Brasserie Le Coze

Brasserie Le Coze – 2003 Fine Dining Hall of Fame

Jack Hayes

Veteran Atlanta dining critic Christianne Lauterbach remembers the celebrated debut of Brasserie Le Coze in Buckhead in 1994, two years before the Summer Olympic Games arrived to take the expanding Sunbelt capital on an international media whirlwind.

“We’d never had anything like it here–an absolutely picture-perfect replica of a Parisian brasserie,” says Lauterbach, who twice has rated the restaurant with three stars in her popular Knife & Fork guide.

“Because Maguy Le Coze was accessing the same sources used by their New York seafood restaurant, Le Bernardin, they brought, among other things, that wonderful roasted skate wing, which is still on the menu,” Lauterbach adds.

Industry observers and local hospitality peers agree that consistency has been a success hallmark of the 160-seat restaurant, operating nearly 10 years with upscale tenants, such as Neiman Marcus and Cartier in Atlanta’s fashionable Lenox Square Mall.

“We’ve been neighbors since Brasserie Le Coze opened, and general manger Fabrice [Vergez] has kept the food and service at a high level,” claims Atlanta chef-operator Thomas Catherall, whose five-unit Here to Serve Restaurant Group owns Prime, a high-volume steak and sushi concept, in the same Lenox Square complex. “They were the first to bring in the ‘French’ mussels [via Prince Edward Island], and their roast chicken is the best in town.”

Like reviewer Lauterbach, Catherall admits a fondness for the restaurant’s authentic ambience. “Being there just transports you back to Paris,” he says.

And Lauterbach says of the suave Vergez, “If there were a French ambassador in Atlanta, it would have to be Fabrice.”

Boasting a modest per-person dinner check average of $35, Brasserie Le Coze grosses approximately $3.5 million. Indeed, there is a base of loyal clientele who believe the restaurant offers the city’s best value in fine dining. And bolstering that perception of understated elegance is a cadre of black-vested servers, who exude a standard of “professionalism that is very New York,” according to Lauterbach.

“If you look at the competitive price of our check average, I think you will know what keeps us in business year after year,” boasts Vergez, a veteran of the Le Coze organization for nearly two decades.

Vergez is an original front-of-the-house employee from Le Bernardin’s opening in Manhattan in 1986. In 1991 he was present for the debut of the original Brasserie Le Coze with Maguy Le Coze in Miami’s Coconut Grove and became the opening manager in Atlanta three years later.

Following the untimely death of Maguy’s brother, Le Bernardin chef-partner Gilbert Le Coze, in 1995, and her return to New York to oversee the family’s flagship restaurant, Maguy chose to shutter the Miami operation and leave Vergez in charge of the Atlanta Brasserie.

“I was spending four days in Atlanta and three in Miami when we had the two Brasseries,” Le Coze recalls. “We had opened them to create a lighter concept because by our lease in New York we couldn’t open another Le Bernardin. The Brasserie was very successful, and we were going to expand it, but I stopped that when my brother passed away.”

Notwithstanding the Brasserie’s “lighter” concept vision and price points, the restaurant stands as a model for an entire generation of high-quality dining venues now operating in Atlanta. Among them are the brasserie-inspired Joel, headed by the chef-celebrity Joel, Antunes; the “casually elegant” Philippe’s Bistro in the city’s Peachtree Hills neighborhood; and the highly rated Woodfire Grill, operating just north of Midtown.

Also inspired by Brasserie Le Coze’s successful French connection, yet linked to the widespread American bistro movement, a new family of “lighter” French-theme fine-dining prototypes also has arisen in Atlanta in recent years. They include the sister concepts Pastis and Anis, operating respectively in Roswell and Buckhead; Toulouse and Soleil in Buckhead; Atlantic Star in Decatur; and the promising but not-long-lived Bistros in Ansley Park.

“Our concept has been so good that people always keep trying to do something like it,” Le Coze says, laughing. “At the Brasserie they come for a bite or a salad or for dinner. It can be a casual experience or very elegant after an event. That is the way it works.”

Saturday’s lunch at the Brasserie Le Coze always is packed, making it the place to be in Atlanta.

In fact, Le Bernardin’s highly respected executive chef Eric Ripert delights in his twice-a-year excursions to the Brasserie because of the opportunity it offers him to visit with Atlanta’s upscale women clientele who make up a large share of the restaurant’s lunch guest population.

“I find the ladies sweet and elegant in Atlanta,” Ripert says. “They come for lunch and create an ambience.”

