Farm Follows Function

If you prefer your animal protein in the form of lamb, attach yourself to the rack. Four meaty, butter-soft chops come crusted with seasonings, and paired with roasted potatoes and an inexplicably dull veggie medley. Is it proper to pick up the bones and gnaw? Who cares? You'd be a fool not to.

Christopher has always had a way with fish. And he hasn't lost his touch here. I was particularly smitten with the Friday special, a bowl of fish stew that reminds me of a Provençal bourride. The key is the fragrantly creamy sauce, enhanced with pureed vegetables and freshened with a•oli, supporting hunks of sea bass and tuna. And if you need more evidence that the chef is sweating the details, check out the artichoke heart floating alongside the fish. It's fresh, not out of a can or jar.

Two popular fish--ahi tuna and halibut--get deft treatment. A first-rate hunk of ahi receives a quick sear from the flames, then gets doused in a full-bodied red wine sauce. With its sides of roasted potatoes and olives, it tastes like southern France. A thick slab of halibut, meanwhile, has a suavely continental air, accompanied by roasted red and yellow tomatoes and moistened in a delicate truffle sabayon. This is one of those dishes that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Details

522-2344

Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Red bell pepper soup: $5.95
Smoked prime sirloin: $26.95
Hot and cold chocolate: $6.95

2584 East Camelback (Biltmore Fashion Park)

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You don't run into cassoulet too often in this town. It's a particularly hearty winter dish, here fashioned from duck, spicy merguez (a North African sausage) and white beans. You don't run into the likes of the Fermier Brasserie's artichoke and tomato tart at all. Fresh artichoke, roasted red and yellow tomatoes and leeks are tossed in a light lemon sauce and spooned into puff pastry. And Christopher's house-smoked salmon pasta is also one of a kind, a robust dish that keeps your attention all the way to the last bite.

You can linger over a cheese course, which offers well-known French favorites and boutique cheeses from New York's Egg Farm Dairy. Or you can move directly to dessert.

It would a shame to run out of belly room before you get to the outstanding sweets, many of which have had their pictures taken in foodie magazines. I'm partial to the hot and cold chocolate: moist chocolate cake with a warm chocolate lava center, served atop house-made chocolate ice cream; alongside is a scoop of chocolate sorbet nesting in a tuile. Chocoholics will need to schedule a 12-step recovery program the next day. I'm also fond of the tarte Tatin, a buttery, sugary French concoction that resembles an upside-down apple pie. Fans of the rich chocolate mousse tower, another signature dessert, will happily note its appearance. Profiteroles, however, aren't in the same league.

A word about wine and beer. The Fermier Brasserie offers about a hundred wines by the glass, from just about every corner of the earth. Looking for a white? There's everything from a $5.25 Johannisberg Riesling from Washington state to a $13 premier cru French Chablis. Want an offbeat red? There are wines from South Africa, Portugal, Austria, Lebanon and Argentina. For dessert? Check out Spanish Muscat and luscious Banyuls, from France.

The brewmaster, meanwhile, has been putting out a half-dozen beers. Kolsch is light and refreshing, perhaps better suited to August. The full-bodied Oktoberfest, malty and substantial, couldn't be more different from most American swill. The Brown Ale is the least impressive effort, one-dimensional and without character. But the lusty Barleywine makes up for it--it's almost caramely, with lots of nuances. If you're not your group's designated driver, choose the Double Wheat Bock. Twenty ounces of this potent brew will unleash your inhibitions. And if you're in the mood to experiment, try the Espresso Stout--yes, coffee is added during the brewing process. The best way for first-timers to go: Get a sampler--five-ounce glasses of all six, for six bucks.

Don't be fooled by appearances. The cheerily informal Fermier Brasserie is as big-time as Christopher's and Christopher's Bistro ever were. It's just big-time in a different way.

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