Staff Writer Jake Tibbetts recently joined Staff Writer Danielle Mikaelian on a trip to Atlas Kitchen, the new Chinese restaurant located at 109th St. Though the service wasn’t everything that the two of them had hoped for, they both believe that the institution has quite a bit of potential—and one hell of a brilliant menu.
It takes a lot to get me to walk past 110th St. Even 109th, where the new upscale Chinese restaurant Atlas Kitchen is located, feels like a world away. When I began to notice glowing reviews of Atlas Kitchen pour in on Yelp, though, I knew that it was going to be necessary for me to try it out.
On Thursday, November 8th, I joined fellow staff writer Danielle Mikaelian for dinner at Atlas. As we walked in, we were immediately greeted by a whirlwind of appetizing aromas. We were told that we were going to need to wait about twenty minutes to be seated—just about what we expected—and we sat down near the bar. We took some time to take in the atmosphere, which can best be described as simple yet elegant. The walls were adorned with black watercolor murals, and the furniture looked as though it were lifted from a high-end New American establishment downtown.
Upon sitting down at our table, Danielle and I were greeted by a server, who filled our glasses with water. We then ordered almost immediately. To begin, I ordered the sour and spicy black and white fungus, while Danielle went with the (appropriately named, given who was doing the ordering) dan dan noodle dish. We ordered our entrées at the same time: I had the two peppers sliced beef with peanuts, and Danielle ordered the special sautéed sliced eggplant. Both main dishes were served with small bowls of white rice.
Almost immediately, we began to notice issues with service. My beef entrée arrived far before anything else did. After fifteen minutes or so, the fungus and the noodles, meant to be appetizers, arrived. It took about another half hour for Danielle’s eggplant to arrive. When it did arrive, we noticed that it wasn’t the dish that she ordered; she was given the sautéed eggplant with egg yolk instead. When we finished our meals, we waited about a half hour before we realized that no one intended to give us our check. We had to tap another server on the shoulder and ask if he could bring it to us. What was supposed to be a fairly quick two-course meal took us over two hours to work our way through. Furthermore, when we received the check, we quickly noticed that there was only one, despite the fact that we asked to split the bill as soon as we sat down. I understand that all new restaurants have some trouble with delivering great service, and I do believe that Atlas will get better as time goes on; I do have to say, though, that this put a bit of a damper on my entire dining experience.
Luckily, though, the food was, for the most part, marvelous. The beef dish was absolutely exquisite. Though it wasn’t as warm as I would have liked, the beef had a perfect texture—it almost seemed to liquidize as soon as it hit my tongue. The peppers added a kick that forced me to down my entire glass of water multiple times, and the peanuts added a crunch that paired quite well with the tender beef. The sauce that the beef was cooked in was a tad sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. Though I hate to order the same dish more than once, I could see myself getting this again if I were to return.
The “appetizers,” which came in the middle of our meal, were pretty fantastic. The dan dan noodles were, again, very sweet. This seemed to be a fairly “Americanized” dish compared to others on the menu. There was a perfect amount of sauce that left the noodles neither too dry nor too soggy, and the vegetables that were blended in complemented the flavorful other ingredients quite well. The fungus was a bit unlike anything I had tried before, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The white fungus was a bit flavorless and worked best as a palate cleanser of sorts, but the black fungus was both sour and spicy as promised. I saved this dish for the end, which was a mistake, as I wasn’t able to have more than a few bites of it. I would consider it a highlight of the meal, though; both basic and creative, the flavors clashed with everything else that I had taken in—but in the best way.
The last item to come was Danielle’s eggplant dish. This was the most underwhelming part of the meal. These fried strips of eggplant were doused in far too much oil and were far too salty. Eating them felt like eating breading that had been fried multiple times over and then soaked in some eggplant-scented solution. It was far too soggy, lacking anything close to the crunch that I expected and hoped for. Putting texture aside, the taste was a bit off, too. To paraphrase Danielle, it tasted quite good, but there was just far too much flavor for it to be enjoyable.
Walking out of the restaurant, I asked Danielle what her final thoughts were. She replied with one word (or word-like utterance): “Ehh.” I am willing to be a bit more generous. Although the service wasn’t up to par and although some dishes were a bit inferior to others, I generally enjoyed my experience at Atlas Kitchen. Though there are a number of other great Chinese restaurants in the area, Atlas Kitchen seems unique, both in terms of its classy atmosphere and in terms of its extensive and unique menu. Even if my first trip here wasn’t everything I had hoped for, I am a firm believer in second chances, and there is little doubt in my mind that Atlas will begin to live up to its full potential as time goes by. There are many, many dishes that I would love to sample—including the chicken feet, the soft-shelled turtle soup, the spicy duck with pork blood, the deep-fried pork intestine, and, of course, the creamy wintermelon—and I look forward to trying each and every one of them in the months or years ahead. If you’re a Columbia or Barnard student who is seeking good, authentic Chinese cuisine but doesn’t feel like traveling downtown, I highly recommend giving Atlas a whirl (perhaps in a few weeks, once the restaurant moves out of that fairly awkward first stage that all restaurants must pass through).
Good eats via Jake Tibbetts