Atlas Bistro has reinvented itself with a constantly evolving menu focusing on classic French techniques

Atlas Bistro is one of those local gems that's had a cult following from the start, but now there's a new reason to love it. Actually, make that two reasons: chefs Brandon Crouser and Joshua Riesner.

Established in 2002, the tiny BYOB connected to AZ Wine Co. has long impressed culinary fanatics and wine geeks alike with its sophisticated international fare, laid-back atmosphere, and — no surprise — close proximity to an amazing selection of wine. (Considering how much wine can jack up the bill at restaurants with a liquor license, the ease of buying bottles at retail also makes dinner at Atlas feel like a deal, even if the menu is still high-end.)

When the restaurant got started, founding chef-owner Carlos Manriquez turned heads with creative Southwestern-inspired dishes. He eventually branched out beyond the Atlas kitchen, helping to launch Tempe's popular Mucho Gusto Taqueria & Mexican Bistro, as well as the now-defunct Twisted.

Two's company: Chefs Joshua Riesner (left) and Brandon Crouser are the creative team behind Atlas Bistro.
Jackie Mercandetti
Two's company: Chefs Joshua Riesner (left) and Brandon Crouser are the creative team behind Atlas Bistro.

Location Info

Map

Atlas Bistro

2515 N. Scottsdale Road, Ste. 18
Scottsdale, AZ 85257

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: South Scottsdale

Details

Penn Cove mussels: $15
Gazpacho: $10
Filet mignon trio: $30
Coconut cheesecake: $10
480-990-2433, »web link
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Atlas Bistro, 2515 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

But at the beginning of this year, Manriquez's partners, Todd Sawyer and Chad Withycombe, bought out his share of the businesses. Manriquez, a free spirit, left to travel the world.

"I'm surprised he stayed as long as he did," says Sawyer. "Last time I talked to him, he just got back from Spain." Now he's working on private yachts in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.

In the past year or so, and especially in the wake of Manriquez's departure, Atlas Bistro has been phasing out the Southwestern and occasional Asian influences that dominated the menu. Instead, Crouser and Riesner have been focusing on classic French techniques and clever presentations of such things as caviar, foie gras, sweetbreads, pheasant, and rabbit.

They've also begun offering tasting menus, and catering to a distinguished crowd of wine enthusiasts, who show up with $2,000 bottles of Bordeaux, treating the restaurant like a speakeasy. Luckily, anyone can be an insider here.

Crouser, previously at House of Tricks and LGO Hospitality, has been at Atlas for almost four years, since around the time that Manriquez stopped physically cooking there and started other restaurant projects. Riesner came onboard about a year and a half ago, after having worked in Las Vegas at the celebrated Daniel Boulud Brasserie and Pinot Brasserie, as well as Scottsdale's Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar.

The two chefs have evolved into a dynamic team, with Crouser handling entrees and Riesner coming up with soups, salads, and desserts. Nowadays, they add and subtract things every day, making Atlas Bistro one of a handful of local restaurants that change the menu constantly. Even within the same night, Sawyer says, three people could have the tasting menu and all of them would be different.

"Some people come in and say, 'Take away the menu and just feed us,'" he adds. Although the tasting menu is described as a seven-course feast, in reality, it can be tailored to customers' mood and appetite.

But even the regular menu is enough to inspire a sense of adventure. Though the atmosphere is just as simple and convivial as it's always been — a few colorful canvases dramatically illuminated on cream-colored walls, curvy wood and wrought iron chairs, and upbeat jazz music occasionally punctuated by a little punk rock from the kitchen — the real excitement is in the food. (Impressively, the servers here seem to know every exquisite detail by heart, even though Crouser and Riesner concoct new dishes all the time.)

On a recent visit, some friends and I marveled at the creativity and deliciousness of it all, and the good mood started with an amuse bouche: a soft, warm fig filled with gooey Gorgonzola and drizzled with saba.

Tender veal sweetbreads, dressed up with prosciutto, capers, and sage, made an even better saltimbocca than ordinary veal. Plump Penn Cove mussels were steeped in an aromatic lemongrass green curry broth that had an immediate lip-smacking appeal, followed by a slow heat that kicked in after a few seconds. And truffle Parmesan gnocchi Romana were delicate and lightly browned, paired with a jumble of wild mushrooms, wilted greens, and a pale, faintly sweet corn coulis.

Each course was moderately sized, more about interesting combinations than gut-filling quantity, so we made it through four courses apiece without overdoing it (although by dessert we'd definitely slowed down). While our starters were like rich mini-entrees, round two was focused on crisp, fresh flavors.

Ripe, juicy heirloom tomatoes were spiked with basil pistou sauce and Black Mesa Ranch goat cheese, with a crisp piece of grilled bacon on top. Moist smoked Carolina trout was paired with a kicky salad of mizuna, pickled red onion, and tart yuzu wasabi dressing. As for the gazpacho, it was the tastiest I've had in ages, made with tomato and char-grilled watermelon, and accompanied by blue cornmeal-dusted calamari. An icy shot of celery granita made a refreshing counterpoint to the warm, barely crisp squid.

Despite Atlas Bistro's evolution, there's a dish that's been on the menu since the early days: ginger-cured duck breast. I'm glad, because it was outstanding. The crispy skin, in particular, was a highlight, as was the hibiscus red wine reduction, studded with cherries that looked like rubies by candlelight. Mixed wild mushrooms grounded the savory components of the dish, while citrus risotto kept it light and more summer-appropriate. On top were some fun, crispy Parmesan bits. Yep, the duck is a keeper.

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