Review: Viande Rouge

A suburban French steakhouse sexes up Johns Creek

Pulling into the parking lot of Viande Rouge, in a strip mall in Johns Creek, it would be possible to mistake the restaurant for a "spa." Yeah, that kind of spa. The windows are blacked out completely. The 18-plus policy only adds to the suggestion that this is a place where adult activities take place.

When you step through the door, the house-of-ill-repute aura is heightened, although the scene will obliterate any low-rent notion you might have had. Inside, the space resembles not Tokyo Spa so much as Belle Watling's. Blood-red brocade lines the walls, flanked by deeper red overstuffed patent leather banquettes. Lighting is low, and a bizarre collection of prints in heavy gold frames makes up the artwork; suggestive line drawings that look like 1986 Esquire cologne ads — square-jawed men, vacant, angular women. A stunning, curvy woman wearing crimson lipstick and suicide heels rushes over to greet you, gushing about how sorry she is to have kept you waiting, despite the fact that she has done no such thing. Over the bar, a large print depicts a woman smoking, a cigarette holder between her fingers, her head cocked back slightly. She looks out over the room with a mixture of arrogance and submission, a modern man's fantasy of a vintage pose.

But no, Viande Rouge is not a whorehouse. It is a steakhouse. A French steakhouse, or, more accurately, an American steakhouse with French pretensions. Opened seven months ago by Thomas Taylor and chef Marc Sublette, who have been operating Trattoria One 41 in the same strip for the past five years, Viande Rouge brings back a style of cooking and eating that Americans have long romantically associated with France: rich, cream-and-butter worshiping, decadent gluttony. This is date night on steroids, all sex and meat and women (of a certain age) at the bar in dresses that make you glad there's a no-kids policy.

The service staff is made up mostly of burly men. Dressed in vests and as unctuous as honey, these dudes know how to smooth talk a lady. And talk they will: Not only is much of the menu read aloud to each table, many of the dishes are prepared tableside, an act of ridiculous theater that's also amusing in the best possible way. Viande Rouge excels in its over-the-top ambitions, as long as you're willing to check your cynicism at the door.

The food also mainly succeeds, with one giant caveat: Everything at Viande Rouge is excessive — the look, the feel, the service, even the prices — and the food follows suit. Lobster bisque is so rich, so brimming with decadent lobster broth and cream, that its deep brown, velvety liquid almost reminds me of chocolate sauce. It's a good thing, trust me. The confit de canard à l'orange — duck à l'orange made with duck confit — is a glorious union of sticky-tart orange glaze, deep, musky duck meat and the bright citrus of orange segments. The melted cough lozenge stickiness of most versions of this classic dish turned me off a long time ago; this version brought me back on board with a vengeance.

But it is hard, truly hard, almost impossible, to get through a meal here without feeling overwhelmed by the decadence factor. Even the steaks, which waiters "highly recommend" you garnish with a "chapeaux" — toppings of lobster Thermidore or fried oysters, perhaps — tend to come way overseasoned, the meat unable to shine as brightly. Dover sole is filleted and plated tableside, and then drowned in so much butter it's impossible to finish. The "legumes" portion of the menu would more appropriately be named "laitier," being that most items are drenched in cream or cheese. Is there a certain delight in a plate of leeks, swimming in thick cream, punctuated by the sweetness of melty cippolini onions? Absolutely. But after seared foie gras, and alongside a steak topped with Brie and bacon? There's an almost menacing quality to the amount of luxury Viande Rouge tries to cram into one sitting.

Still, the chocolate soufflés are tall and airy, the creamed spinach gloppy in all the right ways. This restaurant is such a weird amalgamation of modern and old-fashioned — it takes all the romance of a brand of upscale dining long forgotten and tarts it up in a way I find perversely appealing. Did I think I wanted the choice of desserts flambéed tableside? No. But now that you offer, why the hell not?

Viande Rouge is far away. The food, décor and service are ridiculously over the top; overdone, overwhelming, overspiced, overpriced. It is also more fun than any other eatery to have opened in the metro area in recent memory. My critical analysis of this restaurant as a good but not great indulgence sits in opposition to my personal, somewhat shameful love of the place. For a good time, call.

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