PROGRESSIVE MEXICAN CUISINE MADE FOR THE NOHO NEIGHBOURHOOD
Great service is hard to come by. Great service during the slow hours between lunch and dinner, even more so. Since the 20 aughts, the food and beverage industry has quickly outpaced the manufacturing industry of the boomer generation. Servers often bounce around, working at one renowned kitchen, then another. It can be difficult for establishments to hold onto good staff and that often means they're at risk of hiring uneasy or uninterested servers. For most people, serving food is just a job; a way to pay the bills. For others, food is an infatuation; something to get excited about, something that brings people together. NoHo's ATLA displays the latter without exception.
It was around three in the afternoon when we walked from Lafayette street into this much-anticipated, bright and vibrant yet casual restaurant for a quick beverage. Rather than reacting befuddled or irritated when we then moved to a table after initially being seated at the bar (going against restaurant etiquette 101), our busy server made sure to offer a gracious welcome and jovially handed us a food menu. There was no reactionary look from waiter to host for our unexpected switch to his section. Everyone was at ease.
Throughout the afternoon, the entire team remained enthusiastic, attentive, passionate about their food, and genuinely fond to be there. It says a lot about a place that opened with the resolve of becoming a frequented neighborhood dwelling rather than a destination hot-spot for global foodies. It's intentionally for the locals and you're absolutely made to feel that way.
The antecedent of it all, Mexico City's Pujol had become exactly that: a destination. With accolades, it is breathtaking in both menu and aesthetic, but Pujol became a place for connoisseurs despite the owners’ intentions. The earthy yet minimalist room brings people to Mexico City, and often those people are the grandiloquent gastronome types. So after its wild success, in 2014, founder Enrique Olvera found his way to Manhattan to open the equally critic-pleasing Cosme. With his own episode of Chef's Table focusing primarily on the flat-iron establishment, a World's 50 Best listing under his belt, and a litany of favorable reviews in top-tier publications, Olvera and his culinary partner Daniela Soto-Innes—Chef de Cuisine of Cosme—decided to enter the world of all-day casual dining. In 2017 ATLA was born.
Even at 3:00 pm, both the patio and the restaurant are bustling, and Soto-Innes is a large part of why this culinary project has been so consistently successful since it opened. A life-long chef who doesn't remember ever receiving a paycheck not from cooking, she saw potential in creating progressive Mexican fare that would appeal to the kale-loving NoHo habitues, but also introduced them to flavors not typical of your average Manhattanite brunch spot. Deviating from what most of us think of when we consider Mexican food, the menu offers far less of a focus on cheese and really hones in on the vegetables.
A chef who often stops by her local Farmer's Markets, Soto-Innes seems to understand the value of small, permaculture- and biodiverse- focused produce, so this is often what's on your plate at ATLA. The added price for Farmer's Market veggies in place of monoculture grown crops, packs in added minerals, nutrients, and, of course, flavor. It's why you can't really criticize fourteen dollar radishes. In each dish, the flavors mingle decadently. You can attain luscious taste without relying on the conventional salt and fat found in dairy; the herb and spice-rich sauces Soto-Innes weaves into each item add to a satisfying crunch that is sure to incite new cravings in the days to come.
ATLA’s cocktail bar is directed by Yana Volfson who wanted to highlight more-rare, small-batch mezcals like their Leyenda Puebla mezcal which is made in the northern valleys of Puebla. Knowing the region personally, Volfson has sourced out dozens of artisanal mezcals from across Mexico and offers tastings and pairings to encourage the palate of curious patrons. To Volfson and her staff, mezcal is similar to wine; it’s not just smoky (a profile that comes from roasting agave hearts with wood and rocks in underground pits), it can also have notes of tropical fruit, florals, pine resin, even fresh cut grass. Just like wine, many things influence its flavor: the aging process, the region the agave is grown in, and the climate the plant faces. “For example,” Volfson says, “espadin [agave] tends to lend an herbaceous quality, while something like barril [agave] adds more of a dry, mineral quality.”
For the restaurant’s design, Olvera and Soto-Innes paired up a third time with architect Alonso de Garay, and interior designer Micaela de Bernardi who also worked on Cosme. This time around, they wanted to mirror mid-century Mexican beach houses. They utilized sleek European-inspired terrazzo, common to the Acapulco area during the 1950s and ‘60s, and brought in clay tableware from Oaxaca and artisanal Mexican crockery for the room’s potted succulents. ATLA’s branding is a reflection of its name, which is derived from the word Atl-tlachinolli in Náhuatl dialect. Atl-tlachinolli roughly translates to water and scorched earth—here, a representation of drink and fire cooking. The Aztec symbol for the word inspired the uncanny and charming illustrations used on the restaurant’s website, packaging, signage, and menus.
Dessert at ATLA, like many other restaurants, changes with the season. When we were in, the kitchen had a homemade raspberry-lime popsicle and a churro-flavored cronut with hazelnut chocolate puree. The day-time beverage offerings are equally unique: coconut water directly from a coconut (served with a tool that functions as both straw and coconut-meat scraper), a toasted sesame horchata, traditional café de olla, and a number of different milk types––including pecan milk, which is just as creamy as the real full-fat thing.
We'll certainly be back for more.