Where ‘the usual’ is anything but
Atlas Eats treats its regulars to an international variety of fine dining
Psaria me maratho
Atlas Eats and Bake Shop
2185 N. Clinton Ave.
The first time he takes you to his favorite restaurant, it’s lovely. The waitress knows him by name, bringing him a gin and tonic without even asking. You agonize over the three specials, but when it comes time for him to order, all he says is “the usual.” You don’t think much of it because you are swept up in a dining experience that is right on point. The chef himself even brings out a complementary off-menu appetizer and thanks you for coming again.
The fifth time he takes you to this place, it’s becoming an issue. “There are so many great places in Rochester to eat,” you plead. “Would you like to try one of them?”
He’s unapologetic. “They know me here and know what I like. I get a great meal, and I don’t even have to think about it.”
By the eighth time, you’re ready to end the relationship. It’s a shame because he’s everything you’ve been looking for—brains, humor, charm, musical tastes, and a temperament that makes you feel safe and loved. But this restaurant thing! To your relief, he doesn’t want to lose you after all. Reluctantly, he agrees to eat dinner at a different place.
You’ve been hearing good things about Atlas Eats in Irondequoit. By day, it’s a mild-mannered bakery and lunch spot. On Friday and Saturday nights, it becomes an intimate bistro serving five-course meals. The menu is prix fixe, meaning you pay one price ($39 a person) for a five-course meal. Every two weeks, the menu changes to feature a different part of the world. The courses are served to all tables at the same time like the acts of a play. This week’s performance is titled “A Mediterranean Island Tour” and includes dishes from Mallorca, Corsica, Sicily, Crete, and Cyprus.
Perfect, he says, but with a worrisome lack of enthusiasm.
You make reservations and arrive at a designated time. There is a small line at the front door. Seating happens at the same time, at it takes a few minutes for patrons to find their places at a dozen small tables packed into the public area of the bakery. It seems cramped at first, but becomes more cozy as you settle into your chair. The décor is pure 1940s, with a checkered linoleum floor, leaded windows, tin ceiling, and a collection of antique maps on the walls and in the bathrooms. Atlas Eats could be the posh lounge at a swing-era airport as you wait on a twin-prop passenger plane to whisk you off to Peoria.
Then, something happens that never happens in other restaurants. An older woman at a neighboring table catches your attention and asks your partner if this is his first time here. There’s a moment of confusion, but his face brightens up. He jokes about how he was dragged kicking and screaming out of his favorite place to try something new. The lady gives him a knowing look and says, “This is our favorite place. My husband brings me every other week.”
Out comes the bread and a quartino of Assyrtiko, a white wine with hints of acidic volcanic minerals from the ashy soil of Santorini. A server sets down a small bowl of olive oil and offers a slice of several kinds of bread, all excellent and baked in-house. Over the counter, you can see a half-dozen staff setting up identical rows of trampo, an heirloom tomato salad with a red pepper tapenade. It tastes like a fresh dollop of gazpacho. You each add chilled gulf shrimp ($9) that has a nice, firm pop.
Next is fasgioli incu funghi, a Corsican soup that elevates Rochester’s favorite Italian “greens and beans.” White beans and local mushrooms in porcini sauce share the stage with swiss chard from the Pachamama Farm in Farmington. It’s a farm-to-table flourish the menu makes little fuss about. The pasta dish follows, a compact nest of freshly made spaghetti noodles with tomato and basil. The noodles are fat and irregular, their nutty flavor more vivid than the reconstituted dry spaghetti you keep in the cupboard. Clearly impressed, your partner keeps asking the lady next to you what she thinks.
The performance climaxes with psaria me maratho, a Crete-style fillet of swordfish served with fennel and a tall puck of saffron rice. The dense flesh cuts like a steak, and peppery lemon glaze gets out of the way of this fine cut of fish.
Finally, dessert! Loukoumades are fluffy potato puffs from Cyprus drizzled with buckwheat honey and a scoop of pressed yogurt that makes you wonder if the “Greek” kind you get at the supermarket has been leading you astray. The coffee comes out in retro 1970s coffee mugs, the embossed glass globes your parents could order from Nescafé.
“I really like this place!” he says as you walk back to the car. “Did you hear what that lady said to us? She comes here all the time!”
It looks like your partner has found a new favorite spot. At least you won’t have to worry about finding something good on the menu that you haven’t tried. Atlas Eats is an unusual dining experience in a market saturated with trendy copycats. A rotating menu gives the restaurant a new opportunity to introduce itself to the public every two weeks—and keeps its regular customers on their toes. A planned five-course meal creates a collective experience for its patrons that’s more like a theater production than the isolated tables of a traditional restaurant. You eat only what the kitchen decides to serve that night. You get a great meal and “don’t even have to think about it.”
Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.