Review: French American Brasserie

Cyrille Holota butters up downtown’s default French restaurant

OK, y’all, I’ll say it: Atlanta has enough Southern farm-to-table restaurants. We are saturated. We also have enough taco joints. Burgers? Yeah, I think we’re covered.

What don’t we have enough of? French.

The shortage of French restaurants is somewhat of a mystery. While there are plenty of cuisines that might elevate our dining diversity, most of them are slightly less mainstream than French. The cuisine that used to be synonymous with fine dining is hardly a stretch for our palates. It’s not like Atlanta isn’t ready for French food.

Perhaps my statement is too broad. There are certainly far more French restaurants in town than, say, Spanish, not counting internationally influenced tapas. What we’re missing, to be blunt, is quality French food.

What’s the best French restaurant in town? It’s a question I’m asked more frequently than almost any other. And I always struggle for an answer. The answer used to be Joël, before it closed, although Joël always offered a more modern take on the genre.

And then there’s French American Brasserie. The restaurant, also known as F.A.B., opened downtown in 2007, a successor to Lenox Square’s much-missed Brasserie Le Coze that closed in 2006. Although Maguy Le Coze, owner of New York’s legendary Le Bernardin and part owner of Brasserie Le Coze, did not continue her affiliation with F.A.B., much faith was given to Le Coze’s more visible partner and sole owner of F.A.B., Fabrice Vergez. The swank downtown location, the quality of Le Coze, and the traditional brasserie menu, all might have you think F.A.B. is in the running for the Best French in Atlanta title.

Well, not quite. Not when it opened at least. While many of the standard dishes filled Atlanta’s void — grand seafood towers, a lovely skate wing with brown butter — others disappointed. In my May 2007 review of the restaurant under chef Kaighn Raymond, I said that F.A.B. provided “upscale and straightforward French food that is reliably good.” Fine, but not exactly glowing, best-in-the-city praise.

Last October, another chance arose for F.A.B. to live up to its potential. Cyrille Holota, the chef who had done an admirable job continuing Joël Antunes’ work in the kitchen at Joël after its namesake chef left for New York, came on to head up F.A.B.’s kitchen. It seemed a little of the freshness, ingenuity, and the classic adherence to technique for which Joël was known might lift F.A.B. into the realm it deserved to inhabit: a classic French restaurant with uncompromising quality.

Four months in, it’s hard to see what, if any, influence Holota has had on the menu.

The seafood still towers, the steaks and chops — part of a concession to American tastes — still please in their meaty glory. The skate wing is still the best in town, all brown butter nuttiness over tender, flaky fish. A recent special lentil soup was rustic and comforting. I wished for something special about it, something surprising or elegant, but scooped up the generous portion all the same.

And perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised to find a French restaurant going a tad heavy on the cream and butter, but here the fat is not in direct proportion to deliciousness. It passes that point and just keeps on going.

In place of the traditional French onion soup, F.A.B. serves a creamy onion soup. The caramelized onions’ inherent sweetness, usually matched and tempered by beef broth, is ramped up with cream, the whole bowl tasting like the base for some kind of wacko onion ice cream. Beef bourguignonne is served as a clever square of short ribs, with a cube of fried sweetbread on top. Slightly too chewy on the edge, the meat is nonetheless rich and melting in places. But the sauce is so slick with butter that the accompanying veggies are hard to eat, the seductive flavors of wine in the sauce overshadowed by fat. Likewise, the coq au vin has almost no vin flavor at all, the sauce glistening with butter.

When I asked to be directed to new dishes on the menu, I was given pheasant in a slightly acrid sauce, served with red wine-poached pears that were hard and crunchy, the wine poach failing to reach past the first two millimeters of the pear’s flesh. A crab cake with a celeriac rémoulade and truffle sauce tasted more as though it had some kind of fruity slaw under it. The dish, with its dusting of dry spice around the rim and splashes of sauce across the plate, looked scattershot and didn’t taste much better. An entrée of Mediterranean sea bass arrived one evening with an impostor fish: The provided trout was cooked beautifully, but not even mentioning the switcheroo is amateur at best, dishonest at worst.

The restaurant is still grandly impressive with its circular bar, mirrored walls, heavy drapes and glow of yellow lamps. But even atmospherically, there are concessions made that diminish the overall effect. “This is a pretty fancy restaurant, huh?” I said to my 7-year-old son one evening as he munched on a fat lamb chop.

“Yeah,” he said, looking around. “Except for the TVs.”

Indeed, the four flat screens that surround the bar do nothing for the ambiance. If I wanted to watch bad ’80s movies I wouldn’t have come out for a $200 meal.

And that’s really the issue here — F.A.B. will probably continue to have good convention, business lunch and private party business. There’s certainly some magic to the old-school service, mainly comprised of dignified men, many of them with charming, froggy accents. And when we look for a default French restaurant in town, F.A.B. is one of only a handful of places that come to mind. But a cost-prohibitive restaurant with a talented chef in the kitchen could be far better. And because it could, it should.