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Fresh look at French
Local restaurants trying to be less intimidating

Editor's Note: This article is part of an occasional, ongoing series on etiquette for eating out at the area's many ethnic restaurants.

They are the forefathers of modern gourmet cuisine. They brought us fine wines, delicate cheeses and crusty bread. They are the French, and Brian Legault, for one, is endlessly grateful for their contributions to the kitchen.

"The French are masters of food. They created cuisine as we know it today," said Legault, executive chef at Aqua Terra Bistro in Buford, who is trained in French cuisine. "They created the techniques we still use, the fundamentals and foundation of food. They are the key to good cooking."

French cooking includes a range of staple ingredients. It can mean a rich dish of escargot (snails) drowning in a butter sauce, or a simple plate of aged cheese paired with the perfect glass of wine. It can mean exotic ingredients such as oxtails, liver, frog legs and sweet breads, or more familiar cuisine of grilled chicken or sauteed duck.

"Traditionally, more expensive, rich dishes like truffle oils and foie gras have been staples in French food," said Marc Suenemann, executive chef at Chateau Elan. "It really just depends, though, on what region you are dining in. It changes from place to place."

On more than one occasion, Legault has had customers who are timid to try the more adventurous cuisine. He never makes anyone eat anything they don't want to, but he does do all he can to tempt his diners into trying new things. While he may not ask them to dig into a freshly fried frog leg on the first visit, he has been know to sneak bites of odd ingredients into his dishes.

"I like to use all the weird stuff, like liver and tripe. All those ingredients we usually toss out, (the French) know how to use. What I do, I like to add little bits of these things into my dishes. I'll slice some foie gras on top of a duck breast, or add a little bit of pate to something. Just to get people to try it, to educate them a little about these things," he said. "Try something new. Almost always, people find that they like it."

Jeremy Lieb, executive chef of Trois in Atlanta, attempts to make less familiar food more comfortable by pairing oxtails with scallops, or taking the snails out of their shells before serving.

"It makes it easier to eat. I mean, asking you to eat snails at all is enough," he said.

This has been working well, he said. To prove it, Lieb notes that the oxtails-and-scallops entree is the No. 1 seller on the menu, and the escargot is No. 2.

"I think people are more willing to try things now, as long as you don't try too hard or make it too intimidating," he said. "Don't be too crazy."

The secret to French food, Lieb said, isn't so much about the ingredients in the dish, but in the way the food is prepared. Freshness is the most crucial common denominator in French cuisine.

"The biggest thing, the most common thing, for my ingredients is that they are fresh," he said. "A lot of people think that French food means cream and butter and heavy sauces, but that's a misnomer. The biggest thing is that it is fresh food, made from fresh ingredients."

It would not be unfair to say French restaurants have gained a reputation for being, shall we say, snooty. Historically, they been tagged as intimidating and domineering, but this is changing, said Lieb. They are doing away with the elaborate setups, hand-washing bowls and stuffy waiters. More and more French restaurants are catering to the everyday diner, offering refined but still relaxed atmospheres, and dishes that are traditional but comfortable.

Diners want something affordable, both Lieb and Legault said. That, too, is becoming more of a reality. At Trois, for example, an entree, dessert and glass of wine can be had for about $30. And at Aqua Terra, that also holds true.

Even the wine doesn't need to be extravagant, said Legault, who openly admits to preferring cheaper wines. Lieb, too, asserts that at his restaurant, the wine menu is tiered and sorted by price, to ease in decision-making and keeping to a budget.

"There is definitely a trend right now to make French dining more attainable. People don't really want stuffy. I don't want stuffy," Lieb said. "They want things they can recognize but still feel adventurous eating. French doesn't have to mean expensive or snotty."

SideBar: French in the City

From snails to wine, check out these top picks for the best French cuisine in the metro area:

Trois: 3145 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-233-8122. www.concentricsrestaurants.com

Chateau Elan: 100 Tour De France, Braselton. 678-425-6918. www.chateauelanatlanta.com/dining

French American Brasserie: 30 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., Atlanta. 404-266-1440. www.fabatlanta.com