Thursday, September 17, 2009

DRW Preview #5: Atlas Global Bistro

It just doesn't seem possible, but each Detroit Restaurant Week preview dinner just keeps getting better and better! My lastest foray was into Atlas Global Bistro on that lonely stretch of Woodward between Foxtown and Midtown. Despite their relative seclusion, they seem to be doing something right: they've been open for 6 years and always seem to have a strong brunch and dinner crowd, and are also one of the favored cocktail spots for locals (one word: Sazerac).

Executive Chef Christian Burden has been in place at Atlas for four years now and is a Toronto native though we like him even despite that (wink, wink). He attended the Stratford Chefs School and then began working in kitchens around Detroit, including a 4-year stint at the Rattlesnake Club and two years as the pastry chef at the now-closed Boocoo. He presented us with several samples from the upcoming DRW menu and even sat down and chatted with us about food and the city and 20-year aged cherry balsamic vinegar. He is witty and sarcastic and I love that!

But his great wit pales in comparison to his talent in the kitchen. At Atlas, Christian seems to have total creative autonomy, and he expresses his skill in a menu that incorporates elements from a variety of different cultures and cooking traditions. The term "Global Bistro" is not just a clever name meant to evoke something more than it is; it is a truly global bistro, featuring items from Mediterranean, Indian, French, Italian, Asian, American Southern and American Indeterminate influences. It is a bistro in that it is a casual restaurant, but don't let the comfortable environment and laid-back attitude fool you--the food is fine dining at its finest, and the service is on par with the area's more highly-lauded establishments. Though it is probably too "hip" to ever reach Four-Diamond status, the food and the wine (and the service and the ambiance) are more than worthy of such recognition.

We started with the Professor Rockman's Feta (above), a rectangle of baked imported feta with lemon, oregano, olive tapenade, and a lemon twist. The fine outer shell of dough was crispy and the olive oil and lemon juice prevented it from being overly flaky or dry; the crunch was an excellent contrast to the soft, tangy cheese, and the flavor--to say it was somewhere between saganaki and a Greek salad sounds too prosaic. The flavors were alive, possessing the spirit of the Mediterranean islands, like the taste of color itself. Every bite was sun shining on salty sea air; this one is an absolute MUST.

Next we tried the Heirloom Caprese Salad, made with sliced garden tomatoes, sweet basil, fresh mozzarella, and a 20-year-aged cherry balsamic with basil oil and EVOO. He allowed us to sample the rather pricey cherry balsamic on a separate plate--thick, syrupy, tartly sweet heaven. I could pour this all over ice cream and would savor every bite of the most expensive ice cream topping in the world. The salad was also made with organic micro field greens, large tomatoes from a nearby organic plot and teardrop tomatoes from Atlas's own small garden. Fresh, summery, hearty, and sadly coming to the end of its season.

Next were the Moroccan Marinated Greens with leafy watercress, chopped Romaine heart, orange, candied almond, a twirl of Tete du Moine cheese, and spiced vinaigrette. The Tete de Moine is an interesting little cheese (and due to its firm yet elastic composition and silky texture, the florets as pictured above are considered the proper way to serve it to maximize its flavors); it is a highly respected Swiss cheese made in only 9 cheese dairies, and has a history of over 800 years being made in the abbey of the monastery Bellelay. But enough with the history lesson (I'm sorry, I typed "cheese" and couldn't stop myself). This salad is an unexpected blend of flavors, with every bite offering something either sweet, tangy, or spicy and each uniquely different from the next.

Oh, LAMB! I just can't seem to get enough of lamb lately, and this was some of the best. The Pikes Peak Lollipops (Colorado lamb) are char-grilled with wilted baby spinach, a pomegranate-cherry jam made in-house, a port wine veal reduction, crispy onion (or, very fancy onion rings), and a mascarpone polenta. Now...I hate polenta. It strikes that perfect chord between squishy and gritty that's just yeeech. BUT. I did not hate this polenta. It took Christian saying "mascarpone" for me to try it (cheese, of course), but I sort of liked it. And that's saying a lot. The lamb was *muah*--perfect temperature (i.e., really red), not too fatty (and it is a fatty meat), and with an excellent flavor. I think Ned Flanders put it best when he said "Scrum-diddly-umptious!"

This is when I started to get full, so the Tilapia did not get as much attention from me as it deserved (it made for an excellent lunch the next day, though). The official DRW presentation will feature pan-seared farm-raised Whitefish instead of Tilapia, but this worked well too. Tilapia (much like Whitefish) is an extremely mild fish, and may have even succeeded in converting my fish-phobic friend who took several bites and actually enjoyed them. Prior to this, it was,

"There's something dead on your plate that used to swim."

"And that's less desirable than something that spent its life rolling around in its own feces?"


This "Barramundi" (as described on the DRW menu) is made with a very mild garlic-chili paste mixed with oils and a couscous with various vegetables folded in. The small grain granules of the couscous held the garlic-chili-oil sauce well, which was a surprising complement to the firm, mild fish. This dish is also a markedly more "exotic" dish, reminiscient of southeast Asian cuisine occuring somewhere in the midst of Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Burmese influences; a tastefully intriguing dish.

And finally, dessert. Christian is also trained as a pastry chef, which is a rare thing indeed. Typically, as a chef, you either cook or you bake and ne'er the twain shall meet (the relationship between an executive chef and his pâtissier is often symbiotic and mutually-exclusive). Well, Christian can do it all, and he does it in a way that appeals to my own tastebuds: with as little sugar as possible.

"I hate desserts that are overly sweet," he told me, wincing a little, and I feel his toothache; when I bite into something it shouldn't make my teeth hurt (nor should it make them feel fuzzy afterwards). Christian makes all his own pastries and sorbets, using half the amount of sugar called for in the recipes. The result is a Raspberry Sorbet soaked in Limoncello ("A little alcohol with your dessert!" Christian said cheerfully; sarcastic and likes to joke about booze! My kind of man!) and an Orange Blossom Brulee, creamy and aromatic. (For Restaurant Week diners should be even more pleased: the featured Brulee is made with smooth Mexican dark chocolate and spiced custard.)

Atlas also has one of the most impressive lists of cocktails, spirits, and wine in the city. They make all their own syrups, mixers, infusions, bitters, Maraschino cherries and grenadine, as well as offer some hard-to-find liqueurs, including a variety of Absinthe-inspired liqueurs and the fruity African cream liqueur Amarula. The cocktails are enough to make all Mad Men proud (and who thinks of using bacon powder in a cocktail, anyway???). The wine list isn't terribly long but has some clever and eclectic options. They do their best to highlight some Michigan wines, and I had a glass of the Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir, as well as the Chilean Miguel Torres Cabernet Sauvignon rosé (which, as our wonderful server William noted, are finally coming out of the shadow of White Zin).

Self-described as "an urban restaurant with international cuisine," Atlas Global Bistro utilizes influences from all over the globe to create innovative, pan-ethnic dishes that are each more impressive than the one before. Everything is made from scratch and shipped in daily (which is why some of the DRW menu items weren't available--they hadn't arrived yet)--this is due to a painfully small freezer and lack of storage space, which means for you that everything is fresh and the menu is constantly changing to reflect availability. Yes, this means that if you go to Atlas once and find a new favorite dish you might never see it on the menu again, but as building owner Joel Landy so succinctly put it, "You don't go to Atlas to find your favorite dish; you go to Atlas to find your next favorite dish."

The DRW menu at Atlas might just be the most impressive yet, though I feel like I say that about each new restaurant I visit so just take it as a positive thing, m'kay?

Detroit Restaurant Week Menu
September 18-27, 2009
$27.00 exclusive of tax and gratuity
(1/2 bottles of select wines will also be offered at special DRW pricing)

Moroccan Marinated Greens
(Leafy Watercress, Chopped Romaine Heart, Orange, Candied Almond, Twirl of Tete du Moine Cheese, Spiced Vinaigrette)
Heirloom Caprese Salad
(Sliced Garden Tomatoes, Sweet Basil, Fresh Mozzarella, Pesto Vinaigrette)
Professor Rockman’s Feta
(Flakey Pastry Filled with Potatoes, Peas and Carrots. With a Mild Yellow Curry-Cilantro Yogurt Sauce)
Indian Samosa
(Flakey Pastry Filled with Potatoes, Peas and Carrots. With a Mild Yellow Curry-Cilantro Yogurt Sauce)


Crispy Skin Barramundi
(Pan Seared Farm Raised White Fish with Artichoke-Potato Hash, Concasse Tomato,
Sweet Basil Beurre Blanc)
Pikes Peak Lollipops
(Char-Grilled Lamb. Wilted Baby Spinach. California Fig Jam. Port Wine Veal Reduction. Crispy Onion)
Manchester Farms Pan Roasted Quail
(Marinated South Carolina Quail, Fried Hominy Cake, Wilted Young Pea Tendrils, Bourbon-Walnut Conserve)


Mexican Chocolate Brulee
(Smooth Dark Chocolate, Spiced Custard with a Crunchy Caramel Coating)

Raspberry Sorbet
(Frozen Raspberry Ice with Lemon Compote Finished with a Drizzle of Limoncello)