Has the resurrection begun? A few short years ago, it might have been noted as a sign of the impending apocalypse: Reversing the long march of the last few decades, a successful, acclaimed restaurant moves from a popular, well-trafficked mall to … downtown!
Today, however, the transmogrification of Lenox’s white-gloved Brasserie Le Coze into Allen Plaza’s hard-working French American Brasserie (FAB for short) is just one indication of a reviving urban center. Downtown, and the formerly trash-strewn and vacant blocks just north of it, are on the rise.
And just in time: Despite downtown’s thumping commercial pulse, the restaurant scene is still weak. A few signs of life include a new Southern-influenced menu at the downtown Ritz’s Atlanta Grill and the Asian-influenced Thrive, new at Centennial Tower.
FAB presents itself professionally, in a nicely tailored business suit (it’s tucked in the ground floor of the new Southern Co. building). Former Le Coze manager Fabrice Vergez has overseen the move, bringing along the waiters’ long white aprons and the beautifully butter-browned skate intact. The differences are stark, however: Le Coze’s upmarket French touches seemed off-kilter inside a mall. The restaurant’s kinship with its New York sister, Le Bernardin, was palpable, but here, the white tile and gleaming fixtures (and flat-screen TVs) make it all a little more accessible, a little less faux.
Even the menu seems to have loosened up a bit: Yes, you’ll still find the same rigor applied to technique, and to finding the best oysters, seafood, produce and wines; the escargots, armagnac duck paté and Harris Ranch filet mignon with Bearnaise; but also tomato penne, chicken with whipped potatoes and onion rings. Signature cocktails include a French 75 (gin and champagne) and a Lemon Drop.
Just as at Le Coze, you can’t go wrong with traditional French favorites: Begin with a flute of Veuve Cliquot champagne ($15.50) and red wine and garlic-steeped escargots, or perhaps smoky raw oysters fresh from Martha’s Vineyard. (Or, if you’re in search of a grand gesture, order the seafood tower of oysters, clams, mussels, crab, shrimp and lobster – $55 for two.)
Just as at Le Coze, the wait staff is outstandingly accommodating, charming even when the rare mishap occurs. (Our waiter apologized for a wrong dish and serial, comic mispronunciations by saying, “I used to work at an Italian restaurant.”)
FAB’s longer list of soups, small plates and salads also mean it’s easier to cherry-pick your way to a lighter meal with a lot of different flavors. The organic watercress salad alone contains counterpoints of Marcona almonds and membrillo (quince paste) with aged Xeres sherry vinaigrette.
Among all the dishes I tried, only the pan-roasted monkfish wasn’t a complete success, its chorizo accompaniment a revelation but its slightly overcooked texture a disappointment. But ah, that skate, with its delicate golden brown crust, spinach, new potatoes and capers – imminently satisfying, yet light.
Le Coze’s coq au vin is here too, heartier and homier than ever, with bits of bacon, carrot and pearl onions, champignon mushrooms and chicken thighs, all slow-cooked in red wine and served with buttered egg noodles ($17). Some changes are subtle, such as the pistachio ice cream nestled in the profiteroles, drizzled with chocolate.
And sometimes, a change of environment can make everything in it seem new.
French American Brasserie
30 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd.
Hours: Lunch and dinner, Mondays-Saturdays.
Credit cards: All major.
Parking: For a fee in adjacent garage.