the streets of another city. Usually a lot gets lost in translation, but not here. Step inside and you will be transported. This is French eating as the French experience it in an everyday kind of way, with a laid-back reverence.

The tiny space, tucked into the side of the Healy Building downtown, is a charming clutter of tables, leather banquettes, mirrors and lace curtains. The evolution of the restaurant has been slow, beginning as a lunch-only place with no liquor license, then cautiously opening for dinner two nights a week, and finally settling now on a seven-day, five-night a week schedule, complete with wine, beer and liquor.

Chef Lenard Robinson is not French, but he understands French cooking — and perhaps more importantly, French dining — very well. Again, this is not fancy French food, but rather modest bistro fare: simple, honest and delicious.

Some days at Les Fleurs de Lis you will get a menu, and some days the waiter will recite your options. Some days the options are minimal — perhaps a choice of three appetizers, two entrees and two desserts. But not to worry. Part of the restaurant's appeal is putting yourself in someone else's hands. Usually you will be well taken care of.

Start with the pâté of the day, which might be a rich chicken liver and peppercorn mousse infused with truffle oil. Or mussels marinere, which arrive in a creamy white wine broth, perfectly seasoned and the height of simplicity. Salads are also beautifully simple, with lovely, unpretentious vinaigrettes over fresh greens, and perhaps some goat cheese and the crunch of apple. One evening I had a special appetizer of bacalhau, soft, fried salt-cod balls, that were far more tasty and satisfying than any crab cake I have come across recently.

Simplicity is the name of the game with entrees as well. Sole over mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach was perfectly cooked, well-seasoned and gobbled up with gusto. Lamb chops with rosemary sauce were woodsy and comforting. Swordfish over corn, lima beans and tomato was a study in freshness, the drizzles of basil oil offsetting the meaty fish and making me want to jump out of my chair and sing an ode to summer.

Not everything is quite so pleasing. For lunch one day, my dining companion had ravioli that had the consistency of leather. Another time, a beef tenderloin was too chewy to earn its title. I found a teeny piece of plastic in the aforementioned swordfish dish ... it didn't quell my enthusiasm, but I would understand if someone felt differently about it.

But I am not simply blinded by the charm of this place. One bite of the chocolate soufflé, and all faith is restored. Light and bittersweet, it transports me, again, to a sidewalk bistro on another continent. Pot de crème is also classic and lovely. When I am done, the bill seldom makes it over the $100 mark for two people with wine, another highly endearing quality.

This type of experience is not for everyone. Chef Robinson has a bit of a reputation for gruffness, something I never came across, but I certainly wouldn't call him friendly. I have to admit that in some twisted way, his uneasy relationship with hospitality only added to the charm of the place for me. He is a purist, and if a customer does not buy into his vision, they can go elsewhere. My guess is they frequently do.

Every time I have visited the restaurant, I've overheard some customer complaining about something or other. Two businessmen expressed their discomfort at the fact that the door was open and the air conditioning was off, despite the lovely spring breeze and the ceiling fans. To some, the friendly service is ruined by the fact that only one waiter works the room, making patience a key ingredient to enjoying oneself here. The wait is never interminable or infuriating in my experience, and if you are enjoying yourself, your company and the food, it is unlikely you will notice. But those looking for snappy service should stay away.

More often, though, I come across customers sitting at Les Fleurs de Lis as if it is part of their home. There is a high percentage of single diners here at night, something one doesn't often see in American restaurants. If Atlanta is willing to let down its guard a little, relax, take its time and put itself into the hands of Les Fleurs de Lis, it could learn something about dining from this immensely lovable little restaurant.