1170 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta
3 of 4 stars (very good)
Imagine a rainy day in Paris. You duck inside a brasserie to escape the drizzle, sitting down to a glass of wine, a fine cut of meat resting in its jus and perfectly salted, crisped frites. You lose yourself to the food, the ambiance and a roomful of convivial diners. You tuck away the cellphone because you realize this is what it means to live in the moment — and when was the last time that happened?
That is Marcel.
When meat-centric Abattoir, the previous restaurant to occupy the space, shuttered earlier this year, Atlantans sighed. Such devotees probably already have it on their list to try Marcel, which posits itself as a European-inspired steakhouse — the most expensive steakhouse in town, in fact. Yet, for all my visits, its air of an upscale brasserie-of-old is what I love and why I will return to Marcel again and again.
Ford Fry’s new restaurant in the Westside Provisions District takes us back to a gilded age. Ornate touches abound, from dimly lit lamps to damask wallpaper. You’ll tread lightly on a worn Turkish rug in the waiting area because now you, too, want to act more proper, as the coat-and-tie-clad server leads you through the well-appointed bar to an equally stately dining room, filled with leather banquettes and chairs and plush velvet curtains that keep away the chill on a rainy fall evening.
Settle in and plan to stay awhile, starting with a cocktail. The bar puts out solid mixed drinks like Le Vie en Rose, Marcel’s sweeter take on a Manhattan. The stinger is just as good, white crème de menthe not overpowering the cognac in this two-ingredient classic. If the coupe and cocktail glasses were chilled, those drinks would taste better longer.
The food fun begins with complimentary bread service (and the first in a parade of silver platters and serving bowls). Swipe the whipped ricotta atop rounds of griddled, oily focaccia. Nibble the fancy extras of finely shaved coppa and briny Italian olives.
Say yes to appetizers like oysters from the East and West coasts with a trio of sauces and house-made saltines. Most definitely say oui to tender escargot served in-shell atop an addictive parsley butter you can sop up with the accompanying epi bread.
This place is about the protein, so get your greens while you can. Among the four salads, the Caesar is the one I hail. Crisp romaine is perfectly dressed, lightly coating the leaves rather than pooling on the plate (like the dressing on the Shrimp Louie does) and the chunks of croutons are so deliciously fatty that one dining partner mistook them for cracklins.
With meat on the horizon, it’s time to switch to wine. The list is exceptional, but it is a book, and oenophiles will have fun flipping through the pages. You don’t have to. By-the-glass options, the majority priced between $9 and $15, solidly cover bases for reds and whites from France, Spain, Italy and the U.S. Fans of bubbles and rose wine have a couple of options, too.
Much ado has been made about Marcel’s pricey main-event meats. The restaurant sources its USDA Prime beef from Chicago purveyor Meats by Linz. The meat is dry- or wet-aged at least 30 days.
Every cut I ate was lovingly treated (first on a wood-burning grill, then finished in a cast-iron pan with a generous amount of butter and thyme) and cooked precisely to order — from the 8-ounce filet madame and the 14-ounce bone-in filet monsieur to the 22-ounce cote de boeuf and the grand 30-ounce Porterhouse, intended for two.
But, are they worth the money? After all, we’re talking $125 for the Porterhouse. I’m still deciding because, surprisingly, we all swooned over the cheapest steak on the menu: l’entrecôte. An 8-ounce boned rib steak, it is the classic French steak, and an herbaceous, oily sauce verte elevates it to divine.
It’s served with a side of thin, perfectly crisped, hand-cut frites that don’t want for mayo or ketchup. What’s more, this $30 dish is available as a 4-ounce portion on the late-night menu, available Fridays and Saturdays, for $10. That might be the best deal in town.
L’entrecôte is the only steak that comes with a side. Among a la carte options, an order of pomme aligot brings pureed potatoes laden with melted mozzarella curds that stretch all the way from the bowl to your plate as you spoon it. You won’t find fault with potato gratin either, the potatoes sliced uniformly thin, the crust golden and brown.
“Plats Classiques” lean toward fish and seafood in dishes like sole meunière, the catch of the day, shrimp scampi risotto and lobster tortelloni. The latter disappointed; housemade pasta was too thick and the flavors of the lobster filling muddled discordantly with those of the sherry sauce.
The chocolate pot de crème was satisfyingly rich, but with a madeleine so dry I put it down after one bite. For the complete dinner-and-a-show experience, make dessert the seasonal baked Alaska. It’s a pumpkin spice cake topped with a half-sphere of graham cracker ice cream followed by browned marshmallow meringue. Sit back as your server douses the fluffy dome with flaming brandy, tableside. Bravo!
Yes, Marcel is an expensive restaurant. But it delivers on the key things I want as a diner: attentive service, high-quality food and an enjoyable atmosphere, which becomes even more laid-back when that l’entrecôte drops to $10.