Restaurant Review - Rise and shine

Decatur’s new Atlantic Star fine for meeting, fair for eating

105 Sycamore Place, Decatur
Open Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Cash and credit cards acceptedDecatur’s restaurant renaissance, which has dished up everything from fusion noodles to New Southern desserts, is among the most surprising, welcome developments of the last several years. Only two decades ago, the field was much poorer, stretched thinly from the stuffy, ooh-la-la French of Claudette’s to simpler eateries such as Southern Star, a blue-collar, meat-and-two cafeteria.
Atlantic Star may develop into a similarly memorable Decatur institution. A cross-cultural brasserie in the Ice House Lofts gentrification project, Atlantic Star’s culinary antecedents reach back to Claudette’s bourgeois cuisine (salade Niçoise, croque monsieur) as well as to traditional Southern and American fare (burgers, rotisserie chicken with mashed potatoes, cream of mushroom soup).
The accent is definitely French, however, and the energy more Midtown and downtown than county seat. The chef, Jeff Cruse, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, has cooked at Brasserie Le Coze, New York’s Le Bernardin and the esteemed Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala. He may be expected to know quality preparation. Proprietor-promoters include Fariba and Tommy Todd, recent co-owners of Einstein’s and Cowtippers, and managing partner Alan Royer, formerly a manager at Houston’s and Blue Ridge Grill. These folks presumably know how to attract and entertain crowds.
Entree salads like tuna Niçoise and sandwiches such as a salmon BLT should certainly help. The sandwich special — a slice of grilled, rare salmon, crisp bacon and baby greens on country French bread — is plated with a small green salad and crisp, hot, salty, delectable French fries ($9). The Niçoise — albacore tuna, boiled eggs, French beans, capers, peppers, anchovies, meaty cured olives and singularly tasteless boiled potatoes on a bed of dressed greens — is properly gutsy and bracing, its dressing a sweet-sour melody upon which the fish, beans, eggs and greens happily play ($12).
Soups are as much brasserie necessities as hefty salads and sandwiches. Chef Cruse’s carrot soup has a spicy ginger bite; cream of mushroom is pure comfort (both $4). French onion with melted Gruyere is thick, rich and sweet, nothing like countless clotted-bouillon versions that masquerade as onion soup ($5).
For a starter that’s less traditional than fashionable, check out tuna tartare. Served in a crisp potato basket, the chopped fresh fish is mixed with capers, shallots and lemon vinaigrette. Break off a bit of fried potato, spread on a slather of tuna, pop the package into your mouth — and voilá! ($11).
Atlantic Star opens for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. A light menu is served in between. “Light” includes the items described above plus their cousins — cheese and fruit plate, cold seafood, big salads, soups, sandwiches and burgers. Look for Sunday brunch and dinner in the future.
Otherwise, one menu is in place from start to finish. Either way, Atlantic Star strikes me as a fine kind of hangout place. Einstein’s and other watering holes operated by the Todds and their associates are typically settings and meeting places, not notable as restaurants, and thus more about being there than eating there.
Atlantic Star’s setting is fetching enough: Exposed brick and lots of glass on several levels, wood floors inside and wood decks outside, a bar to the right of the front entrance. What with decks, ramps and doors that don’t open from the outside, it’s a hard place to get into unless you’ve been there before, and a hard place to park unless you’re lucky or go at off hours. Presumably, that’s all part of the fun for the youngish crowd.
By night, the place seems as dramatically lit as a department store window — pinlights, spotlights, portentous shadows, reflections on glass — until it’s time to retire to a restroom. Then suddenly, wham, bam — opening night at a Kmart, a dash of cold water in a sleeping baby’s face. The men’s room is equipped with a dozen down-lights aimed at gleaming stainless steel sinks and counters, black and white floor tiles, oversized mirrors, everything but a revolving searchlight. It’s brighter than bright, a druggy nightmare, a needless trip to the moon.
When we mentioned this sudden displacement to a server and then to a manager, neither was remotely interested in hearing any criticism whatsoever. So it hardly seemed worth complaining that half the mound of “wilted” spinach on the rotisserie chicken plate came to the table ice cold. Nor that the mashed potatoes on the same plate possessed an indefinable but definitely unpleasant aftertaste, one that suggested rancid oil or old ingredients. The Ashley Farms half chicken, though moderately flavorful, looked and tasted tired, as if cooked hours earlier and held ($12).
Braised pork shoulder, also falling-apart tender, appeared to have been held longer than most would consider ideal as well ($12). Cheese and macaroni on the plate was more fun to eat, even though the flat “macs” were clearly not typical elbow-shaped macaroni tubes.
Warm apple tart with rum-raisin ice cream and caramel sauce sent us out into the icy night happy, nonetheless. Happy and looking forward to trying other, perhaps more successful dishes: ribeye steak with more fries, Roquefort burger with red onion marmalade, grilled portobello mushroom and goat cheese Napoleon, croque monsieur.
As a place to be, Atlantic Star strikes me as a great choice for those odd, between hours — for a really late lunch, a comfy conversation when the boss is out of the office, just hanging out and sharing a basket of crusty rolls and a plate of country paté with a friend.
It is a testament to Decatur’s remaking of itself that such a place exists.