Fifteen years ago, the Clermont Hotel was not the sort of place you wanted to stay.
A room in the rundown 1924 relic went for about $150 a week around that time, as long as you were willing to risk questionable sheets and sketchy neighbors. (Suffice it to say, a local newspaper sent a reporter to stay there, not as a travel piece, but for a gritty work of undercover, investigative journalism.) The hotel eventually closed down for a number of years, leaving just the Clermont Lounge in the basement — accessible only via the rear of the building — to sell cans of beer and lap dances.
Those days resemble ancient history now. The hotel, now called Hotel Clermont, has been renovated into a posh destination, where the valet line stacks up with cars under the glowing marquee lights and the rooms book for more than $200 a night. I couldn’t even get a reservation for a table at Tiny Lou’s, the hotel’s new French-American restaurant, on a recent weekend. I had to settle for a Tuesday.
Stepping into the hotel lobby, it is not hard to see why people are flocking there. Rarely does an old building in Atlanta get revived with such a breath of life. The classic architecture has been updated with a heavy gloss of mid-century glam, and meticulous, irreverent detail. The furniture seems to be composed entirely of pieces I’ve dreamed of finding at a vintage store. The vibe is a little like a Wes Anderson film, if Wes Anderson films were sexy.
Down a staircase, just past the deep, dark lobby bar, the pink neon sign for Tiny Lou’s is a lurid, tempting beacon.
The menu at Tiny Lou’s includes a few of the best French words that begin with “c”: crepe, cassoulet, consommé, cabernet. I could go on. This is not merely an exercise in the classics, though. Executive Chef Jeb Aldrich, son of Atlanta restaurant royalty Jay Swift, has drawn up a selection of inventive options, American in spirit and heavily influenced by French style and technique. The list is long, with small, creative plates.
On that Tuesday night, we began with a small loaf of brioche — inch-thick, airy slices finished with the flakiest of sea salt and tangy cultured butter. An arugula salad, a dish my date and I had ordered mostly as the obligatory green thing, turned out to be an excellent choice. The bird’s nest of leaves came with little cubes of butternut squash, roasted to an ideal sweet tenderness, against little cubes of fourme d’ambert, a funky, creamy French blue cheese. What a lovely combination.
A delicate crepe, rolled up tight like an oversized cigar, was stuffed with blue crab and laid over a black, oceanic sauce. The effect was almost too much, like a punchy fight between crab meat and squid ink, but it teetered on one of my favorite flavorful edges: where seafood actually tastes of the sea.
None of those dishes could compare with the duck consommé, though. A server brought it to our table with a flourish, pouring the amber liquid from a silvery saucière over a bowl of dumplings stuffed with foie gras. I cannot recall a dish in my recent memory being so decadent and rich, yet light and clean-finishing at the same time. A brunoise of pickled apricots perfectly balanced the bitter note of the foie dumpling. The flavor of that consommé was as concentrated and clear as a gem stone. Droplets of herby oil danced on the surface. A sliver of watermelon radish gave it a final, clean crunch. It was a small masterpiece, a dish that tells me the great heights that chef Aldrich is capable of reaching.
Our service was flawless that night, the dishes perfectly coursed out, the table cleared and reset between them. The sauce that accompanied the steak frites was exceptional, pale like a béchamel, but possessing the depth of an aged cheese. I had a plate of venison backstrap, tender and rare, served over the airiest squash mousseline. I asked offhandedly for a glass of red, something big, to go with it, and the waitress brought a knock-out Bordeaux.
Do you think they might have known a restaurant critic was sitting at the table? Dear reader, on one visit, I was busted from the moment I ordered my first drink. I give fake names for my reservations. I try to keep my head down, or sit in inconspicuous places. Sometimes, though, there’s no use hiding. When it happens, I tend to take it as a credit to the attentive staff and assume everything might not be quite as flawless for the average diner.
On another visit, I didn’t have a reservation, and the hostess told me there would be a 45-minute wait for a table. But, she added, the lobby bar was serving the full menu, and we were welcome to grab a seat there. It is an excellent and dark room. The paint seems to pull light out of the air like a black hole. What a place to drink! Our cocktails — including a fine daiquiri riff called depth perception — were good. There was nothing to fault or note about the service.
Oh, but what was going on with the food? My friend ordered the vegetable cassoulet, a soupy green mess of field peas that somehow managed to be both salty and bland. The plate of escargot that arrived in front of me was confusing; somewhere, among the tang of vinegar, foamy butter and capers, I could taste the dish that this was supposed to be. But, this plate of it seemed unfinished, tossed off. The dumplings were undercooked, the escargot unseasoned, the garnish nowhere to be found. The beef tartare was better, bold and clean in flavor. I liked the crunchy puffs of fried beef tendon, though they needed a touch of salt. That plate couldn’t compensate for the others, unfortunately. Every restaurant has an off night, and most menus have a few duds, but the gulf between the two shouldn’t be so large.
Still, I’ll be coming back to Tiny Lou’s. I’ll just be hoping that off nights like that go the way of the Clermont’s bad old days. The consommé is too good, the crepe is too delicate, the Cotes du Rhone is calling my name.
This is a place I want to stay.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: French American
Service: skilled and practiced
Best dishes: steak frites, duck consomme, blue fin crab crepe, venison
Vegetarian selections: few options, including a paltry cassoulet
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m and 5-11 p.m. Saturdays, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: valet, free with validation
MARTA station: North Avenue Transit Station
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: Hotel Clermont, 789 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta. 470-485-0085