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The French connection

Julie & Julia inspires an evening at Atmosphere

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“Have you seen Julie & Julia?” our server asked us as we took our seat at Atmosphere (1620 Piedmont Ave., 678-702-1620).

We explained that we had seen the film about Julia Child the day before and that it was, in fact, our inspiration to dine there. Atmosphere has consistently ranked among the best French restaurants in our city.

“You’re not alone,” the server, Andrew, replied. He explained that business had been booming since the film opened. I looked around the dining room and noted to Wayne that it wasn’t exactly a young crowd. It was more like … our age.

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up with a mother who watched Julia Child’s cooking program on public TV. Michael Pollan recently argued in a New York Times magazine essay that Child, unlike TV’s current celebrity chefs, distinguished herself by actually teaching people how to cook. The Food Network’s chefs, Pollan wrote, mainly serve as performers. They cater to people’s love of eating, whereas Child catered to what Pollan identifies as the natural but disappearing love of cooking itself.

I mainly agree with him. But Child’s lilting voice, towering height, obviously eccentric character and occasional screw-up also made watching her a spectator sport. There was something of the same in Nathalie Dupree’s cooking show, when – long before Paula Deen – she brought New Southern Cooking into national vogue.

Besides the occasional clip online, I confess that the only time I have watched the Food Network and cooking shows on other networks is a few years ago when I visited my mother in the final months of her life. The shows were on night and day and just about drove me crazy. It was quite clear to me then that most of the shows, as Pollan says, were about personality – about fame – just as the Julie in Julie & Julia is. As much as I liked the “Julia part” of the film, the “Julie part” is a rumination, intended or not, on the way ambition has rendered talent secondary.

Manners have likewise died along with the return to caveman “viscerality.” Pollan doesn’t mention this, but one way cooking shows signal their visceral appeal to eaters instead of cooks is the weird predilection for amplifying the smacking sounds of people eating. Hosts also talk with their mouths full. I thought I was the only person who found this irritating until a friend who is a food anthropologist told me he’d noticed the same thing show after show. I suppose it’s a small thing, but in a general way expresses the state of our culture. Eating trumps cooking. Fame trumps talent. Appetite trumps manners. Generally, in short, consumption trumps skill. (And I’m not even going into the matter of the way restaurant dining rooms have become stages.)

Happily, a restaurant like Atmosphere is a pleasant blend of the sensual and the civilized. Hopeton Hibbert, formerly chef at Eclipse di Luna, is the chef here now, so you certainly can’t blame him for the fact that the menu is a bit staid. Most of the menu is devoted to classic French dishes.

I started with a charcuterie plate of six buttery, savory meats, including a house-made pate and several sausages, while Wayne ordered classic onion soup.

Wayne’s entrée was another classic, Coquilles St. Jacques, a dish that was one of my own introductions to French cuisine when I was a kid and ate at the oh-so-elegant Magic Pan at Lenox Square. Hibbert sautées big scallops and places them over mushroom ravioli instead of tossing them with mushrooms in the usual way. It’s a great contrast of flavors and creamy textures. He also adds the surprise of crunchy asparagus, chopped so fine it’s not even recognizable in the parsley-laden sauce.

I ordered a rack of lamb arranged about a fat, delicious polenta cake placed over a tian of eggplant and tomatoes. It’s a bit of a stretch to call the thinly layered, bare vegetables a tian, at least compared to my experience of tians in the past. That’s not to say the combination wasn’t wonderful, served with green beans and a rosemary lamb jus.

When Wayne and I travel in France, he always goes straight for the profiteroles when it’s time for dessert. I always go straight for the ile flottante. Atmosphere doesn’t serve the latter, so we shared a dish of three profiteroles stuffed with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce.

It was a great, but not inexpensive meal. Here are three of my other favorite French restaurants:

Au Rendez Vous (1328 Windsor Parkway, 404-343-4983). For the money, this is the best French restaurant in town, despite a décor that is completely functional. The chef/owner is Kiet Jean-Claude Changivy, born in Saigon but trained in Paris. I’ve been to this restaurant countless times and never had a bad meal. Over the years, I’ve been addicted to the cassoulet, the rabbit fricassee and the Boeuf Bourguignon. The only drawbacks: a location that is kind of out-of-the-way wherever you are, and no credit cards accepted.

Anis (2974 Grandview Ave., 404-233-9889). I ate at this restaurant every Friday for years with friends and still return frequently. Dining on the patio is especially pleasant. The menu changes fairly often here, but standbys are the roasted chicken and the fish of the day. There’s a daily quiche, too.

French American Brasserie (30 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., 404-266-1440). This is the heir to Brasserie Le Coze, undoubtedly the best French restaurant in town during its years at Lenox Square. This successor has not impressed me as much but it’s also true that the downtown location discourages me from eating there often. The current executive chef is Stephen Sharp, an Atlanta native who was, incidentally, recently named hottest chef in Atlanta. I like the coq au vin and skate wing. There is a menu of steaks with your choice of artery-clogging sauces.

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