Positively Babette's

Art of the Meal

Babette's Café


573 North Highland Ave., Atlanta


404-523-9121


www.babettescafe.com


Hours: Dinner, Tuesdays-Saturdays


Sunday brunch


Credit cards: All major


Parking: Complimentary valet


Dress code: Anything goes, but you'll be more comfortable in something casually sophisticated.





Sometimes you can define a place by what it's not. And sometimes those negatives add up to positives.





Take, for example, Babette's Cafe, the venerable little restaurant in Proven?al colors near Manuel's Tavern in Atlanta. Despite its big-city, cult-favorite status, it is not: noisy, crowded or loud. It does not treat people as "orders" (as in, "Let me see what happened to your order").





Nor will you be likely to cool your heels in a foyer with several hungry people who've had too many cocktails while you wonder what happened to your reservation. And finally, the food does not contain so much salt, sugar and fat that you'll expect the mint bowl to be filled with Lipitor capsules.





No, Babette's is all about the spaces between things. Like, for example, the expanse of polished old hardwood between tables. Or the civilized moments between courses, matched to your preference for the pace of the meal.





Or the food itself, a European approach that slavishly adheres to no single cuisine, but follows the seasons, as well as the experience and whimsy of chef/owner Marla Adams, whether she prefers to lead you into traditional Italian pastas, Mediterranean tapas or French country cooking.





She calls her philosophy "European farmhouse dining" - a tricky infill for urban Atlanta, even in the artsy Poncey-Highland district. Adams herself uses four adjectives to neatly sum up the fare: "natural, simple, rustic, earthy."





Always, the season is the reason for the ever-changing menu, although you'll often find many of the dishes she's fond of making, like cassoulets, duck, the freshest oysters, lamb and back-in-the-day, old-world entrees such as veal piccata.





Babette's is an exciting restaurant, but it glides to the measured cadence of a waltz rather than the pounding tempo of techno, or the latest faded pop singer test-marketing Cole Porter. Take, for example, the romaine and arugula salad, with sharp lemon thyme and shaved asiago. It's thoroughly traditional, yet bracing, clean, palate-clearing. The mussels, on the other hand, are so fresh they're almost nutlike, and the broth is an unorthodox wake-up-call combination of white wine, pureed strawberries and serrano peppers.





Alaskan halibut with a mustard crust, served over thin-sliced red-skinned potatoes and leeks, has justifiably become one of Babette's crowd-pleasing favorites. Everything is creamy or sharp, crisp or velvet-moist, and the juxtaposition only heightens the nuance of flavors in each ingredient.





The grilled lamb chops are thick-sliced, bone-in, so the herb-crusted exterior counters the silken, medium-rare interior, with a haystack of shoestring potatoes and red-wine reduction. Just try not to pick up the bone and gnaw.





Babette's is the place to explore a new glass, or bottle, of wine. (Almost all the wine list is available by the glass.) Whether it's a fruity, spring-like French viognier (Rouquette Marsanne, '03, $7.50), or full-bodied Willamette Valley pinot noir (Montinore Estate, '01, $7.50), like the food, it's likely to be well-priced, interesting and exceedingly agreeable.







Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.







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