Restaurant Review: Atlas is a boîte with bite
The pocket resto masters behind Chabrol and Cava have done it again
Image: Yvonne Tsui
I completely don’t get it. As a business owner, I fail to understand how a restaurant with eight tables (10 or 12 if you make them deuces) can make a living. Even if it’s full every night. Which Atlas is, and for good reason. These people who opened Atlas specialize in the tiny perfect bistro. Their French resto Chabrol in Yorkville is even smaller than Atlas. Cava, their original resto, is bigger. But not big.
It’s interesting that while chefs all around them are expanding, often looking for a bigger canvas on which to paint (or shall we say a bigger footprint to scale up profits), partners Doug Penfold (the chef) and Niall McCotter are adding restos, but tiny ones.
My concerns about scale and profitability aside, their oeuvres are all superb. I continue to adore the food at Cava; Chabrol is a triumph of la cuisine française; and Atlas, their third resto, follows their model of both impeccable food and service.
Chef Penfold was inspired by his travels in Morocco. Out of that came Atlas. For we who are ignorant of Moroccan cooking, the servers are both schooled and helpful. We start with harira, a fabulous lamb soup enriched with marrow, smooth and hearty, and a classic Moroccan dip, a bit rich for my taste, called amlou. This is pulverized almonds puréed with argan oil and honey, served with Maldon salt, to counteract the sweetness, and harcha — wonderful warm skillet bread made of semolina. Harcha makes pita feel like a poor cousin.
They also do splendid sardine kefta. A sardine “meatball?” You bet, and it works beautifully, thanks partly to its rich tomato sauce spiked with celery and ras el hanout. This translates into “head of the shop,” because it’s the Moroccan mother spice. Its key notes are coriander, cumin, cardamom, clove, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and paprika.
For foodies who like to try everything, the tagines are a little awkward, since they’re for two or four people only. And there are only two of them — fish or goat. We’d like more flexibility on this, because the tagine is wonderful. First the ceremony of bringing the hot tagine with its conical ceramic lid to the table, lifting the lid and letting the aromatic steam escape. Then the flavours, savoury and sweet, deep and complex.
I confess to having avoided the goat tagine. No love lost between me and goat. But the codfish tagine was magnificent. Big chunks of tender cod with zucchini, potatoes and green peppers in a strong rich sauce with hints of sweet spices. I counsel ordering a tagine, but skip the steamed carrot and raisin salad with orange blossom water and arugula, for it is bland. In fact I’d do more of the dips and harcha as apps and use the calories up front, because the dips ’n’ harcha are more fun than the Moroccan-inspired desserts. I don’t love lavender in my food, and other sweet scents like rosewater are, to me, best left in my perfume. And I didn’t find enough pistachio flavour in the pistachio ice cream that tops the dense chocolate tart.
But all in all, Atlas is adorable — a tiny jewel of a gift to the city.