Restaurant Review: Le Fat

With a talented support staff to back him up, Guy Wong blossoms at his new Westside restaurant Le Fat

Guy Wong was 27 years old when he opened his first restaurant, Miso Izakaya, in 2009. In the early days, Wong says, it was just him and one other cook who did everything in the kitchen — all of the prep work, cooking, cleaning. At the time, he couldn't afford to pay a support staff. There were no dishwashers, no line cooks, and only one server at dinner. As a result, meals there were often slow and frustrating even if the food was good. Wong opened his sophomore effort, Yum Bunz, in July 2013, but inconsistencies with the food and a concept that never really gelled plagued the quick-serve dim sum restaurant. Yum Bunz tanked within six months.

Now, at his new Vietnamese brasserie, Le Fat, Wong's prowess as a restaurateur seems to have finally caught up with his talent in the kitchen. Since opening in March, Wong has assembled a strong team of industry professionals who have been instrumental to Le Fat's success: Partner/General Manager Mike Blum, Beverage Director T. Fable Jeon, and Pastry Chef Derek Van Cleve. With strong people to rely on, Wong has been able to focus on the big-picture aspects of this restaurant. Le Fat is a refreshing change of pace from Atlanta's New American/farm-to-table trend. Even with minor execution errors such as a chewy piece of salt and pepper calamari or slightly overcooked noodles, there is a cohesiveness to the Le Fat experience young restaurants often lack.

Design firm Smith Hanes, responsible for styling other Westside restaurants such as the Optimist, completely reimagined the space where Yum Bunz once lived. A world away from the former's modern lounge theme, Le Fat transports diners to colonial Vietnam. The space feels warm, French, and slightly exotic. There is an attractive, white-tiled pastry counter near the entrance. The sleek bar area's pale green walls are hand-painted with little birds on blossoming branches by local artist Tommy Taylor. In the main dining room beyond the bar, framed black-and-white photos that look like they were plucked from a Vietnamese grandmother's living room amp up the room's faraway feel.

Wong comes from an Atlanta restaurant family. In the '80s and '90s, his parents ran Sam's Gourmet, one of the city's first Cantonese eateries. Wong's mother, who is Vietnamese, provided many of the recipes that serve as a foundation for Le Fat's menu. Wong says his goal was to start simple and showcase Vietnamese classics like pho and com (rice) dishes and expand creatively once the restaurant became more established. At first glance, many dishes on the menu could pass for Chinese. Wong, who is also half Chinese, says many of the dishes are staples in both cuisines.

I love Le Fat's noodle dishes and would come here for them alone. A tumble of ramen noodles from famed Sun Noodle tossed with sweet and mild lump crab meat, wilted lettuce, and cilantro was the standout dish of all my meals here. It was a pleasure to slurp and chew the crinkly, garlic-scented strands. Even the noodles being slightly overcooked on one occasion could not prevent me from going back for one decadent bite after another. The equally impressive drunken noodles came on a large platter, the fat, al dente ribbons lightly charred around the edges and mixed up with scallions and tender beef.

Le Fat's version of the classic papaya salad is made with julienned mango, papaya, and apple threads that slither off your chopsticks like noodles. The salad's acidic Thai pepper vinaigrette is so sour it'll make your lips pucker after every bite. But the crisp fruit and Wong's addition of broken peanut brittle add enough sweetness to mellow the tart, spicy dressing. There are both fried and fresh spring rolls among the starters. The fried ones stuffed with chicken, shrimp, and mushrooms were a touch oily, but flavorful. The fresh spring rolls filled with vibrant herbs, pork, and shrimp were faultless in their chewy, translucent wrappers.

Beef pho is filled with pieces of flank steak, brisket, meatballs, and a mass of rice noodles swirling around in a simple, understated broth. Each order comes with a modest portion of fresh Vietnamese basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime, and jalapeño. It is a lot like a bowl you'd find on Buford Highway, but served in a nicer setting for just a few bucks more.

The $15 price tag for a platter of garlicky stir-fried green beans shocked everyone at my table, but they were perfect, each bite humming with notes of garlic and ginger and beautifully pockmarked with charred bits from the hot wok. As much as I wanted to balk at the cost, I'd order the heaping portion of crunchy beans again. One entrée, a whole branzino flash-fried so its edges curled up and created a makeshift bowl, was topped with crispy fried ginger and shaved scallions. As a dipping sauce, the accompanying light ginger soy jus did little to enhance the mild fish's flavor. But when poured over the entire fish, the sauce soaked into the fried coating and provided ample seasoning without overpowering the dish. A sizzling clay pot of chicken was both sweet and savory. The chicken came coated in a glossy, caramel-like sauce. The blackened edges around each piece added a lovely, bitter counterpoint to the sweetness.

Van Cleve's desserts have been a high note during my meals at Le Fat. The chef, who has worked at Parish and Alon's, manages to combine the art of fine French pastry with Asian and Vietnamese flavors. "We eat with our eyes first. And a striking color, especially when naturally derived, is very appealing," Van Cleve says. His pear dumpling dessert served with a scoop of silky black sesame ice cream exemplifies this philosophy. The dumpling was a tiny jewel box of golden, buttery puff pastry filled with thinly sliced pears and served with buttered toffee sauce. The flaky pastry was a joy to eat, but the funky, intensely nutty sesame ice cream was even more enchanting. It is one of the most memorable things I've eaten all year.

Le Fat's bar is very much about that cocktail life. One night, I sat at the bar and studied the brown glass dropper bottles, knotted bamboo skewers, and other cocktail accoutrements arranged in neat clusters. Beverage director T. Fable Jeon has worked at top bars including the Pinewood and is currently beverage director at Buckhead's Himitsu. Jeon's cocktail menu successfully spins Asian ingredients into refined modern drinks. One of Le Fat's signatures, the Sale Collins, blends Vietnamese salted lemon, vodka, rum made with cane juice, and Suze Saveur d'Autrefois Gentiane. It's a pleasantly bitter and salty drink that perks up the palate. Jeon has also created a small, but exceptional wine list with selections that are highly acidic and sharp enough to stand up to the cuisine. There is also a selection of mostly imported beers and a group of nonalcoholic drinks such as the lovely, floral jasmine iced tea and Vietnamese iced coffee.

No longer that 27-year-old grinder, it seems time, experience, and coming back from the ultimate punch in the gut for a chef — a failed restaurant — have been Wong's greatest teachers. The chef is now a father, a husband, and the head of his own budding restaurant group with two more eateries in the works. At Le Fat, Wong and Blum work in tandem — the chef successfully bridging the flavors of his past with his present, and Blum creating an environment where quality service is a priority. The food isn't flawless, but the hiccups I experienced never detracted from the overall experience. When I think about the superior outings I've had at Le Fat compared to those early Miso days, it's apparent just how much Wong has grown. (3 out of 5 stars)


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