Chef Rhoads Fearn and managing partner Francois Hugon have returned to the chopping board, sliced fusion cuisine in half and opened Bistros, an Ansley-area restaurant with side-by-side menus: American bistro to the left, French bistro on the facing page, wines and desserts on separate cards.
No problem if a customer wants to start with salade d'epinards et foies de volaille, proceed to a bourbon-cured pork chop with apple bread pudding and finish with creme brulee. Such combinations are suggested by the bread service. Each basket contains American-style mini-biscuits and crusty French rolls.
So what's the point of splitting the menu? Beats me. Why call a steak entrecete béarnaise and immediately describe it as "12-oz. N.Y. strip with béarnaise sauce and French fries?" Still, the dainty slab of beef brought to me was tasty, lean, minimally seasoned, grilled exactly as ordered and served on a hot plate ($19). The béarnaise, which in the wrong hands can suggest herbal toothpaste, instead seemed hand-made and was properly light in texture and taste. The fries packed a lot of flavor and were clearly made from fresh potatoes, but arrived somewhat limp. (When I spoke to Chef Fearn later he said he'd check on the temperature and condition of his cooking oil.)
Accompanied by a different buddy each time, I ordered from the menu's French side on the first visit, and from the American a week later. We started the French meal with two salads -- the aforementioned spinach-and-livers ($6) and a mix of bibb and frisée with thin-sliced brie on garlic-scented croutons ($6.50). The latter salad was very French, which is to say tossed with a sharp, clear dressing, not anointed with sugared, balsamically softened brown syrup.
The spinach salad with sautéed livers, caramelized onions and cabernet vinaigrette was worth a trip across town, the price of the meal, a trip to the moon -- as bracing and extraordinary, in somewhat different ways, as the similar starter at Toulouse. According to Fearn, the triumph is no big trick. The livers are merely flavored with pepper and salt. The dressing contains real wine, he said. So it must be some kind of magic. French magic, perhaps.
A French-Mediterranean fish plate was less magical, more down-to-earth. Two over-salted medallions of loup de mer (sea bass) seemed almost lost atop a haystack tangle of pappardelle pasta with lobster sauce ($19). Profiteroles, traditionally a celebratory French finisher, were a disappointment. The pastry was cooked to American standards, not French. The chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream lacked flavor. The creme Chantilly base was flat, not fluffy, and clogged with fresh berries, which threw the consistency off ($6).
On the American side, roasted rack of lamb (from New Zealand, the menu admits) with mashed potatoes, root vegetables and port wine-basil glaze was mild, wholesome and handsome to behold, the culinary equivalent of a sensitive straight guy encountered at a party ($18). Risotto with chanterelle mushrooms, asparagus tips, shaved cheese and truffle oil, more sophisticated if less authentically American, whispered hand-made with every delicious bite ($15.50). Split, the risotto would make a nice pasta course for two.
Crab cake on Cajun mustard sauce was studded with diced peppers and tasted as if held together with some sort of filler. Although the menu promises "jumbo lump crabmeat," the wispy lumps were nothing like the size and heft of those employed in crab cakes at Coast 92 in Roswell, reviewed here two weeks ago. At $10.95 for one cake, the price was comparable, however. Asparagus soup with truffle cream, a special, was smooth and rich ($5.50). Neither the soup nor the crab cake was served hot enough.
A chocolate-almond hedgehog with creme anglaise and Kaluha was as rich as any entrepreneurial American's daydreams ($6). Service matches the food in style and professionalism.
Fearn was chef at the Food Business in Decatur before crossing town. He has also cooked at Chefs' Grill, City Grill and La Tour. Hugon was formerly with Brasserie Le Coze.
The restaurant most recently operated as Cipollini (and as Cibolette before that). In shifting the culinary focus from Italian to French, only cosmetic physical changes have been made. With its long lines of upholstered banquettes, snappy napery, mirrors and candles, the dining room suits anything from a formal business dinner to a casual date.
Only the crowds are missing. With cooking, service and ambience as tempting as this, it seems reasonable to hope that Bistros will soon find its audience.