There are few dining experiences that equal that of a true French bistro — the lace curtains, the tables that place diners often elbow-to-elbow, the escargot and coquille St. Jacques, the brusque service and chalkboard menus. Brasseries offer the same, except they are often larger, with decidedly more to offer by way of the menu and service.
Which is why I don’t understand Bistro Niko’s name. I get the Niko part; Niko Karatassos is Buckhead Life founder Pano Karatassos’ son. But Bistro Niko is so much more a brasserie than it is a bistro — big, brassy and teeming with life, it could easily be compared to some of the more famous brasseries that have come before it — Brasserie Lipp in Paris; or perhaps Balthazar in New York City.
But the place I’m most apt to compare it with didn’t cost Atlantans a plane ride anywhere. It was practically across the street: Brasserie Le Coze. When owner Fabrice Vergez had to close the doors of this marvelous French brasserie in 2006 (he opened FAB downtown a little over a year later), the entire lunching community went into mourning. Gone were the lavish midday repasts of brown-buttered skate wing accompanied by chardonnay and salade Nicoise.
And I’m not going to say that Bistro Niko is a copy of Brasserie Le Coze. At night, for instance, it attracts the same clamoring Buckhead crowd that so often loves any of Karatassos’ restaurants, from Kyma to Buckhead Diner. And if you don’t have a reservation, you can expect to wait for a table.
The busy evening brings to Bistro Niko the sense of brouhaha that breeds in Buckhead: Busy means popular, right? And popular means better. Busy evenings bring slacker service, harried waiters and a rushed kitchen.
But venture in for a late lunch, and the experience will be quite different — busy, yes; but there will be time to chat. You can lose yourself in oysters on the half-shell, or a trio of chef Gary Donlick’s house-made pates — an admirable “faux” gras terrine of chicken liver mousse laced with cognac that spreads like butter and is almost as meatily sweet; and a hearty country pate perfect with grainy mustard and cornichons; and salty smooth pork rillette.
You can go heavy with steak frites with the most cloudlike bearnaise imaginable, or lighten things up a bit with a quintessentially prepared generous salade Nicoise, replete with haricots verts and tiny new potatoes, boiled egg and Nicoise olives.
In fact, the only thing better about the restaurant at night is a warm basket of gougeres — small cheese puffs that pop, then melt in your mouth, leaving you with a delightful cheesy aftertaste.
Donlick falters with the dish that makes a brasserie a brasserie: His brown-buttered skate wing is heavy-handed, laden with too much butter, and skate that turns from firm to mushy.
A classic such as coq au vin proves winning, with its characteristically rich red wine sauce surrounding lovingly browned chicken, potatoes and sauce-soaked pearl onions.
Many of Pano’s and Paul’s team are here: Sam Than presides over the dining room, Atlanta’s king of the dying art of service. He is the consummate maitre d’ hotel, and presented me with my favorite tableside preparation one evening: café diablo, where cloves and orange peel unite with cognac to create a fire show that few can pull off anymore. He moves with ease from table to table, making the guests of a crowded dining room feel as if they are the only people in the place.
So while there are hiccups, so much of Bistro Niko makes me long to go back, especially if it’s to sneak away for an afternoon to sip champagne, eat pate and oysters and pretend, for a moment, that all of life is an afternoon in Paris.
Service: Excellent, though a bit burly if it's busy
Price range: $$ - $$$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours of operation: Open for lunch Monday - Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner Monday - Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 3:30 to 10 p.m.
Best dishes: Gougeres, "faux" gras terrine, country pate, pork rillettes, French onion soup
Vegetarian selections: Garnitures of veggies for $5
Children: At lunch
Parking: Complimentary valet
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: Patio only
Noise level: Very high
Address, telephone: 3344 Peachtree Road (ground floor of the Sovereign Building, Suite 100), Atlanta, 404-261-6456
Web site: www.buckheadrestaurants.com
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.
Key to AJC ratings
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.
Food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
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