No longer supervising the Brasserie’s menu, Ripert travels south to give suggestions and support to the kitchen staff, now headed by Jean Luc Mongodin of Normandy, France, a recent transplant from Joel Antunes’ 20-monthold brasserie in northwest Atlanta.

“I do it for friendship,” Ripert says.

Evidence of what Ripert agrees has been Le Bemardin’s “strong seafood influence” is visible on the Brasserie Le Coze menu.

Dinner appetizers, for example, include the popular mussels Mariniere, steamed in a garlic, shallot and white-wine broth at $11; diced house-cured salmon tartare with cucumber and lemon dill cream, $9.50; shrimp in Thai coconut milk soup with shiitake mushroom, spring onions and tomato, $10.50; and thin-sliced yellowfin tuna crowned over vegetable medley, tomato water, olive oil and lemon confit, $10.50.

The Brasserie’s dinner seafood main courses include barely cooked salmon in tomato water and basil with vegetable medley at $18; roasted skate wing with braised endives, potato and brown butter caper sauce, $17.50; pan-roasted red snapper on creamy jasmine-coriander rice with fresh mango salad and lemon grass and ginger-scented “pot au feu” broth, $19.50; and poached halibut in orange ginger-scented dashi broth spiked with wild mushroom, soy and shallot vinaigrette, $21.50.

“The food is typical of a Paris brasserie, serving well-known home-style selections from all around France, but we had to make some modifications,” Vergez observes. The choucroute garni, for example, did not stay very long on the Atlanta menu. Lighter dishes are called for in a city where summer afternoons can feel steamy when temperatures climb into the mid-90s, he explains.

“The menu changes between 60 and 70 percent seasonally,” adds Vergez, noting that he and the kitchen staff attempt to introduce slight variations with each cycle. “As you can expect, we’re not going to serve coq au yin when it’s 95 degrees. That’s when we bring in the cold appetizers, the crab salad. But I have customers coming here for 10 years, and there are still times when changing the menu incites a small revolution,” he admits.

“It’s difficult to convince me that something tastes amazingly French, but they can do it at Brasserie Le Coze,” reflects dining critic Lauterbach. “Many of their new items won’t appear particularly French, at least not in the traditional sense, but they’ve kept some of the real standards of French cuisine, and I appreciate that.”

Nonseafood appetizer “standards” with minimal modification include country-style duck pate with pistachio, hazelnut and sun-dried cherry, $8; tarte Provencale with tomato, zucchini, eggplant, onion and tapenade, $8; house-made duck foie gras au torchon with eggplant chutney and halsamic port wine reduction, $15; and tart of Parmesan phyllo topped with portobello and eggplant caviar, $8.50.

Brasserie’s nonseafood main courses include marinated skirt steak with shallot compote, herbed garlic frites and watercress salad at $18; filet mignon with potato gratin, green beans and peppercorn sauce, $25; roasted New Zealand rack of lamb with Provencal ratatouille, potato gratin and lamb jus, $24; and seared duck breast with port fig demi glace, fried polenta and black mission figs, $23.

Just as restaurateur Catherall applauds the Brasserie’s roast free-range chicken with green beans, red pepper and onion at $17.50, Lauterbach goes bananas for Le Coze’s tarte aux pommes, or apple tart, with caramel ice cream.

“It’s possibly the best dessert in Atlanta,” she states.

But there are service and ambience elements that touch Lauterbach’s heart just as fondly.

“They really get a lot of things right,” she explains. “The lighting is always kind of soft–not too bright or too dark,” And Maguy knows glamour, which is something that fits into my idea of a brasserie–glamorous but not intimidating. You look over the entire room, walking in. The food and the experience are solid–not frou frou. In other words, Brasserie Le Coze is not the Ritz-Carlton, but it’s still a beautiful gathering place.”

LOCATION: 3393 Peachtree Rd.

PHONE: (404) 266 1440

WEB SITE: N/A

OWNER: Maguy Le Coze and partner Fabrice Vergez

CHEF: Jean Luc Mongodin

OPENED: 1994

CUISINE: Parisian Brasserie

CHECK AVERAGE: lunch, $17.50; dinner, $35

MENU SAMPLER

APPETIZERS

Mussels Mariniere steamed in a garlic, shallot, white wine broth $11.00

House-made duck foie gras au torchon, eggplant chutney, balsamic port wine reduction $15.00

MAIN COURSES

Roast skate wing, braised endives and potato, brown butter caper sauce $17.50

Seared duck breast, port fig demi glace, fried polent, sauteed black mission figs $23.00

DESSERTS

Warm apple tart, almond cream and caramel ice cream $5.50

Warm chocolate souffle, pistachio ganache and vanilla ice cream $5.50

COPYRIGHT 2003 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group