The Aix Bouillabaisse is made with a variety of seafood, but what’s really special is the saffron-tinged broth. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Review: Aix marks the spot in Atlanta for Provençal-inspired cuisine

Rare is the dish that speaks to you so intimately that you lose your sense of time and place to just live in the moment.

The bouillabaisse at Aix is one of those dishes.

Until I took a first spoonful of that deeply flavorful, saffron-tinged broth, I’d felt uncomfortable, preoccupied at having been recognized. It occurred the moment I stepped over the gold Aix lettering embedded in the concrete at the restaurant’s entrance and the service team was on high alert.

This bowl of bouillabaisse was centering.

Plentiful with PEI mussels, Sapelo clams, Georgia shrimp, scallops and bits of white fish, it looked like a traditional rendition of Provençal fish stew. Oh my, but how refined! With each creature of the sea treated individually, nothing was overcooked or rubbery. And that delicate broth, poured tableside — when I’m on my deathbed, Aix’s divine version of humble origin is what I want to be spoon-fed.

I had my last supper at chef Nick Leahy’s Saltyard months ago. But I remember the first time I tasted his cooking. It was about three years ago. I was struck by his style. It fit all the labels of place and time: locally sourced ingredients, Southern-ish but with global influences, plating to impress the eye. More than any of that, the food tasted genuine, true to self. Integrity might be the word.

Leahy has since moved on from owning Saltyard in south Buckhead to a spot in the repurposed Stockyards in West Midtown, where he has launched Aix and adjoining wine bar Tin Tin. Here, he hones into a cuisine personal to him, one with family ties and memories — the Provençal region of southern France, whose Aix-en-Provence lends the restaurant its namesake. And he has assembled a capable team to support his vision.

Bread service pairs pastry chef Kendall Baez’s (Empire State South, briefly at Little Tart Bakeshop, foundational training at Aria) knack for baked goods (a serpentine section of epi bread and a wedge of multigrain bread) with Leahy’s penchant toward piling wooden boards with flavorful nibbles. Here, you’ll find accompaniments of roasted garlic and compound butter. One day, the latter slather might be ash-colored with activated charcoal; another day, it could feature lemon with herbes de Provence.

Two cocktails from Aix in West Midtown — the Howard’s Old-Fashioned (left) and the Prince of the Sun (right). CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The drink menu waves a decidedly French flag. Recommendable cocktails include Prince of the Sun, a frothy sour inspired by an Aviation and named for a character from the French comic book series Tintin, as well as the cognac-based Last Train to Paris. Both tap into that country’s sizable body of aperitifs. (If you’re bent on bourbon, try Howard’s Old-Fashioned.)

As for wine, I wished for more by-the-glass options of French origin to explore (you’ll find more at neighboring Tin Tin), but such choices increase exponentially when you can commit to a bottle from among those selected by beverage director and advance sommelier Pat Peterson.

You’ll want some bread handy to sop up the sauce that comes with the Georgia White Shrimp Provencal at Aix. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With starters, there is much to explore.

Georgia White Shrimp Provencal is teeming with shellfish, and, like a number of dishes at Aix, it bears a sauce that makes the aforementioned order of bread mandatory to sop up the liquid goodness. Garlicky and lemony, this one is punctuated with the gentle heat of pickled yellow banana peppers.

At Aix, a duck egg is served alongside the duck confit crepe. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tin Tin has his adventure series. At Aix, I’ll choose my own: a duo of appetizers bearing duck confit. An endive-chicory salad studded with roasted grapes and dressed with herbs de Provence vinaigrette was satisfactorily hearty thanks to fatty, crunchy chunks of duck confit. The duck confit crepe holds a generous portion of unctuous shredded meat. The plate enters triple decadent territory with additions of foie brown butter and a wobbly duck egg with a yolk just waiting to be pierced with the tine of your fork.

Decadent could also be said for the fork-tender texture of salt-cured salmon mi cuit. The chicken livers, too, if they’d been crispier. The vegetarian crowd may get similarly excited by a butternut squash tartlet.

Whereas the bowl of bouillabaisse exceeded my expectations, the same can’t be said for the cassoulet. As with the bouillabaisse, each component of this hunter’s stew is cooked separately, but in this instance, pork belly, pork croquette, and red and white peas seemed to speak their own language, and there was something lost in this translation.

For lamb and short rib entrees, supporting elements captured more taste bud attention than the whole ensemble, be it the spring onion bread pudding and radish pistou (another fine swiper for bread) with the slow-cooked lamb, or a mushroom fricassee and tangle of crispy fried leeks atop meaty short rib.

At times, some dishes worked too hard. A side of carrots was overly complicated, especially when compared to a simpler one of buttery, fork-tender fingerling potatoes and subtly sweet sunchokes unified by a peppercorn aioli. Spuds and knobby sunchokes might not pop with color, but the kitchen sure coaxed out of them every bit of flavor.

Dessert brings another round of sensory awakening. Order the creme brulee, break through the burnt orange layer of hot, brittle sugar to find a silky, rich duck egg custard. Creme brulee is so ubiquitous on restaurant menus that it can be a rather boring order. At Aix, it is elegant, sensuous even. So, too, the hazelnut chocolate delicacy that captures the essence of that by famed Italian confectionery Ferrero Rocher.

Certain dishes at Aix may remind you of southern France, but a meal here doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re magically transported to there. The theme isn’t readily apparent in this dining room, whose contemporary design is marked by neutral tones and clean lines. But I don’t think the mission at Aix is to whisk us thousands of miles from Atlanta to the place that inspired Leahy.

On the Aix website, Leahy shares the restaurant’s philosophy: “In Provence, there’s a saying: Â ce moment. It means, ‘in this moment.’ It can refer to the moment a vegetable reaches the peak of ripeness, the moment it’s touched by hands that honor ancient skills and traditions, the moment it’s cooked to perfection, and of course, the moment it’s savored with family and friends. These moments awaken our senses. They fulfill comfort in us in a way that makes us feel at home.”

Aix has given me plenty of moments — a comforting bouillabaisse, a dreamy creme brulee and a welcoming staff, among many — to feel at home.

AIX

Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)

Food: Provençal-inspired fine dining

Service: welcoming and attentive

Best dishes: Endive and Chicories Salad, Georgia White Shrimp Provencal, Duck Confit Crepe, Aix Bouillabaisse, desserts

Vegetarian selections: Salade Verte, Butternut Squash Tartlet, Ricotta and Sunchoke Dumplings, side dishes

Price range: $$$-$$$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays

Children: not recommended

Parking: paid lot adjacent to restaurant, limited street parking

MARTA station: Midtown

Reservations: accepted

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: moderate

Patio: for sister wine bar/small plates restaurant Tin Tin

Takeout: no

Address, phone: 956 Brady Ave. NW, Atlanta. 770-838-3501

Website: aixatl.com

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