Caught in the act

Sep 3, 2003 at 12:00 am

Rats. I hate being busted. It’s rare when the waitstaff cops to the fact that I’m a reviewer. I can tell when they know, and they know that I know, but, as Meryl Streep said to Alan Alda in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, “I thought we were going to have the brains not to mention it.”

At Atlas, though, the waiter blurted out, “I’m so nervous — are you a food critic?” This was after offering, twice, to read us his poetry.

Then he brought the chef out to make nice, and a most uncomfortable time was had by all.

Atlas is a snazzy new restaurant just north of downtown, in a gorgeous six-story 1905 building that building owner Joel Landy has spent years restoring to elegance. He has turned this beauty into a showplace, with 35 elegant apartments above the restaurant.

His place has magnificent moldings, huge windows and high ceilings. The walls are somewhere between sea green and pale turquoise; the “atlas” theme is carried out with maps, like the metal sculpture of metro Detroit by Nicole Barbour in the entryway and the silvery maps of North and Central America on the menus.

A manager told me the restaurant’s owners want to keep prices moderate so that neighborhood people could come in more than once or twice a week. Whether or not you think $60 is a normal school night dinner for two, Atlas is aiming to be just what Detroit needs: a business that takes advantage of our sterling architectural heritage and isn’t afraid to pioneer in a rough neighborhood. If only the food were better.

When co-executive chef Carlos Bonilla was at Agave up the street, he did wonders with upscale Mexican dishes like pork medallions marinated in sangria. At Atlas, he’s still finding his way around the new menu. On one outing, we found one dish excellent, one bad, and two mediocre, with two OK but ordinary desserts.

The standout dish was the New Zealand lamb. (Almost all the dishes include a geographical name, in keeping with the theme.) It was cooked simply with garlic and rosemary and served with a creamy polenta. Yucatecan duck had an uninteresting sauce and green beans that tasted like grass. The vegetarian entrée changes daily; on our night it was mushy and vinegary chickpeas and eggplant, all one flavor, with onion rings on top.

Paella Valenciana, usually a favorite of mine, was conceived as a soup rather than as a casserole. I can sympathize with Bonilla’s explanation that a regular paella takes too long to make, but that’s no reason for the chorizo to taste like Polish sausage or the mussels to taste like they’ve gone bad.

On a later visit, I found the salmon special a little squeaky and bland, and its rice accompaniment didn’t taste fresh. Potato-crusted tilapia was better, though the shredded potato was more of a drape than a crust. An appetizer of pork tenderloin was tough, and the wild mushroom crepe made good use of corn.

You can ask for either a Caesar or a house green salad with your dinner, without being charged extra for the Caesar. All restaurants ought to do this. Our Caesar was a bit wet, and the house dressing was so salty I couldn’t eat it. It had changed character entirely from one visit to the next, however, so maybe future experimentation will bring better luck.

Atlas provides breakfast six days a week, serving smoked salmon omelets, Belgian waffles, crabmeat Benedict, chorizo with scrambled eggs and little boxes of Kellogg’s (for $3 — now there’s a neighborhood place to take the kids). Brunch lasts till 3 p.m. on the weekends. Lunch offers lots of sandwiches and wraps as well as more formal entrées.

I read a review of Atlas online at one of those sites where the public can write in their comments — and the guy compared it to Chicago’s Gold Coast and gave it five stars. There’s no accounting for tastes, and I hope you’ll try Atlas for yourself.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].