Eight years have passed since Kiet Jean-Claude Changivy opened Au Rendez-Vous (1328 Windsor Parkway, 404-343-4983), a tiny French bistro in the Brookhaven area. It's had a fanatical following most of those years, partly because of the good food and partly because of the rather exotic atmosphere.
By "exotic," I'm referring principally to the anti-décor that hasn't changed since the restaurant first opened. But that is now in serious need of freshening. Rickety tables and chairs have grown more rickety and the very few decorative flourishes are still overwhelmed by storage materials. The place even smelled of accumulated grease when I visited last Friday night with five friends.
Many, including my friends, have balked at the sight of an Asian chef in a French kitchen. But Changivy is from Vietnam, a country whose cuisine was extremely influenced by the French during their lengthy occupation. Moreover, he trained in Paris.
Au Rendez-Vous' ultimate strangeness, though, has long been the service — at times so slow I felt like I had disappeared. I didn't care. But, after nearly a year of not dining there, I found myself wanting more when I returned last week. I want the décor cleaned up and I want Changivy to improve the menu, especially the appetizers.
Changivy has long served an appetizer of white asparagus that tastes straight out of a can, barely enlivened by a French mustard dressing. I never liked the asparagus' taste but now, in a time of ruthless farm-to-table expectations, it's almost offensive. Ditto for canned or frozen mixed vegetables and broccoli served as a side dish with some plates. A classic appetizer of coquilles St. Jacques au gratin was disappointing, too. The scallops were overcooked in a watery béchamel with leeks. And, despite the menu's promise of a gratin, there was none. Chubby mussels steamed in white wine with garlic and shallots were the best starter on the table.
Entrées, as almost always, were better. I have long been fond of the cassoulet here, although I have one complaint: Changivy's version has no breadcrumb topping. Last week, mine was served with a patch of fine crumbs, but, as always, I missed breaking into a crust covering the white bean stew — part of the ritual of eating the dish in most places (but certainly not always). I have no complaints about the sausage, duck confit and pork in the pot. It's still a favorite dish.
I also enjoyed a friend's entrée of couscous au mouton. The French love this North African dish (Changivy doesn't make it with a sheep's head, as far as I know). It includes vegetables and raisins cooked in a pot with hot peppers and cumin. The cooked lamb and couscous are added before serving. I'm tempted to call it the best dish on the table.
But two other entrées get positive reviews, too. The roasted chicken simmered in port wine and flambéed with cognac is a favorite here. It includes sliced white mushrooms and is as close as the menu gets to coq au vin. I didn't get a taste of the steak au poivre — the beef tenderloin cooked with assorted peppercorns and served with a white-brandy pan sauce — but earlier tastings have jetted me back to meals in Paris.
Meals here come with salad or soup. Most of us chose the decent but not particularly notable onion soup. With appetizers on top of the soup and entrée, we were way too full for dessert. I suggest that you avoid the mediocre appetizers and order the quite satisfying crepes for dessert if the entrée and soup don't satisfy you. Dessert discussion aside, it's really past time for Changivy to improve the starters.
Generally, I like lunch here more than dinner. And here's a major warning: The restaurant is still cash only and if you want wine, you'll have to tote your own.
Return to Violette
I'm thinking it's been at least two years since I've dined at Violette (2948 Clairmont Road, 404-633-3363), a French bistro that has been around since the late '80s. At first located in a former bank building, it was famous for its meals featuring a singing waitress. I'm not kidding. The server sang continually while chef/owner Guy Luck prepared his Alsatian-influenced menu.
In the mid-'90s, Luck built the present location a few blocks from the original. Awfully, in 2003, he was murdered. The restaurant continued under the management of his financial partner, but there was a decided drop in quality.
I lunched there last week and was very pleasantly surprised. It was doing a business brisk enough to warrant a valet. And the dining room remains as individualistic as Luck himself. He built much of it with his own hands. See for yourself.
My lunch was terrific. I started — reluctantly, then happily — with the day's soup. It was puréed pinto beans combined with a beef base, some cream and salt and pepper. Imagine Frenchified frijoles charros. Next up was a huge serving of classic boeuf bourguignon with mashed potatoes and sautéed veggies (heavy on the squash). I cleaned my plate. I couldn't resist the bread pudding that induced a near-coma. Seriously, unless you plan to nap afterward, an entrée will probably be as much as you want to eat here at lunch.
My waiter Darryle is Server of the Week. He was super attentive, knew his ingredients (or promptly asked the kitchen) and even fixed me up with a tonic water to go as I left. Ask for him.