Fussy Roulades, Creamy Marble And a View of Central Park South

The item on the menu sounded intriguing: grilled portabello “shawarma” with feta cheese.

“That’s our vegetarian dish,” explained the waiter. “It has all the essential amino acids and carbohydrates,” he added, before he went on to describe each of the ingredients.

The sommelier brought over the wine and poured a droplet into each glass. “That’s to take up any lint or impurities or soap that might not have been completely cleaned out in the dishwasher,” he explained, after I had sipped the droplet.

Guys! Lighten up!

The staff could not be friendlier at Atlas, a new restaurant on Central Park South, but they are just a wee bit earnest.

The restaurant, hard by Mickey Mantle’s and the Hotel St. Moritz, is in an anonymous apartment building overlooking the park that was put up in 1941 at the end of the Depression. It is owned by real estate broker H. Dale Hemmerdinger, whose grandfather erected the building and who occupies an entire floor upstairs with his wife and co-owner, Elizabeth. The ground floor, formerly a dentist’s office, has been redesigned by Bogdanow Partner Architects in muted reds and earth tones, with a cream marble floor and bronze sculptures on fabric-covered walls. The feeling is clubby but a trifle airport-loungey (club class, of course), and they haven’t quite got the heating flow right yet. There is a small bar by the entrance and a back dining room with a window filled with green plants. A small dining alcove, with a table for six tucked away in the corner, will be ready in December. It would be fine for a private party. But when four of us were directed there one evening, I asked to be seated by the front instead, where the view of Central Park and the endless stream of yellow cabs and tourists making their way along 59th Street puts you more in the swing of things.

Atlas serves “globally influenced American cuisine” and, to make the point, the menu is stamped like a passport. When I opened it, I discovered that someone had stuck a knife inside the binding. I tried to pull it out, thinking it had been put there by a fidgety customer, but it wouldn’t budge. The person next to me had a spoon in their menu, and my other neighbor was wrestling with a snail fork. This Jacques Tati moment was interrupted when the waiter pointed out, probably for the 10th time that night, that it was a “design detail.”

I had brought along a friend who describes himself as a meat-and-potatoes sort of guy. “I hope they don’t have rabbit and gizzards and that sort of thing,” he began. “They do a very good pot roast at Barneys, you know, in that place in the basement … that’s what I feel like.” He looked at the menu. “Arugula!” he muttered to himself. “Sweetbreads, squab with Brussels sprouts … What the hell is ‘foie gras crème brûlée’?”

“What about the grilled beef tenderloin chop with white cheddar potato gratin?” I asked.

His face brightened. “I’ll have that and a green salad.”

The rest of us, more adventurous travelers in the wide world of global cuisine, went farther afield. But the wasabi gravlax and sesame-seared tuna with Asian greens were lackluster. Pansotti, filled with mushrooms, with cipollini, prosciutto and fontina cheeses, was strange, with a funny aftertaste. Sea urchin and lobster custard in a sea urchin shell was thin and gritty. The shell was perched on a bed of whole peppercorns. Why? Were you supposed to eat the peppercorns?

The idea of making osso buco from venison instead of veal shank is interesting, and it made a cute first course, served with a salt spoon to get the marrow out of the tiny bone. Celery root gnocchi were served instead of the traditional risotto, and roasted beets went beautifully with the rich game sauce. Alas, it was tepid.

I did like the foie gras “crème brûlée” (although I wasn’t sure what that meant in this context) made with buttery chunks inside a roulade of poached apples, served with a dollop of cranberry chutney. The chicken soup was great, in an intense broth with chicken dumplings. The salad, although it needed more dressing, was made with crisp fresh greens, along with autumn vegetables-parsnip, greens, beets, celery root, sun-dried tomato and carrots that had been roasted to intensify their taste.

Chef Thomas Beres worked at the Hudson River Club and the Rainbow Room, and his cooking can be very good indeed. But there’s a bit of a hit-or-miss quality about it. It tries too hard, and there are often too many elements, so one or two goes wrong. Wild Scottish pheasant was delicious, full of flavor, and went beautifully with braised cabbage and purple fingerling potatoes. You didn’t need the roulade of foie gras and butternut squash that came with it, all the more since it was stone cold (was this intentional?). Salmon with lentils was pleasant, with chanterelles, salsify and confetti vegetables that didn’t have much taste.

The pork chop, on the other hand, was juicy and tender, with creamy polenta, spinach and black truffles. Roast “prime rib” of lamb was also excellent, with an eggplant tart and fried capers. The meat-and-potatoes guy was well satisfied with his beef, which was perfectly cooked and came with a pile of crisp fried onion rings. I like Mr. Beres’ cooking best when it is simpler.

But even the cheeses are gussied up and overworked: a black truffle mutton button (a sheep’s cheese baked to order) with foie gras vinaigrette, walnut goat cheese roulade and another roulade, this time of figs and blue cheese. Too many roulades! Just give me a plain piece of that fourme d’Ambert and hold the figs.

The wine list at Atlas is superior, divided into categories such as “exotica,” “spirited” and “robust.” The wine director Christopher Catanesi was formerly at Gramercy Tavern and Babbo (where I first encountered the droplet in the glass syndrome). Wines are also offered in 250-milliliter or 500-milliliter sizes. He steered us toward a Russian River pinot noir (under the category “delicate”), which was very good, at $63 a bottle.

Despite their irritating names-”Gone Bananas,” “Rumpledinger’s Ice-Cargots”-desserts at Atlas are good, including the creamy dark chocolate cake and a wonderful cheesecake with brandied purple plums. “Absolutely Pear-fect,” despite its name, was also delicious, a pear poached in champagne with black pepper, and lavender, served with rosemary lemon sorbet.

Atlas

* 1¼

Atlas sets out to please. It succeeds when it doesn’t try so hard.

40 Central Park South

759-9191

dress: Business

noise level: Fine

wine list: Excellent, well priced and eclectic

credit cards: All majorv

price range: Main courses lunch $14 to $18, dinner $25 to $32

brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.

lunch: Tuesday to Friday 11:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M.

dinner: Tuesday to Sunday 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* good

* * very good

* * * excellent

* * * * outstanding

no star poor

Casimir

* * 1¼

103-105 Avenue B,

between Sixth and Seventh streets

358-9683

dress: Black, cotton headkerchiefs, day-old beards

noise level: Can be high

wine list: Liquor license pending

credit cards: American Express

price range: Main courses $13 to $16

dinner: Sunday to Thursday

5:30 P.M. to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 1 A.M.

* good

* * very good

* * * excellent

* * * * outstanding

no star poor

Markt

* 1¼

401 West 14th Street,

at Ninth Avenue

727-3314

dress: Black

noise level: Quite high

wine list: French, reasonably priced, good Belgian beers

credit cards: All major

price range: Main courses $17 to $24

hours: Monday to Friday 5 P.M. to 2 A.M.; Saturday and Sunday 10 A.M. to 2 A.M.

* good

* * very good

* * * excellent

* * * * outstanding

no star poor

Comments

  1. What a lovely blog. I will undoubtedly return again. Please maintain writing!