As I was approaching, my dining companion texted me to say we were going to starve to death. My impression of the menu online had not been that far off that assessment.... but I have been to Cosme. I know chef Enrique Olvera is ridiculously talented enough to pull some serious magic out of the sombrero, so I was actually pretty sure that in the end, we would depart both sated and satisfied. I was right.
Atla opened up about three months ago as a more casual, accessible venture compared to Cosme, it's big, fancier sister in the Flatiron. The room is about as small as the menu, and the space is not necessarily that expertly utilized: round tables that are much too small to handle their load of plates when sharing multiple plates is kind of the only way to approach the menu don't utilize every square inch, and with these close quarters, that needs to happen. But vast plate glass windows give an ample glimpse of open sky, and pale grey walls of sparkly marble provide a sleek and soothing backdrop for the vibrant food to come. The noise level is what they'd call lively- you may or may not enjoy the 80's/90's soundtrack, but you could kind of sing along without disturbing much of any one too much one way or another, what with all the conversation noise, kitchen rumblings and probably a little automobile traffic filtering in from outside as well. So conversation might be held to a minimum, and neither is it the best date food, either- most if it was spicy enough to make my nose run a little, and other bites were unwieldy and/or challenging to navigate. Company you're not trying to impress too much might be a better choice, but any food-savvy diner would have trouble not
appreciating the flavors encountered. Like a tangle of nopales and mache which clumped together in a zesty dressing dusted with queso Bianco that you ended up having to twirl somewhat like spaghetti, some trailers might not make it into your mouth on the first go. But slurp them in with the assistance of a thick, profoundly corny corny chip, lick your lips and start again until it's gone, and then swab the bottom of the bowl with the deliciously fresh and pliant warm tortillas that come along gratis in a small woven basket. Chicken soup is deceptively ordinary looking, but it is a lovely
bowl of tender breast meat and large hunks a vegetables, bolstered with nubby white rice and floating rings of zippy jalapeño with a flounce of chopped cilantro. Still, it's a large bowl and took up a lot of real estate on the little table. But the worst part was the small, flat-ish spoon provided to tackle it, which was insufficient to handle more than one solid bit of poultry or vegetable and a drop broth at a time, and frankly not enough of either to eat the soup before it got unpalatably cold.
Unlike most Mexican restaurants in America, here at Atla there is no paucity of green. In fact, all of the dishes we ordered, aside from a side of mushrooms, presented green, although I saw other tables loaded with chicken enchiladas, a ruddy, soulful red and farro, wheat and quail meatballs were pooled in a thick tawny sauce.
Our ceviche was a bright, pea-pod hue with juicy cucumbers and a cool bracing brine that hid delicate ivory slips of pristine fish- absolutely refreshing and invigorating. Admittedly not a huge ceviche fan, this one was the BEST one I have ever had. The menu is just a list of dishes, but also gives a few extraneous addition options that can also be treated as sides. A sauté of mushrooms didn't really work to add to anything that we ordered, but that was perfectly okay because they were outstanding in their own right, crisped along the edges but chewy and earthy and magnificent within. They worked exceptionally well, too,
with the fish Milanese, which achieved a perfect crust of thin gold, although the fish itself might've been slightly fishy tasting. It had an impeccably delicate flake and the snappy, crisp salsa verde served alongside brightened things immensely, although I wish the filet (I'm guessing it was sole) had been slightly thicker to offer more meatiness to contrast with the crust.
There were only two dessert options, not listed on a menu but described by our waiter, so a lot was left up to the imagination. But my feeble little noggin' could never have conceived of the wonder of that moist, warm corn tamale swathed in a faintly cinnamon perfumed crema. A sugary crumble atop gave it a trompe l'oeil appearance of a cotija-dusted savory tamale. I know Cosme's husk meringue is the one that got all the ooh-la-las, but this thing (in my opinion) is nine times better and just as deceptively humble looking. The other dessert was a simple strawberries-and-cream, delightful, too, in its own right, but contributing its fresas intermittently with bite of the tamale created ad spectacular combination that make it a literal
requirement to order both desserts, and enjoy them symbiotically for as long as they are on the menu.
Atla's menu is small. So is the space. But the flavors and impact are enormous, and the price tags are more in keeping with the menu and square footage so get there sooner rather than later... if you miss that tamale you'll kick yourself all summer long.
(I can't find a phone number and I don't think they take reservations, but the space is small and the buzz is large.... so get there really early or really late to avoid a wait)