REVIEW: Stylish Lucian offers superb food and wine, with books to go

Like the bubbles fluttering to the surface of my glass of Champagne, elegance ripples from virtually every detail of the urbane Lucian Books and Wine in Buckhead.

Oysters so subtly dressed they almost appear naked, salads so artfully constructed they resemble flowers, wines so carefully curated that every drop matters — during five visits to Jordan Smelt and Katie Barringer’s stylish room at the corner of Peachtree and Pharr roads, I’ve yet to taste anything that was less than superb. And, I’ve barely cracked the spine.

Named after British painter Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund and an artist known for his spectacular nudes, Lucian is not only a showcase for Executive Chef Jason Paolini’s remarkable bistro cooking and Smelt’s considerable grasp of the grape; it’s also a home for Barringer’s passion — books.

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Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

One day, I shall return to Lucian so I can thumb through its magnificent collection of art, photography, fashion and food titles, housed along one side of the room in a wooden bookcase with soaring arches. I’ll be a picture of civility. I might nurse a glass of wine and peck at a cheese plate. But, I’ll take care to refrain from smudging pages with my french-fry fingers.

Lucian’s crispy fries are exemplars of the form, and mighty hard to resist, whether dipped in the horseradish mayonnaise of winter or dabbed in the tarragon mayo of spring. I recommend them with a glass of bubbles and a plate of oysters, which lately came with a dribble of strawberry-bright, celery-crunchy mignonette.

While you can loll at the bar with a simple bowl of olives, or a dish of otherworldly chicken pate with hibiscus gelee and toast, you also can indulge in crispy polenta with black truffle and Parmesan shavings — a knockout — or an impeccably dressed salad of little gem lettuce with artichoke, salami and breadcrumbs.

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Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Smelt is an alumnus of Billy Allin’s late, great Cakes & Ale. In some ways, that Decatur restaurant set the tone for Lucian. Barringer is the former proprietor of Cover Books, whose spirit lives on here in the cabinets of literature. The partners recruited Brian Hendrickson to open the restaurant about a year ago. Then, just as my review was ready to go in December, Omicron rattled the industry. We held the critique, and Hendrickson left soon after. Two recent visits proved that Lucian is in very good hands with Paolini.

Pastas are a strong suit. We loved the ricotta gnudi with morels and English peas — a smallish plate, but filling.

Among the entrees, monkfish sheathed in a thin skin of speck — with favas, fennel and carrot — was a stunner. At a Saturday lunch, a classic steak au poivre with fries was exemplary. There’s even a $29 omelette. Light and ethereal, it’s topped with caviar and paired with a quenelle of creme fraiche — tres chic, though maybe a bit rich for my blood.

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Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

When I dine at an establishment with wine holdings as deep and formidable as Lucian’s, I like to let the staff handle the pairings. I always learn something that way. At Lucian, that works especially well at the bar, where Smelt often is ensconced, or, at least, standing by for counsel. He guided me to Etienne Calsac’s rose Champagne with the oysters, and a Corsican sciaccarello with the steak — wow and wow.

Hard-core chocolate lovers will dig the intensely dark budino showered with hazelnuts, perhaps with coffee service, or an after-dinner drink. Panna cotta — infused with rosewater and showered with pistachios — was lovely, but these cold desserts raised a rare quibble: Where’s the pastry?

In a city with an abundance of noteworthy casual restaurants, Lucian offers heady respite from the norm. No matter the season, it’s that rare place where you can bask in the pleasures of exceptional food and wine, then take home books to feed your brain long after.

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

LUCIAN BOOKS AND WINE

Food: wine-friendly bistro fare

Service: from smart and informed, to circumspect

Best dishes: fries, oysters, chicken-liver pate, gem lettuce, polenta, ricotta gnudi, monkfish, steak au poivre

Vegetarian selections: polenta, gnudi, burrata, fries, cheese plate, desserts

Alcohol: mostly wine, with a few cocktails and beers

Price range: $$$$

Credit cards: all major cards accepted

Hours: dinner, 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

Children: yes

Parking: in the deck; restaurant will validate your ticket

MARTA station: Buckhead

Reservations: highly recommended

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: moderate

Takeout: limited

Address, phone: 3005 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-549-2655

Website: lucianbooksandwine.com

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