By Hope S. Philbrick
A weeks-long food-focused trip to Paris. What could be better?
Most folks would consider such a trip a dream vacation, but for a team led by acclaimed restaurateur Pano Karatassos it was a business trip.
The team visited The City of Light specifically to explore contemporary French cuisine in anticipation of the newest addition to the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group portfolio: Bistro Niko.
“It was a very food-oriented trip,” recalls Executive Chef Gary Donlick, who previously worked at Karatassos’ 103 West and Pano & Paul’s. “Our agenda was to hit a lot of restaurants to learn about modern Parisian-style food.”
Yeah, tough job. But somebody has to do it.
According to Donlick, the trip was an eye-opening experience. “We learned a lot that we didn’t know about French food. When you really see it you realize what you think ‘French food’ is and what it is are two different things.” What’s different? “Modern Parisian French food is very much food you’d eat every day,” he says. “People think it’s heavy with over-reduced sauces but there’s not a lot of thick and heavy. A lot of things are finished with olive oils as opposed to butter. A lot has a little acid finish to it with vinegar or citrus. Lots of modern interpretations of the classics.”
This was by no means Donlick’s first foray into French cuisine. The graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York honed classic French techniques while working with French Master Chef Gerard Vulien at 103 West. “I trained with him, learned a lot, and have always had that influence in my cooking style,” he says. “I have always enjoyed using French interpretations.”
Though Donlick may not be French, his preparations and menu at Bistro Niko measure up for folks who know the real thing. Just ask Alain Zemmour, the restaurant’s general manager—who previously worked at The St. Regis Atlanta, Anis Café & Bistro and The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead—was born and raised in France. What’s more, Zemmour’s family owns three bistros in France. “It’s 100 percent completely authentic,” says Zemmour. “As far as Bistro Niko itself you could think you’re in Paris. Food-wise the menu is 100 percent. The wine list is 95 percent French. It’s really close if not an exact replica of what you’d find in France—including several French servers and a French general manager! Pano doesn’t do anything that’s not on point.”
Nor was the restaurant hastily rushed to market: “Pano and his sons talked about doing a French restaurant for probably close to two years,” says Donlick.
Defining the menu took time and was ultimately decided by committee. “We did a lot of tasting,” says Donlick. “We cooked 300 to 400 dishes to narrow it down to the menu mix we have now. We chose what we thought Atlantans would appreciate in French food.”
Based on consumer response, the tasting committee made sound choices. “There’s no one dish that doesn’t sell,” reports Donlick. “We have some people who come in for lunch and then come back for dinner the same day.” Coq au vin is a crowd pleaser. Tarte aux champignons, a French pizza topped with seasonal mushrooms, gruyère and fontina cheese, has ardent fans—including me. (Seriously, try to steal a piece from me and your hand will get forked!) Other standouts include soupe de haricots blancs (white bean soup), gougères (gruyère cheese puffs) and truite mi fumee amandine (sautéed trout with almonds).
While Donlick says produce is sourced from “as many local farms as we can,” so some seasonal changes can be expected, ingredients like foie gras, escargot, certain cheeses and vinegars are imported from France to ensure authenticity and consistency.
With no less than 300 guests per night, Bistro Niko is already claiming its place in the Atlanta dining scene. When the patio opens in spring, the draw will be even greater. We can’t all travel to Paris, but French fare can be savored in Buckhead.
3344 Peachtree Rd.
-Photo Credits: inside Bistro Niko courtesy Buckhead Life Restaurants; food photos © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion. This restaurant was researched while on assignment for Sunday Paper and Where Atlanta.