Atmosphere: Traditional, French
For years, I’d been hearing about this little bistro with great food. Somehow, though, I never got around to eating there. Everything about it – its odd location at Piedmont and Morningside in Atlanta, its old-fashioned French bistro menu, and perhaps most of all, the name – seemed to conspire to make it forgettable. Atmosphere? Why not just call it Ozone? Or Miasma?
However, like a natural resource that you treasure only when you suddenly realize its scarcity, Atmosphere is too easily taken for granted. And now that I’ve become aware of this issue, I pledge to conserve Atmosphere by using it wisely.
That’s likely to be often. Atmosphere does one thing very well – serve good, traditional French food in an attractive, intimate environment. But the occasions you need a place like this are many: Romantic dinner for two? The low, incandescent lighting in this charming small house will bring out the best in both of you. A table for four or six where you can all be heard using your indoor voices? Right this way. An affordable meal that will please old-school gourmets and modern food mavens? I think you’ll enjoy the escargots – and the salmon tartar.
Those two starters say a lot about this little white-tablecloth establishment with the sweet, French-accented staff. Too often in Atlanta, the garlicky melted butter you’ll find surrounding baked snails is better than the creatures themselves. Here, you’ll want to dip Atmosphere’s excellent squares of crusty bread into the dish’s limpid pools, dotted with tiny bits of bacon, garlic, bread crumbs and parsley; but the fat little snails themselves are as tender and delectable as any I’ve had in town, at much higher prices. The raw, diced salmon is excellent as well, molded into a pretty round on salad greens, bound with horseradish cream and lemon zest.
The marvelous French style is embroidered into every dish, which means small, special and delicious, as opposed to big, gloppy and somehow still unsatisfying. Even the salads are carefully composed with bracingly fresh greens, a dab or two of good Roquefort and pears poached in spices. This kind of traditional European service creates a little universe around your plate, so that you’re never left with a cup of steaming espresso without also having the little spoon, the sugar and the tiny crescent of lemon.
Entrees were equally impressive, from the moist duck confit (available with one or two legs) to the outstanding snapper in saffron cream sauce, a daily special, surrounded by crisp green beans and potatoes. The menu here is small and focused on familiar French dishes, but I’m going to want to try them all: Trout almandine, boeuf en daube, hangar steak and frites, St. Jacques Atmosphere – scallops with wild mushroom ravioli and truffle emulsion (most main dishes hover around the low $20 range). The vegetarian options are few, but sound like good options for anyone, rather than concessions to a few, such as the goat cheese and red pepper ravioli with asparagus and thyme.
For dessert, a friend enabled my sad addiction to profiteroles. These reminded me that this treat isn’t just an excuse to have some small bites of ice cream with excellent chocolate sauce and a generic pastry, but that the pastry itself is the vehicle that carries it all. I can’t remember having such rich, flaky bites in a long, long time. Someone in the kitchen is turning out a mean pate-a-choux.
This spring I’m looking forward to more occasions that will be correct for Atmosphere: Saturday and Sunday brunches on the brick patio. A place to impress out-of-town guests looking for a sophisticated but restful evening. Or just about anytime you’re looking for a breath of fresh air.
1620 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta, 678-702-1620
Hours: Dinner, Tuesdays-Sundays. Saturday and Sunday brunch.
Credit cards: All major.
Parking: Complimentary valet.
Dress code: Nice jeans are fine, but so is a jacket.