Sequel Opportunity

Be first on the block if you must, but generally, those foolish enough to dine at a restaurant during its initial month of business deserve everything they get. And then you walk into Atlantic Grill after it’s been open nine days. Busy? If this were a bake sale, the church elders would be ecstatic. Except that not only is your reservation noted, but a table awaits. You’ve hardly taken in the room when a voice from above asks whether you’d care for a cocktail. A waitress, pad poised with working pen, fields your requests for Sauza margaritas, no salt, and dirty martinis. She delivers them exactly right, hands out menus, recites specials, gives prices, asks if there are questions.

No, it’s not your imagination running away with you. You’re just witnessing the rare restaurateur who has found his formula. Unlike chain restaurants, which replicate success as a Jiffy pattern, the shrewd proprietor seldom resorts to rote, especially when previous works are thriving nearby. So details differ, menus vary, décor changes. The basis for the formula, however, is more elemental – a perceptible atmosphere, an only seemingly lighthearted focus on service, and, above all, letting the customer presume he’s always in charge.

Steve Hanson’s Blue Water Grill provides a canny, multi-tiered perspective for young Union Square regulars who’ve outgrown Coffee Shop table-bopping and would rather nod. Up on Columbus Avenue, his Ocean Grill is familial and decibelly elevated (ever notice how often dinner conversations on the West Side climax as the harangue in the last panel of a Feiffer cartoon?).

Neither concept would work at Atlantic Grill, smack in the middle of the Upper East Side, at the former site of that keeper of the flaming plaid, Jim McMullen’s. Hanson knows his new customer, though. The bar area radiates sleek-edged, boardroom sophistication; the main dining space evokes a genteel City Island; the far dining sanctum is a postmodern Oyster Bar. The last is the most desirable: The heat generated by the desperate eye movements of slightly tipsy bar singles could clot cream. And the balmy hues and soundproofing of the main area are marred by jarringly inferior chrome detailing and summerhouse-cheesy overhead lamps.

Happily, there is no skimping in the kitchen’s output. In fact, Atlantic’s menu is a well-edited roster, incorporating prevailing seafood predilections – raw bar, pan-Asian sushi bar, wood-burning grill, old-fashioned lobster house – while avoiding discordant course pairings.

Appetizers possess the most seductive hook. Crunchy and greaseless calamari are dunked in a lime-miso sauce that could be used throughout the meal. Savory slices of hickory-roasted bass are buoyed by cucumber-ginger salsa. Green-Thai-curry mussels need just a smidge more fire to cause a tempest in a clay pot. Lobster bisque is solid, but the lobster roll is mushy, gaining zippola from a pepper glaze. If all the maki had the zest of the oyster and tuna rolls, they’d rival the appetizers. Sushi options are limited but fresh, well cut, and handsomely presented.

Considering what Sparks charges for lobster, Atlantic is one of the few places where foodists can venture uptown for a bargain. For once, order your lobster grilled. It may be less drool-down-your-chin juicy, but the flavor is more exotically musky and intense.

There’s too much cleverness to the entrées. A porcini “dusting” buries the swordfish, and mahimahi (such an overrated fish! – the Sheryl Crow of seafood) disappears under a BBQ glaze. Get them grilled instead. Salmon – a fish that invites challenge – has a fortuitous herb-crusted wrapping. Red-Thai-curry “bouillabaisse” sounds too cute, but it’s messy fun. Meaty crab cakes are enhanced by fennel, free-range chicken requires no apologies from the seafood-hater in you, and there’s nothing wrong with filet mignon in spiky bourbon sauce that evicting horseradish from the mashed potatoes wouldn’t fix.

Desserts, unfortunately, seem like an afterthought. The one stroke of originality, the house sushi dessert (vanilla and banana-coconut hand rolls), strains for wit and collapses into a gooey sooey. Valhrona cake, crème brûlée, Key-lime tartlet, and the best of the lot – a Granny Smith-apple crisp – are more predictable than the glare from brass buttons on blue blazers around the room. But you should have known that before you got here. Steve Hanson did. And most everyone’s sure glad he came.

Atlantic Grill, 1341 Third Avenue, near 77th Street (988-9200). Lunch, Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 12:30 a.m. Appetizers $5.50-$9.50; entrées $14.50- $19.95. A.E., M.C., V.

Sequel Opportunity