Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: An Old Classic Flies to New Places

The duo of Chula Seafood hiramasa.
The duo of Chula Seafood hiramasa. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
To get to Atlas Bistro, you first step into Arizona Wine Company, past dimly lit racks of bottles. Atlas is tucked away on one side: an austere room with white tablecloths, not many tables, small vases on them, and rotating art on plain walls. Jazz plays. Wine decants. Shadows project.

Todd Sawyer converses. Host and part-owner, Sawyer will lead you to your seat. He is a genuine and resourceful host in an age of artificial restaurant interactions. Seated, you feel the stress of the day slide away, replaced by an intense and cradling intimacy more old-time European than modern Arizonan.

And then, the food comes.

Though Atlas Bistro has been around since 2001, Chef Cory Oppold is creating fiercely modern dishes worth your time now. What he is doing feels fresh and vital: plating food into compositions more abstract art or futurism than dinner. Textbook-looking rectangles of smoked fish. Geometric circles of colored sauce. A thin tube of celery root squiggling from neon salmon. A wagyu cube offset on the plate and adorned with a rainbow of tiny vegetables. Drawing on his French-driven style, Oppold drills to the next level when it comes to the small but divine culinary details. His plates (usually) taste as good as they look.

click to enlarge Part-owner Todd Sawyer and Chef Cory Oppold. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Part-owner Todd Sawyer and Chef Cory Oppold.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
But they rapidly change. His $65, three-course menu — the only way you can eat here — rifles through iterations. It flows into artful new compositions, tracking the produce seasons and the ideas that flicker through the chef’s mind.

“I get bored really quickly,” Oppold says. “By the time we get a dish down to where we want it, we change it again.”

A lot of big-name chefs have come through Atlas. Before his time captaining the kitchen, Oppold cooked under a lot of big names himself. He says his time with Ivan Flowers at A Different Pointe of View and then L’Auberge de Sedona shaped his cooking style most. That style is highly attuned to dramatic visuals, including color and negative space on the plate, but is also refreshingly creative, thoughtful, and driven by sound culinary technique.

Oppold always starts you with a playful amuse-bouche.

A tiny cup of cantaloupe soup, chilled and frothy and tinted with thyme, lasts for just a sip or three. An opener of this lush nature kicks open your appetite, and your mind, to the possibilities of the coming courses (which you choose).

First: a duo of Chula Seafood hiramasa looks almost like a Rothko painting. Sauces form glossy circles around the straight-edged fish: yuzu mayo emulsified with tofu (white) and relish made from charred cucumber (green). A 24-hour cure and then applewood smoking showcase the hiramasa from a lightly musky perspective. And the second piece, a meaty sail of sashimi darkly snowed with smoked nori, views the densely fleshy fish from an ashy angle.

click to enlarge Time flies in this tiny, low-lit dining room. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Time flies in this tiny, low-lit dining room.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Another first course is simpler but exalts its central ingredient in a similarly roundabout way. The ingredient: poached pear. The fruit gets a rustic-but-regal pairing with goat’s milk ricotta, which Oppold makes with heat, salt, sugar, and lemon juice. Summer figs and toasted almonds layer in texture, seasonality.

In size, the courses get bigger from here. One of the knocks on Atlas is that it may take a while between courses. If you do dessert, your meal can easily take more than two hours, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re ready for it. Time flies in the tiny, low-lit dining room, and BYO wine seems to vanish quickly.

Things get groovier with course two. A circle of pink saucisson, a take on a kind of French sausage, appears pink and mottled on the plate center. Vertically, a calculated motley of components arc up one side, including nectarine mostarda and “sweet and sour fennel.”

Serving the dish, Sawyer quips that it’s a “fancy hot dog.” He’s right, but not in the way he means. Pork timid, mostarda lacking its usual electric tang, this one is a slight miss.

Other second courses fare better. Oppold uses the traditional French method to cook duck confit ... and then sculpts it into a rectangle using transglutaminase, a meat glue, reattaching the bird’s crackly skin to the top. It is deeply ornate and tender, burnished to a deep sepia. It’s good from the first bite but grows on you anyway. And it’s offset with another object of masonry: a brick made of homestyle stuffing.

click to enlarge Tender is the veal tenderloin. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Tender is the veal tenderloin.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
As the meal steadily unwinds, Oppold’s aesthetic, seemingly at odds with the plain room and jazz, simply jives with everything. Oppold’s imaginative bent keys into the spirit of the room with rotating wall art; his French technique provides a bridge to the Old World charm of the small room, adept service, and white tablecloths. “Atlas bistro,” invoking the small, originally Parisian category of eatery, is well named.

And not just for “bistro,” but for “Atlas.” “Atlas” can refer to the book of maps or the Greek Titan who holds up the world. Global influences beyond Gallic creep into Oppold’s cooking. Oppold shapes udon noodles to heap beside halibut fragrant with miso. He imbues vermicelli with Vietnamese flavors (mint, peanut, chile) on a plate with a “spring roll.” The roll is thin butternut squash poached in a ginger-flavored liquid until pliable, then rolled around peanut mousse. I don’t think you can find a better spring roll in town.

Nothing exemplifies Atlas in 2019 better than Oppold’s veal, a third course that will hang an extra $5 on your tab.

The veal appears in a broken line across a horizontal plate. Two rounds of rosy veal loin on the flanks. A fried veal cheek between. Ornamenting the plate are brutally minimalistic touches, just one or two each, of curling asparagus slivers, whole green spears, dried tomatoes, and sauces — including a circle of thick tomato jus under the veal cheek. The cheek is slightly creamy and fall-apart tender, just jammed with rich flavor.

Its crisp-fried jacket is hot as hell, but you may eat through the roof-of-mouth burning.

click to enlarge The petite beignets can be worth the wait. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The petite beignets can be worth the wait.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The star of this barely asymmetrical dish, however, is tomato two ways — both on the margins. Oppold begins by peeling tomatoes and giving them a confit. He lays them on a bed of aromatics (like garlic and thyme) and dehydrates them for 12 hours. From the confit, the tomatoes flavor an oil that he emulsifies into a tomato jus — the richly fruity, mustard-colored sauce slicked under the veal cheek. The overnight-oven-dried tomato itself finds its way to the plate: one tiny wedge to one side. It might be your best bite of the evening.

You should eat at Atlas to see where the Valley’s food has been. You should eat at Atlas to see where food is going.

Atlas Bistro
2515 North Scottsdale Road, #18, Scottsdale
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday

Three-course tasting menu $65
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy