Does any sane man or woman apprentice in the stress and rigor of a professional kitchen to be just another salmon-slinger in Manhattan? No, chefs want to be stars, shooting stars, cosmic asteroids. And in the climb to the constellation, there are inevitable blips.
I'm remembering the hideous little fence of beet-colored mashed potatoes that ringed a plate of some now forgettable viand at Lafayette, where Jean-Georges Vongerichten first zoomed above the skyscrapers. Even as a full-blown genius, Vongerichten can still send out a less-than-dazzling dish. So perhaps I should not have been so quick to write off Thomas Beres at Atlas just because of the nasty chicken-liver croquettes drizzled with curry-carrot vinaigrette at lunch one day. Misguided concept. Maybe the chef himself had neglected to taste it? Or worse, maybe he had and thought it was as good as any crab cake, a clever invention all his.
But there were also clinkers in an early first dinner that was otherwise strikingly impressive. The un-brûléed foie gras "crème brûlée," packed into an uncooked peach. The lobster red rice that tastes strangely meaty under delicious sea scallops. Still, I like the grown-up serenity of architect Larry Bogdanow's high-price-boardroom look, the staff's stab at serious forkplay, the wonderful venison osso buco with celery-root gnocchi, excellent steak, and the house-baked "pita" flanked with savory Middle Eastern grains.
By the time I check in again for dinner, three months have elapsed, and it's clear that an affluent crowd has adopted this compact cocoon just east of the iron-man action at Mickey Mantle's. Tables will still be turning after ten as the financial world's young bonus babies arrive après theater. The postgraduate staff has mastered the intricacies of the kitchen's grand allusions. Our waiter smoothly guides our choices, confessing to the Devon cream in the soup unasked, offering to bring butter or olive oil if we are not happy with the blend of fromage blanc, farmer's cheese, sweet garlic, and fines herbes as a spread on the house-baked challah. If only he didn't preface each sentence with "I think" as in "I think the chef does really well with . . ." Excuse me. If he were Julia Child, we would welcome his critique. But I really do want the savvy sommelier's opinions. Christopher Catanesi (seasoned at Gramercy Tavern and Babbo) recommends a '97 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel, just $35 and so good we order seconds.
I'm not about to risk foie gras crème brûlée again, but it comes anyway as I've been recognized and Beres apparently believes he's mastered it. Indeed he has. The huge chunk of silken foie gras, wearing the thinnest crackle of sugar, makes decadent sense now, inside the hollow of a tart apple that's properly cooked. His butternut-squash-and-pear soup is really hot and delicately balanced, poured over slivers of sweet pear-skin "cracklings." I can't help wishing the untamed brininess of sea urchin were less diluted by the creamy lobster custard sharing its spiky shell. But sherry in mushroom ragout smartly perfumes grilled quail -- the bird cutely adorned with its own sunny-side-up egg in a spiky nest of baked kataifi.
Coming out of Waldy Malouf's old stomping grounds at the Hudson River Club, Beres and his chef de cuisine brother know all the gambits to disarm the bourgeoisie about to be hit with a $100-per-person dinner tab (appetizers $10 to $16, entrées $25 to $32). Warm house-baked breads. The icy palate-cleanser -- tonight it's apple granita with bits of fruit and a last-minute splash of twenty-year-old Calvados. Truffles and farmer's market exotica: purple fingerlings and braised cabbage with the roast "wild shot" Scottish pheasant. A crunchy jasmine rice cake under perfectly steamed red snapper, topped with a frizzle of fried ginger and surrounded by a pool of carrot-lemongrass broth. Polenta two ways with a first-rate double pork chop ("The chef likes it medium-rare," says the waiter, and so do we). The pastry-wrapped black-truffle mutton button -- an upstate sheep's cheese baked to order.
What could easily balloon into unbearable pretentiousness is held in check by the chef's own ingenuous spirit and the staff's relaxed delivery. (The suave illusion is shattered when a waiter asks, "Are you guys still working on that?") Pastry chef Richard Gaetano's unabashed wit helps, too. A fabulous doughnut, with luscious apple chunks and overdosed nutmeg ice cream, is the plot of his Cider House Rules. Gone Bananas stars chocolate monkeys and banana pudding in a chocolate barrel that defies breaking or cutting. Gourmands will just have to pick it up and bite. Thank Heaven there are no discernible feet in the "Absolutely Pear-feet" -- just pear poached in champagne with black pepper and lavender, and rosemary-lemon sorbet.
Atlas, 40 Central Park South; 759 9191. Lunch, Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Monday. A.E., M.C., V.