Central Park South: now, there’s an address. In a city where “location, location, location” is a mantra intoned more often than “Om,” it has quite a ring, evoking the mythical kingdom of Eloise, penthouse fêtes with Cole Porter playing, and the view that serves as Donald Trump’s favorite architectural detail. And why not? For here’s a vista that bespeaks wealth and limitless possibility.
But only from above the seventh floor. Have you ever actually walked on Central Park South? Unless you’re playing racquetball at the New York Athletic Club or taking Aunt Doris for a sorry ride in a hansom cab, exactly what would you be doing on these three blocks? Look north from a ground-floor perch on Central Park South. It is startling in its banality. The scene is worse yet at night. Twenty feet west of the Plaza, it is unimaginably lifeless; the only discernible energy is in Mickey Mantle’s, with most of that coming from the television. No wonder the décor at Whiskey Park, San Domenico, and Alain Ducasse obliterates the outside. Live on C.P.S.? You betcha. Play on C.P.S.? You might as well try to get up a game of stickball on Beekman Place.
Alas, it is hardly the rosy picture the proprietors of Atlas could have imagined when they opened a year ago. Walk in, and you sense that the management is still not sure what didn’t hit them. They thought they had the address. They had the reviews. They may have overdecorated (there is enough interior architecture in this odd-angled space to fill two Gwathmey Siegel beach houses), but the chairs are screening-room comfortable and the lighting could shave six years off of Brooke Astor.
The buzz didn’t happen, though, and the lack of street traffic didn’t help, so things are still too still on both sides of the glass. The owner rearranges table settings as if she were expecting a state dinner, and she’s endlessly circled by a wait staff that knows and cares with nail-biting intensity. God, do they want to wait on you! Give them a dish to serve and a profusion of information pours forth concerning every morsel. With a caramelizing here and a reduction there, here a foam, there a foam, and everything’s a tone poem. Call it overcompensating, call it nervousness, but call it off. If they can’t relax, they need to hide it better.
Because there is a lovely, heartfelt restaurant here waiting to be rediscovered. And once the cascade of cooking data subsides, it becomes apparent that the source of this fervency is the often fascinating cooking of new chef Paul Liebrandt and new pastry chef Natalia Andalo. Though both are prone to toppling a plate with too many elements, they are also open to the kind of risk-taking that elicits cheering from the sports bar down the street.
After my years of literally swallowing the homeopathic conviction that licorice is the root of all health, the prospect of sipping parsley soup seasoned with the sticky elixir prompted a fit of involuntary grimacing. But Liebrandt pulls off the delicate balancing act: The licorice intensifies the parsley’s refreshing aroma. With the same cheeky spunk he tempers the brine of freshwater eel with barely sweet watermelon and crystallized violets, or adds a few drops of maple to the vinaigrette he washes over baby greens. Unfortunately, Liebrandt sometimes veers toward the overproduced. Rosettes of raw big-eye tuna with coy little hats of Granny Smith apple ravioli sitting amidst swirls of lime purée and soy vinaigrette is such a throwback to the infancy of nouvelle, it should be served only to someone with shoulder pads and frosted hair.
Such deftness with unexpectedly appealing combinations – like a tempura of rouget and langoustines sparked by pink grapefruit and seaweed, and a croquette of pig’s trotters in an unanticipated, sumptuous foam of cucumber-and-anchovy chutney – practically begs for the element of surprise. Impressive as the waiters’ dissertations may be, their exhaustiveness inadvertently acts as a dampening tip-off. Guys, let your chef have a little mystery. Let your diners have a little fun.
Victimized by too many hors d’oeuvre at badly produced black-tie events, my appreciation of salmon has been virtually shattered. But my faith was temporarily restored with the sweet-sharp tang of a wild king salmon, braised in a densely flavored but almost weightless curry of pumpkin with clams. Almost equally invigorating is a poached chicken, sliced into strips atop a mound of basmati rice but bathed in a potion of tarragon and chestnuts. Wild striped bass can’t match the salmon, but dismissing its delicate red-pepper saffron stew is like demeaning a perfectly tailored three-piece suit for not having the glamour of an evening gown. The tagliatelle of cèpes and scallops needs just a few whiffs less of truffle “perfume” to be the lightest dish on the menu, the cut on the cannon of lamb turns out a bit tough, its braised artichokes and coffee-cardamom jus making for busy partners. Fillet of beef, however, is worth relishing in a sweet-and-sour purée of roasted carrot and horseradish.
Despite the penchant for sweetness in earlier courses, desserts never turn saccharine. Quince can become cloying as easily as a room with three Laura Ashley pillows. But Andalo’s quince tart is brashly good with a kick of star-anise panna cotta. Chai tea ice-cream soda? With vanilla-clove soda, and chocolate-orange sorbet? It’s a Sandra Bernhardt punch line waiting to happen, but it’s dumbfoundingly good. The airy chocolate-soufflé tart is anchored by dried plums, and a fig-and-almond-butter cake gets so lush and lovely when drenched in a syrup of warm port that Cole Porter could have written a lyric about it. Eloise might have fantasized about it. Donald Trump might order a truckload of it. But would they enjoy it as much on Central Park South in a room without a view? Probably not, but they’re dilettantes. Show them, and the folks at Atlas, you’re a truer New Yorker than any of them ever were. Eat – and love it – on the ground floor. Okay, sit with your back to the window, if you have to.