Feedbag - When the sun comes out

Genuine warmth makes the meal at Buckhead's Soliel

After months of weekly dining columns, I've come to the grim conclusion that most restaurants don't really care that much about you. Sure, they care about you collectively, inasmuch as you keep them in business. But it's rare to visit a restaurant and feel truly welcome from the moment you arrive until you pay the check at the end.

Soleil, unobtrusively tucked away on a Buckhead side street, seems to be one of those rare restaurants. I'm not saying it's perfect, but the place has mastered the art of hospitality.

My previous visits to Soleil had all been in the summer months, when the expansive patio was the preferred destination. It's cool and shady, a perfect spot for a long, boozy lunch. I'd never even seen the inside of the restaurant. But on a chilly December night, the sunny interior was just as inviting. Each table in the intimate dining room was filled, and warm light reflected off the orange faux-finished walls to cast everyone in a flattering glow.

The decor, following the lead of the orange walls, tends toward the flamboyant (think big, gaudy paintings and Parisian street signs for art). But somehow it works. Soleil seems to strike a perfect balance between romance and gaiety. My favorite part — and I say this with complete sincerity — is the fabulous, French-accented servers. Servers that actually speak the language? Mais oui! That they also happen to be competent, quick and friendly only adds to the charm.

A few pasta dishes round out what's a pretty straightforward French bistro menu. Plump mussels in a creamy saffron broth are a huge appetizer portion, easily enough for two. In a rare moment of generosity, I share a few with my husband in exchange for a bite of his duck confit salad. Elegant but decidedly unfancy, the salad is composed of mixed greens tossed in balsamic vinaigrette and topped simply with shredded morsels of the confit.

One of the pasta dishes, ravioli tossed in sage cream sauce, was tasty if a bit overwrought. Another whopping portion, the chicken-stuffed ravioli swam in a decadently buttery sauce. A dollop of ratatouille in the middle of the plate seemed like overkill, but it did cut the intense richness of the dish.

Steak frites were undoubtedly the star of the evening. Though not the traditional cut (Soleil uses sirloin instead of hanger steak), the garlicky beef was done to a perfect medium-rare and accompanied by crispy, thick-cut fries. Desserts were generally more alluring to the eye than to the palate. An apple tartlet was shiny and gorgeous, but lacked flavor. Ditto a beautiful miniature cake filled with white chocolate.

Regardless of small imperfections, Soleil has a great thing going. Every once in a while, it's nice to feel like somebody cares, and the folks at Soleil obviously do.


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