By Elana Schor - 04/07/11 11:10 PM EDT
Remember when dining out was an event — before the four-star, $400 culinary experience became fashionable for those who could hardly afford it? When “grabbing a bite” was something people did only if they had to? The Atlas Room does.
Tucked away between nondescript storefronts on the newly ascendant H Street NE, this modest yet lavish bistro is hardly the most buzzed-about restaurant in a neighborhood where rock ‘n’ roll sushi and award-winning moules frites can be had for a song. But the Atlas Room, a palpable labor of love for the veteran toques who opened it, is the best restaurant in perhaps the whole of Northeast, a kitchen that makes just dining out in the neighborhood into a memorable evening once again.
Funky black placemats on each table mask any food that may miss its mark, and mason jars filled with fruit-infusing liquors sit on spare shelves. At the back of the house, eye-catching glass doors frame a mirrored bar where the flat-screen TV is the only modern touch in a delightful 1960s-throwback design.
The overall effect is one of easygoing glamour where everyone is welcome. The Atlas Room is the sort of spot where packs of girls in clubbing gear quiet their giggles over frothy pisco sours while visiting parents get their first taste of Washington in a corner booth.
That taste, as it happens, is almost universally stellar but organized in a way that may throw newcomers for a loop. Chef Matthew Cordes, a local favorite who has spent time in many of Northern Virginia’s best kitchens, and chef de cuisine Bobby Beard present their diverse dishes by main ingredient (beef, lamb, vegetables) rather than course (appetizer, entree, sides).
Every category on the menu lists three options in increasing size order, with the smallest enough for two to share and the largest equivalent to a main course in the conventional parlance. The short rib ravioli, for instance, is a “nosh” plate that brings only a few apricot-sized orbs of homemade pasta that encases melt-in-your-mouth meat bathed in a silky, umami-laden mushroom-and-onion sauce.
You will almost certainly finish the ravioli wanting seconds, but the magic of Atlas’s slow-roasting technique reappears in the much larger third beef dish, a long racetrack of a plate that pits a side of juicy steak in artful curves of rich wine sauce, served with tender beets, against those short ribs in a cloud of quirky parsnip mashed potatoes.
The “beef two ways,” as that presentation is called, offers a perfect example of how plate design elevates the kitchen’s skills. Artfully arranged food has been a culinary trend for so long that some attempts resemble parody, particularly when cutesy design and garnish substitutes for quality cooking, but Beard and Cordes rescue stylish plating from the dustbin.
Their trick is taking the modernism out of the equation. “Beef two ways” uses the colors and textures of its sauces and sides to create a pleasing and unique picture, just as the succulent pan-roasted chicken twirls its pomegranate seeds and caramel sauce into an autumnal haze that makes the bird’s burnt-sienna hue pop from the plate as if in 3-D.
Making the chicken’s tiny poufs of gnocchi the same size as its chunks of apples and rutabaga adds a humorous touch for those who share the plate, a practice encouraged at Atlas. My companion and I ended up dueling for the final dumpling on the plate only to find that it was an apple instead — and enjoying it even more.
The kitchen’s skillful plating is also on display in its fragrant pork loin, which mixes up surprising supporting players in the form of garlicky sausage coins and identically sized Brussels sprouts, and the lamb fritters. The latter dish is a rare stumble for the chefs, as the golden-brown and curry-spiked nuggets are drowned out by their overly pungent mustard sauce.
The Middle Eastern sensibility of those fritters brings to mind the restaurant’s third winning touch. Its website promises “classic French/Italian cooking techniques,” but the Atlas Room’s most daring offerings look more to the other side of the Mediterranean. The curried bean ragout carries a lip-smacking walnut pesto that recalls a Moroccan tagine, and the superlative seafood salad adds oversized Israeli couscous to smoky jewels of shellfish, twirls of vegetables and shards of Indian lentil crackers.
Other dishes veer off even further toward Latin America, with queso fresco and pumpkin seeds showing up in a squash gratin and emerald-green poblano peppers enlightening a simple egg hash on the brunch menu. The Atlas Room may style its plates in the Michelin-influenced European tradition, but its ingredients cut a broader swath, and the kitchen is better for it.
The cocktail list may not be the best thing about the bistro, but no dinner at Atlas would be complete without trying one of the classics reconstituted by the genial bartender. That pisco sour is a winner, its freshly squeezed lime cutting the sweetness of the liquor, but the feather-light Vesper, a gin and vodka drink, and the murky Sazerac, featuring Pernod Absinthe, are equally top-notch.
For those who prefer a less potent alcoholic punch, a quartet of excellent microbrews and a small wine list are also available. A handful of desserts are on hand, too — you’d be forgiven for forgetting about them after three hours or so in the winning company of Atlas’s staff and chefs, but do so at your own peril. The handful of warm ricotta fritters that wink up from their pool of lemon curd are the ideal way to end a thoroughly eventful dinner out.