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.
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.
Pan-fried caper halibut was straightforward in comparison, a golden fillet resting on tangy mussel and squid brodette (filled with chunks of squash, zucchini, and tomato) with fingerling potatoes and crispy caramelized onion slivers. Much more intricate was the filet mignon trio, served on a four-sectioned plate. There was paper-thin carpaccio, sprinkled with crunchy wheat berries; a slice of Argentinian matambre (herb-flecked game sausage rolled in steak) on a pool of wine reduction; and a juicy grilled piece of filet with fresh asparagus and crab-filled hollandaise. In the fourth corner was a single crunchy onion ring and a squiggle of homemade ketchup.
Ever the hedonist, I had to order foie gras for dessert. And, yes, this seared lobe from La Belle farms was the perfect vehicle for sugar high-inducing apple butter and a tiny oatmeal-raisin waffle. Those accompaniments were great, but ultimately it worked because the buttery foie was cooked just right.
It was a hot and steamy night, so my friends' choices had a refreshing appeal. The pistachio-crusted goat cheese "Moon Pie," served with saba-braised strawberries, was yet another cheeky interpretation of a classic, resembling postmodern sculpture more than the iconic marshmallow sandwich. And coconut cheesecake, as light as mousse, floated on a wafer-thin island of chocolate graham-cracker pretzel, surrounded by a pool of eye-opening mango-guava coulis.
All the way to the last aching bite of dessert, we were pleased with what we ordered for dinner.
Next time, though, I might have them just take away the menu and feed me.