"So, I'm guessing by the name that this place is French?" asks my friend as we approach Pastis in quaint downtown Roswell.
I let the question linger in the air for a moment. I'm mesmerized by the goings-on of the restaurant's picturesque second-story porch, which has as many tables as possible packed into a tiny area. No one seems to have personal space issues, though. In fact, everyone up there seems to be happily chattering, tipping back white wine on a summer evening or repositioning themselves to accommodate a server navigating his way through the tight tables. Pedestrians strolling by on the street look up enviously.
"Yeah -- Provencal, apparently," I finally reply to my friend as we make our way through the door. "It's owned by the same people who own Anis in Buckhead."
Pastis' interior surely invokes the French countryside. Well-worn wooden floors and smoky golden light create an appropriate setting for the merrymakers downstairs who sit at the bar and listen to the thumping band that plays on the weekends. Those who come for le diner are escorted upstairs to a large, open room (with the coveted porch at the other end). A map of the south of France is painted over the fireplace, with names of prominent towns written in swirly script. There's a huge iron chandelier with electric candles looming overhead. Need I even mention that the walls are painted mustard and have the faux stone look?
Servers greet us with lilting French accents, and in the convivial, bustling atmosphere I find myself getting into the spirit. I'm eager to sip a Bandol or another star wine from the southern regions of France. No such luck, though there are plenty of choices from Burgundy and Bordeaux in the north, most of which are offered by the glass. Instead, I order the restaurant's namesake aperitif. Pastis is an anise-flavored aperitif that turns a milky, cloudy color when mixed with water, which is how it's served to anyone but native Frenchmen, who drink it on the rocks. If you chose strawberry Twizzlers over black licorice when you were a kid, this drink is not for you.
Then I take a good look at the menu and my Gallic buzz abates. Apalachicola oysters with lemon, venison carpaccio and gazpacho are mixed in with the Mediterranean mussels and filet de boeuf. Hmmm ... where are the Provencal specialties? Does no one in the suburbs want bouillabaisse, or wild mushroom tart, or ratatouille?
I plunge in optimistically, nonetheless. A salad of watermelon and feta comes out in a cleverly constructed Rubik's cube of red and white. It gets monotonous after a bite or two, however. The gazpacho is made from bland yellow tomatoes and is served with a stringy crab salad and a mound of avocado. Tuna tartare is paired with tepid scallion pancakes that have no business emerging from the kitchen, though they inspire a good conversation about which Chinese restaurants in Atlanta offer superior specimens.
Things get better when you focus on traditional French offerings. A charcuterie plate is good for some appetite-inducing nibblies, including two kinds of homey pate, a slice of brie and a scattering of olives. Calamari, the popcorn of finer dining, is fried just until the batter is crispy but the squid is wonderfully tender. Better still is the fricassee of escargot in a lusty stew of tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic and cream with a square of fried polenta plopped in the center.
Entrees lack a similar sense of place. There's an odd but enjoyable dish of pork tenderloin chunks paired with oyster mushrooms, tomatoes and other summery vegetables in a jus infused with coriander. It looks and tastes like a dish from the country, though from which country's countryside is hard to determine. Grilled Atlantic salmon over caramelized fennel risotto cake (which had an inexplicably haunting note of maple) with asparagus and black olive vinaigrette tastes like something offered in any number of New American eateries around town.
Lamb shank is heavy for warm weather but satisfying nonetheless. The meat pulls easily from its prodigious bone and is served with a garlicky socca pancake made from chickpeas. Ah, now my inner Francophile begins to purr. Bistro "Pastis" is classic Parisian fare -- a grilled rib eye with herbed butter sliding off the top, set over a pile of thick, salty pomme frite and a lightly dressed salad. Simple, correct and delicious.
By dessert, I know not to take any risks on choices that don't have direct Gallic ties. Frozen profiteroles doused in chocolate sauce and panna cotta scented gently with lavender satiate the sweet tooth with grace.
It's evident from the crowds that turn up both weekdays and weekends that this place is popular with the locals. The prices aren't outrageous and the appealing laissez-faire of the staff and the room sets the stage for a relaxed evening of breezy conversation (this is not the restaurant to tell someone you're having an affair or filing bankruptcy).
But I can't help but want more Provencal from these folks. I envision the owners gathered around a butcher block in the back, sipping fish soup while the cooks pump out Americanized dishes. I want fish soup, man. Then I'll really see the world through rose-colored glasses as I sit on that lovely balcony and watch the world below meander by.