Shrimp Soup With Chocolate: Nabokovian Complexity at Atlas

Atlas, named for the human pillar of the universe (it’s also one of the world’s largest moths), is in a former dentist’s office on the ground floor of a 1940’s apartment building on Central Park South. When I arrived for dinner one evening, white napkins were neatly spread along the bar, each place set with a candle. Copies of Saveur , Food & Wine and Gourmet were strewn about for customers to read while they ate, much as the dentist’s patients must have once flipped through old copies of Reader’s Digest before getting their teeth cleaned.

“Got any car magazines?” my husband asked the young woman who was busily dispensing wine to the diners perched at the bar.

She laughed, with what Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire called “a flurry of luminous nictitation.”

If Nabokov had opened a restaurant, it might well have been Atlas. Shrimp soup with white chocolate and pink peppercorns. Rouget slicked with coffee-infused verbena caramel. Bacon sorbet. The chef does with classic French cuisine what Nabokov did with the English language, combining ingredients, tastes, textures and colors like so many rich, adjective-laden clauses. His food is sensual and unpredictable, startling even the most jaded palate.

When Atlas opened more than a year ago with another chef, it tried desperately to please, but the cooking was all over the map. In September, the owners–developer H. Dale Hemmerdinger (whose grandparents erected the building) and his wife, Elizabeth–hired 25-year-old Paul Liebrandt, who worked with Marco Pierre White and Richard Neat in his native London. His heroes, French chef Pierre Gagnaire and Ferran Adriá from El Bulli in Spain, have sent him down the road of frothed sauces and puckish experiments with aroma and temperature.

As four of us waited for our table, the bartender poured us a dry Austrian Riesling, one of the 10 wines from the excellent but expensive list that are available not by the glass but in two sizes of “fillip,” mini-carafes that hold one third or two thirds of a bottle. (Nabokov, in one of his Pale Fire groaners, would have spelled it “fillup.”) The softly lit restaurant has been divided into alcoves, with fabric-covered walls in muted reds and earth tones, polished bronze sculptures and a cream marble floor. At the entrance, a shiny deep-blue globe is suspended over a birdbath swirling with water. We were led to the back, past a window filled with plants, to a niche set with a kidney-shaped table seemingly designed for the chairman of the board, his three private secretaries facing him. We asked to be seated at the front instead, even though we were told the table, designed for two, was narrow. It was fine, and through the window we watched a stream of yellow cabs and horse-drawn carriages make their way along 59th Street.

The waiter brought over a plate of what looked like a cube of pork fat sprinkled with ground pepper and speared with a toothpick. The toothpick broke off when you put it in your mouth: It was made of chickpeas. The opalescent cube was a piece of pear en gelée sprinkled with a powder made from dried anchovies. Also on the plate were silver spoonfuls of roasted tomato chutney topped with a peppered Parmesan crisp. A slivered beet arrived, innocuous and familiar in a vinaigrette. But there was a gelatinous surprise tucked underneath: muscat vinegar jelly with seaweed powder. And the vinaigrette, it turned out, was perfumed with dried hibiscus flowers.

The sommelier pointed out hints of gooseberry and grass in the wine we’d ordered and insisted on pouring a drop in each glass and emptying it out to remove any vestiges of lint or soap before we raised it to our lips. “The first time I’ve seen this,” said my husband after he left. “And I hope the last. Why don’t they just run them through the rinse cycle one more time?”

Shrimp soup arrived in a deep white bowl topped with a thin sheet of plastic. It wasn’t plastic, of course, but white caramel. When you dug down, a crunch of peppercorn gelée was followed by the taste of white chocolate and the salty resilience of caviar at the bottom. It just didn’t work, and I couldn’t finish it. What Atlas calls “earth & sea” was three sea-urchin shells filled with a foamy broth. Hidden beneath lay the sea urchin, plus a lump of foie gras and pink grapefruit to cut the fattiness. “I could eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said the friend who had ordered it. If I could have had the sea urchin plain, I could have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, too. As it was, I found it cloyingly rich.

But I loved the sushi tuna, which was cut in large squares alternating on the plate with slices of dried Granny Smith apple and served with a tangy lime puree and a soy vinaigrette. The pan-fried rouget was good, too, glazed with fragrant verbena caramel infused with coffee beans that brought out the earthy flavor of the fish. Enoki mushrooms and baby carrots braised in Belgian beer came in a bowl with quince, tarragon and caviar. Despite all these interesting ingredients, the dish was strangely bland. In contrast, chunks of rabbit dribbled with an ebony squid’s-ink sauce on a bed of lentils were sumptuous.

Mr. Liebrandt takes wild risks. Between courses, the waiter brought us a sorbet made with green apple and wasabi and served in a pearly baby abalone shell. He then poured oil over it from a small glass beaker. “Banana-infused olive oil,” he said. I thought I’d misheard. But the combination of wasabi, sharp apple and full, fruity olive oil–along with a crunch of Maldon salt–was brilliant. (Mercifully, I couldn’t taste the banana.)

Squab with cauliflower, mango and bitter chocolate was also extraordinary, a riff on a classic dish from the South of France. Tender chicken roasted in hay–the conservative choice on the menu–arrived in a large steel pot with, indeed, bits of hay sticking out of it. The leg confit, with crisp skin en gelée, was served in a dish on the side. Cod was larded with eel and mango chutney, pickled lime and foie gras fat to keep it moist and served with a peppery coconut-curry sauce. The flavors were intriguing, but the cod was too close to raw.

Pastry chef Natalia Andalo was formerly at Tabla. Her desserts are adventurous without going off the rails. They include a refreshing rhubarb soup with goat’s-milk yogurt sorbet, and a rich black-cardamom cake with dates and a tart green-apple granité. Also great are the crispy mille-feuille of dulce de leche with balsamic ice cream and hibiscus sauce, the delicate milk-chocolate panna cotta with tamarind sauce and the trio of little custards made with espresso, orange flower and chocolate-cardamom.

Mr. Liebrandt’s cooking is engaging and certainly daring–as is the price. But, like Nabokov, it can be a bit too cerebral. No one can say, however, that it isn’t food for thought.

Atlas

* * *

40 Central Park South

759-9191

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Low

Wine list: Excellent, high-priced and eclectic

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Three-course prix fixe $68; pre-theater $52

Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Shrimp Soup With Chocolate: Nabokovian Complexity at Atlas