September 27, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Atlantic Grill Goes West

Start with Cherrystones, yellowtail sashimi, Express roll. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Young Steve Hanson was a commodities trader before he got hooked on restaurants. That roller coaster taught him to leap fast and seasoned his moves at BRGuest. When battered Wall Streeters stopped coming to his three-star Fiamma in Soho in 2008, he shut it down. And when Mike O’Neal vacated O’Neals' in a pokey economy, Hanson saw a vast space running from 64th to 65th Street, steps from the hive of Lincoln Center’s hungry kulturati, perfect for a West Side road show of his Atlantic Grill.

White-washed brick, crisp tablecloths, Hollywood photographs. Photo: Steven Richter.

        There’s a Hanson brand: welcoming and accessible, easy music on tape, your phone number in the computer if you’re a regular. And often – at Blue Fin, Ocean, Blue Water Grill -- it starts with sushi, maki rolls, and fish, nothing daring, sea creatures even tourists are likely to know. Atlantic Grill at Lincoln Center is all that. And more. It’s especially handsome, with tall zinc topped tables in the bar, slatted ceilings muting noise above, tufted rust leather banquettes, soft light from table lamps and sexy black-and-white Hollywood photographs on whitewashed brick walls.

Cavatelli on the cusp between al dente and a bit chewy are a must-have. Photo: Steven Richter.

        At an early dinner in a prime see-all booth, table crisply clothed, our foursome shares thick cuts of yellowtail sashimi, plump perfect cherrystones on the half shell and “The Express” – a  $14 maki roll of kampachi, kim chi, daikon and chives. I find myself not wanting to surrender the chef’s complex toss of ricotta cavatelli with baby clams, chorizo, Tuscan kale and lemon oil -- the buttery toasted crumbs bringing it all together. The fiercely al dente cavatelli comes from the company canteen, Chef Chris Lim tells me later, like the bread – a sheaf of crusty rolls in a retro style from the 90s. Seared octopus with chickpeas, smoked paprika, carrot ribbons, a hit of harissa and mint is good too, although it might be better with fewer ingredients and more octopus. Either Serrano ham and figs with goat cheese or frisée with grilled bacon and pecorino croutons are happier choices.

Chef Chris White does well with caramelized scallops, gently cooked. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Four large, perfectly cooked scallops sit on a white miso purée under a light shrubbery of sugar snap peas and mizuna. (On the Fall menu it will come with celery root purée, brown butter and nutmeg in a green grape verjus with red grapes.) But I would be happy with the potato croquettes and tonight’s creamed corn with jalapeno and bacon on white polenta as my dinner.  (I want to believe the autumn replacement, cauliflower gratin with ditalinai pasta, is a healthier macaroni and cheese.) Better, I’m afraid, than slightly too cooked halibut with a too sweet Rioja sauce.

Colorado lamb rack comes the way we like it, tender and rare. Photo: Steven Richter.

        We’re back a week later with friends who often came to O’Neals before a concert or the opera. They really like an odd maki of lobster, shrimp tempura and banana wrapped in soy tissue and the Road Food Warrior’s clams. He’s on a cherrystone kick since our recent excursion to Coney Island.  His lamb chops are tender and rare, not overly gussied up – just squares of eggplant and a few pine nuts, consistently good, though at $42, near the splurge end of the entrees, $24 to $45 (for dry aged prime strip).

Farmed branzino can be bland, but the chef demands large filets. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I’m not sure where Lim picked up his fetish for sweetness in savories.  He prepped with Bouley and Laurent Tourondel and is properly fussy about product, insisting on larger branzino for bigger filets, though tonight’s is too cooked as is the chicken, which has lost most of its dark meat en route from the kitchen.

Chocolate crumb tart with bing cherries, chocolate crackle ice cream. Photo: Steven Richter.

        At the end, we’re all seduced by the marvelous 20-layer German chocolate cake with bittersweet fudge and pistachio ice cream, and the amusing ice cream bon bons – orange creamsicle and red velvet, four of each. The cute little confections don’t really need the chocolate sauce pooled in a rectangular recess in the custom dessert plate, but the wonderful warm goo is good scooped up with my finger.

Cute little frozen bon bons by pastry master Elizabeth Katz. Photo: Steven Richter.

        If you were a Fiamma fan, you may recognize the work of the prize winning pastry chef, Elizabeth Katz.  Her milk chocolate crumb tart and the voluptuous cinnamon caramel profiterole coupe seem to blur any earlier disappointments. Friends professing no interest in sweets, succumb to fresh fruit with crunchy shards of meringue – a deconstructed Vacherin – sent as a gift from the kitchen.

By 11 latecomers are eating entrees and the sushi crew gets a breather. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Saturday night my guy and I decide to stop by for a sushi omakase.  Sushi chef Boo “Mike” Lim (no relation to chef Chris Lim) comes from the fusion school of Gari and we are devoted Gari fans. We settle at the chocolate and caramel-veined marble counter where Mike, a small man in big black spectacles, directs a team whose slicing and rolling never stops.  Besides them is the shucker. The house is full and it seems every table is ordering sushi. But Mike agrees to do a tasting for us, delivered one piece at a time.

Sushi master Mike Kim does our omakase in a full dinner crush. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I finally realize the sushi bar isn’t set up for this. I’m immediately embarrassed I’ve asked. But it’s too late to retreat as Mike stands on tiptoe reaching over to present each morsel: fluke with a band of shiso brushed with key lime.  Red snapper with endive slivers and a crispy anchovy. Yellowtail with Serrano pepper and yuzu.  Lobster with crab roe and mustard. A luscious ooze of toro. Seared scallop. Salmon with cucumber and aka miso. Seared yellowtail with sesame tofu sauce. Shrimp with a dab of romanesco. The rice is warm and sized elegantly small. Of course the shrimp and the lobster are cooked, not to terrify the timid.  And there is no uni.

         I ought to say, in full disclosure, that Steve Hanson has been a friend for 25 years. He’s even a West Sider, lives on my block. He’s a strong supporter of Citymeals-on-Wheels and an advertiser on this website. But I’ve promised all my advertisers not to be overly kind or cattily cruel. With Patina Group’s just opened Lincoln in its dramatic glass house and Daniel Boulud stretching his claim from Bar Boulud to the corner for his new grill, Atlantic Grill arrives in an aura of optimism for the art mecca’s rebirth and, let’s hope, for the city’s.  Our Lincoln Center friends say they’ll be back. 
“The price is right. We love the sushi and it’s so close.” And so will I.

49 West 64th Street between Central Park West and Broadway.  212 787 4663.Lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 am to 4 pm. Saturday (with brunch additions) 11 am to 4 pm. Sunday brunch 11 am to 4 pm.Dinner Sunday, Monday 5 to 11 pm. Tuesday through Thursday 5pm to midnight. Friday and Saturday 5 pm to 1 am.Everyday:  Sunset Menu 4 to 5 pm.