Restaurant > DiningAtlas lifts it up
The food is exquisite, the room is gorgeous, and the service is knowledgeable. What's more, Atlas Global Bistro occupies a restored 1905 Beaux Arts building that had been a candidate for the wrecking ball, thus warming the heart of Detroit boosters who want to see blighted areas make a comeback.
So I'm glad to update my September 2003 review of Atlas, which mourned, "If only the food were better." For quite a long time now, according to those who've been urging me to revisit, Atlas has been living up to its potential.
For nearly a year, chef Christian Borden has overseen an eclectic menu that borrows from and blends global cuisines (thus the name). You'll find Carolina catfish, pork taquitos, short ribs, ravioli and polenta, Hawaiian shrimp and Moroccan beef. Ingredients which don't necessarily remain with their cuisine-of-origin include lemongrass, cactus, Gorgonzola, wasabi, coconut, pancetta, caviar and black-eyed peas.
It may sound like the chef is confused, but even if he were, open-minded taste buds should not quibble with the results. "Sesame tuna saku, sushi-style," for example, is very lightly seared strips of high-quality loin, with a soy sauce that blends sweet and salty in just the right proportions. If it bothers you to read "sushi-style" and "seared" in the same description, just skip the ginger and wasabi and enjoy the tuna for its own sake (but don't snub the sesame slaw).
Likewise, adding a pork taquito to a duck breast with coriander-espresso rub may sound unnecessary, and it is. But just indulge the chef, and yourself: Both are incredibly rich, the duck meatier than meat, the taco shell crisp and the Mexican vegetables somehow a fitting accompaniment to both.
Even richer is the Motown shank: braised lamb with gravy, four root vegetables and mashed potatoes. My meat-and-potatoes companion even pronounced it "too rich," a first for him, but I couldn't agree.
Beef loin is given an Italian twist with garlic rosemary oil, Gorgonzola polenta and roasted asparagus. Ours came very rare as ordered, and the flavor was deep enough to make you catch your breath, figuratively.
Not all dishes are quite so intense, though all the entrées and appetizers I sampled were delightful. Haliwea shrimp has a roasted taste that goes well with grilled pineapple. Lake perch comes in an alarming coffin shape, but that's the delectable savory French pastry shell that chef Borden excels at (he was formerly the pastry chef at Boocoo). It's served with a rich citrus butter, vegetables that give up all their flavor, and a bit of caviar.
Ravioli is sometimes a stingy dish, but not at Atlas. Your eight large porcini-stuffed squares are plenty, their sweetish sauce is mellow, and you keep finding little surprises like olives and squishy roasted garlic cloves that melt in your mouth. If you forget that the menu specified green garlic-artichoke pesto on the side, you'll never identify the mysterious little mound in the middle of the plate, but you'll enjoy it nonetheless.
The house salad is more interesting than this rather standard list conveys: spring greens with pine nuts, a real tomato, red onion and shavings of cheese, brought together by an excellent vinaigrette. You can substitute a Caesar for no extra charge.
One of the specialty salads was my only disappointment at Atlas. The "sweet harmony" is a mix of bitter and much-too-sweet: radicchio and frisée topped by macerated apricots, cherries and dates and shaved chocolate. My companion raved, but decide how much you like any of these ingredients separately before you order them combined.
I recommend starting with a cup of soup (they change daily), and notice how each spoonful progresses from flavor to flavor of the different components. Carrot leads you through sweet and rich to the hotness of ginger at the end. Eggplant is a rich butterscotch color perfect for the mellow blend of roasted eggplant and red peppers and garlic, capped with tart, slowly melting goat cheese.
Atlas is lovely to look at, with its grand moldings, dark sea-green walls, floor-to-ceiling windows on Woodward and a metal sculpture depicting metro Detroit, made by co-owner and metalsmith Nicole Barbour. Our server was a standout, knowledgeable about the food and the wine. She recommended a light, cinnamon-y Pinot Noir that went well with everything four people ordered.
All this high quality has come with a cost. In 2003, the top-price entrée at Atlas was $21; today, that's the cheapie. Since a large part of Atlas's evening business is the pre-theater crowd, perhaps they don't mind. Located halfway between the Fox and the Max, Atlas is open for lunch and dinner every day and serves an a la carte brunch from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekends.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.