THERE’S SOMETHING to be said for a restaurant that offers something for everyone, and this is absolutely true of the Peter Levy/Jeremy Hardy troika of Seattle standbys. Wherever did we take our motley parties of white trash cousins and vegetarian in-laws and snooty neighbors and annoying children before the Jitterbug Cafe (n饠Beeliner Diner), 5-Spot Cafe, and Coastal Kitchen came along? Big accessible menus, relatively affordable prices, jolly theatrics from the staff, and neighborhood-anchor locations quickly established these outposts as easy and indispensable as—well, Denny’s, a restaurant to which I once likened the 5-Spot in print (which I haven’t heard the end of since, in case you’ve ever wondered who the 5-Spot’s “Kathryn’s Grand Slam Breakfast” was named for).
Atlas Foods 2813 University Village, 522-6025 9am -10pm daily MC, V; full bar
Doubtless Levy and Hardy were miffed at the comparison; the 5-Spot, after all, features a rotating menu of American regional food of some pretension. Now comes their fourth Seattle venture, Atlas Foods, which embodies their highest reach yet. At University Village, in the dear departed Asia Grille space, Atlas Foods offers a core menu of down-home/south-of-the-borderish stuff, plus a special seasonal menu honoring a rotating world cuisine—Parisian, on my visits—at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The place is slicker, higher-end, and definitely higher-priced than their others (dinners range from $11.50 -$19.50).
So there’s a big difference between Denny’s and Atlas Foods, Mssrs. Levy and Hardy: A diner might be forgiven for bringing expectations to Atlas.
At times those expectations served me well. Heeding the recommendation of the first of three refreshingly opinionated waiters I was to encounter, I began my first dinner with the Bleu Sallat ($5.50) and loved the interplay of the fresh, crackling romaine strips with the chunks of blue cheese and tart white balsamic vinaigrette. Off the core menu, my roast chicken dinner ($14.50) was solid: a golden, springtime preparation bright with rosemary and sharp with garlic, and festooned with crunchy pea pods and baby carrots.
A bowl of French onion soup ($5.50) off the Parisian menu was similarly solid: Rich beef stock and caramel-y onions were encased in a thick crust of bread and Gruy貥.
The best food we encountered in the whole place were a couple of appetizers off of the core menu. Rosemary skewered prawns ($9.50), though slightly overgrilled and served lukewarm, were flavorful in the extreme and served atop a towering haystack of crunchy shredded potatoes that had been welded to the plate with a little mashed potato “glue.” “The haystack kept falling over,” the waitress explained. OK, so it was kind of weird—it was really good.
Even better was the queso fundito ($6.50), an appetizer in which poblano chiles, pumpkin seeds, and goat cheese were whipped into a nutty emerald paste for dipping Atlas’ homemade corn chips. The subtlety of this dip, crowned with a scoop of goat cheese and a fistful of oily pine nuts, was impressive, the eating nothing but fun.
Alas, these starters were followed by a couple of real disappointments. My crab club ($11.75) featured fresh Dungeness crab between its layers of toasted potato bread, grilled ham, and scallion aioli—but not so you’d notice. This was an ill-conceived sandwich with the wrong mix of flavors; it tasted like nothing but ham. The simple salad that accompanied it was simply a mistake; what was supposed to be a little romp of seasonal lettuces dressed with herbs in lemon vinaigrette tasted solely of salt.
MEANWHILE, ACROSS the table, my companion was engaged in a wrestling match with his ribeye with Roquefort butter ($19.50). “Too much gristle!” he complained. This spendy steak was also served tepid and accompanied by pommes gaufrettes, potato chips’ first cousins, rather than the more satisfying pommes frites.
Dessert ended things on an up note, thank goodness—particularly the Sacre Coeur cr갥 ($4.75) off of the Parisian menu, which was appropriately featherweight and filled with creamy cherry-chocolate flake ice cream. A mile-high slice of apple pie ($5.25) topped with brown sugar streusel and vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce, was marvelous, as was a thick slice of the old Beeliner three-layer coconut cake ($5.50), for those who like such things.
We made our third visit in the morning, reasoning that Atlas Foods was effectively built on the breakfast successes of its predecessors and must therefore put some energy into that endeavor. Alas, things were just as hit-and-miss. A plate of pain perdu ($7.50), French toast the French way, was dry and lackluster and (how many adjectives are there for this?) lukewarm. It came with a garnish of second-rate strawberries, which is always a little indignity.
The omelet Parisian ($8.25) was stuffed with ch趲e, fresh sage, and roasted tomatoes; it was unexpectedly bland and too runny. The herb-roasted potatoes beside it hadn’t been cooked through. But the strawberry scone ($1.75) we ordered with it was moist and grand.
Finally we sampled a scramble of Andouille sausage, crawdad tails, corn, jack cheese, and a whole mess of seasonings called Uncle Barry’s Backyard Breakfast Brawl ($8.25). (The prose does go a little purple on the Atlas Foods menu.) This spicy, cheesy little number wasn’t bad—although I’m still scratching my head about the corn—but the hash browns and toast beside it were about as interesting as mattress stuffing, and the whole plate arrived, say it with me now, lukewarm.
Errors like that—tepid food, salty salads, gristly steak, beige strawberries—are the saddest for a restaurant critic to report; they are so correctable. Levy and Hardy are pros; in creating a spankin’ new setting for their cool restaurant and then including some impressive conceptions on their menus, they’ve conquered the hard stuff. Now if they could only whip some consistency into the kitchen, they’d be addressing the important stuff.
Perhaps the kitchen simply needs a little down time; quality is tough to sustain when you’re churning out breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Ask Denny’s.