By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 27, 2011; W28
Visitors to the Atlas Room are in for a couple of surprises, not the least of which is an alluring dining space more or less hidden from view by outside construction as the city slowly plants streetcar rails on H Street NE.
A look past the barriers reveals a narrow dining room with a long banquette on one side and shimmery green draperies on the other, plus a flotilla of flickering votives atop bare tables (because what new restaurants bother with linens anymore?). The handsome framed maps on display do triple duty: They stand in for art, they support a menu without borders and they evoke the multiethnic neighborhood.
Open since November, the Atlas Room in the Atlas District reunites two chefs, owner Matt Cordes, 36, and chef de cuisine Bobby Beard, 37, friends since they worked together at Vidalia downtown more than a dozen years ago. Between the two, they have 36 years of cooking experience, including 701 (Cordes) and Vermilion (Beard).
You won't be handed a typical menu. The chefs' dishes are arranged not by appetizer, main course and dessert but rather by ingredient. Thus "Seafood," the first theme on the menu, is trailed by a salad, a soup and a grilled piece of fish, each a bit bigger and a bit more expensive than the preceding.
You'd be smart to start with that salad. It's one of the chefs' best efforts. The base is oiled Israeli couscous threaded with bits of bell pepper, onion and cucumber, a cake atop which sit tender squid, shrimp and sweet mussels. Filling out the elegant plate are shards of papadum, the crackery Indian bread made from lentil flour. They add delightful punctuation to the multiple soft textures.
Cordes and Beard also make an enlightened fish chowder. Instead of the usual bog of ingredients, their version is built from white wine, shellfish stock and only a suggestion of cream, all of which is reduced and becomes a delicate canvas for diced cobia on the bottom of the bowl.
Fritters make a couple of appearances in different categories. Ground lamb in shells made golden and spicy with yogurt and a cabinet of Middle Eastern seasonings, is ill-served by overdressed celery root, while the chicken croquettes are overwhelmed by mashed potatoes. "They taste vegetarian," a friend said after trying the snack.
Yet chicken was put on a pedestal in an entree-size serving of pan-seared chicken breast, each slice packed with savor from a spice-filled brine. Gnocchi, apples and the chefs' own pomegranate molasses enhance what is good on the plate.
Hazelnuts in mashed potatoes? They work, I discovered while eating them in the company of some peppery pork loin and roasted Brussels sprouts. I have yet to be won over by the crust of the flatbread, but pinches of goat cheese, forkfuls of pork, glossy Italian parsley and pureed squash on top keep me amused. House-made hats of pasta fattened with juicy short rib come three to an order; unless you want fork marks on your hand, I suggest ordering a couple of plates if you're eating with company.
The Atlas Room delivers on the vegetarian front, with a bubbling gratin of root vegetables, apples and molten Gruyere cheese beneath a cover of crisped bread crumbs, and an Indian-inspired bowl of chickpeas fragrant with curry and walnut pesto. The latter amounts to a lot of fiber; scaling back its portion would make it more appealing.
From the intime bar in the back, set off with stone walls and lights that would look at home on "Mad Men," flow some sublime cocktails. The balanced mai tai dispels that cocktail's image as cloying and classless; its pisco sour, frothy with egg whites and bright with fresh lime, is an $11 pit stop in Peru.
Desserts are recited rather than printed, and there are usually three. None of what I've sampled has been worth finishing, and that has been true of a lot of places where I dine. Restaurateurs should remember that desserts are their last chance to make a favorable impression. Unsolicited advice, particularly for those kitchens that don't stock pastry chefs: Why not just make one great cake or pie or pudding, and trust there will be takers?
Two hundred thousand dollars is a drop in a coupe when it comes to staging a restaurant, but that's the amount Cordes says he spent to retrofit the former Napa 1015 and make it his own. This diner is impressed by how much luxury and romance he imbues in the place, not to mention how the first-time restaurant owner makes the most of a small situation. (The office, coat closet and wine are hidden from view by those lovely draperies.)
Work-night dinners have been quiet in these early months, but you want to have a confirmed table on weekends. "Hi-I-hope-you-have-a-reservation?" my party was greeted by a harried host on a Saturday not long ago.
He ought to have that problem Tuesday through Thursday, too. The most ambitious kitchen on H Street NE deserves a full house every night.
Two stars (Good)
The Atlas Room, 1015 H St. NE 202-388-4020. theatlasroom.com
Open: Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Major credit cards. Parking lot on 10th Street NE.
Prices: Small to large dishes $6 to $23.
Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.