<<Remember this restaurant? Shaun Doty's Mumbo Jumbo in downtown Atlanta
The Federal — its interior dining area shown in the evening — is a fine place without being stuffy. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Though it is located inside a former Bantam & Biddy location, the Federal feels like it could belong to a different era of dining altogether. With the sharply dressed waiters and dim lighting, the crusty, crackling bread that comes out before your meal and the French onion soup, this place could have opened in almost any decade in the past 50 years. It is a fine place without being stuffy. I'm never surprised to see a table of men wearing suits or a casually dressed couple from the neighborhood sitting at the bar.
But, really, let's talk about that oxtail French onion soup. It is rich and decadent, a deep brown, velvety liquid full of falling apart leaves of onion capped with a thick, broiled slab of Gruyere and crusty bread. It is beefy and cheesy and just on the edge of being absolutely too overindulgent without quite crossing over the line. It is, in other words, exactly how French onion soup should be. As with many of the dishes on the Federal's menu, the kitchen has not fussed with it or made it new; they have made it well. It is simply the classic dish it should be.
The Federal’s Oxtail French onion soup with cave aged Gruyere cheese is exactly how French onion soup should be. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Not everything on the menu is quite that rich. The Sardinian flatbread is a paper-thin, plate-sized crisp cracker topped with a salad of light green lettuces and a few ribbons of shaved English cheddar. It could be carried off by a small breeze. The crabcake is hardly any heavier, an airy, light golden brown orb paired with a pool of grainy mustard and a pile of lightly dressed napa cabbage.
But with a Euro-centric bistro menu like this, I’m more inclined to indulge. Why not order the beef tartare? It is served here on a wooden plate, a creamy ball of chopped beef paired with a pile of fries that would not disappoint a Belgian and chopped endive to lighten it up. Paired with a glass of Cotes du Rhone, this is exactly what bistro food should be about.
<<More metro Atlanta restaurant reviews
Bartender James Szanyi pours a Southern 75 cocktail, one of your options at the Federal. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Of course, you could order a Bonanza, a bourbon cocktail spiked with fresh ginger juice, or a Southern 75, which is more or less just a good, classic French 75. The bartender will even make you a nice, stiff rye Old Fashioned, if you like. But the short list of wines by the glass makes for the best pairings.
I should note that I didn’t have much chance at dining in anonymity at the Federal. Years ago, I reported a couple of stories that concerned both Doty and Gummere, and they apparently haven’t yet forgotten my face. But, more to the point, it is their faces that I’ve spotted looking out at me from the line. Guys with their age and experience tend to exempt themselves from actually doing any cooking anymore. Yet, I haven’t had a meal at the Federal where the two were not shoulder to shoulder turning out plates together.
Their touch is notable. Order from the short list of steaks at the center of the menu, and you will not receive one of those flame-charred hunks of meat as is the fashion of American steakhouses, but a golden-brown, delicately crosshatched steak cooked with a precise eye to temperature.
Better, though, are the dishes that evoke more style. A plate of sauteed turbot, golden brown and buttery atop a bed of potatoes and caramelized spring onions, was sauced with a rich, caviar-studded cream. I was reminded of another temple to bistro decadence, Galatoire’s in New Orleans, while finishing the plate.
I know I’m not alone in loving the schnitzel, a massive, juicy pounded thin cut of pork battered and fried to a light golden brown. The plate is dressed with flat leaf parsley, translucent rings of onion, an ample side of lemon, and roasted peanuts. It’s a perfect dish, somehow both heavy and light on the plate, both rich and airy. It works, but, of course, this is no real news. Doty has been serving it at his best restaurants for who knows how long. He hasn’t fiddled with it. He just serves it well.
In fact, I’m impressed with how little any of these dishes have been fiddled with. Doty and Gummere know their dishes are just classic style, finally come back around again. I hope they stay for a while this time.
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: Euro-centric bistro
Service: polished but unfussy
Best dishes: pork schnitzel, beef tartare, crabcake
Vegetarian selections: very few
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays; 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays
Children: not ideal
Parking: parking garage, free with validation
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: 1050 Crescent Ave., Atlanta, 404-343-3857