Mem­o­ries of Morocco: Joanne Kates takes a bite out of a hot new An­nex eatery

The pocket resto masters be­hind Chabrol and Cava have done it again

Midtown Post - - Front Page - JOANNE KATES

OWN­ERS: Chef Doug Pen­fold and Niall McCot­ter SCENE: Cava and Chabrol fankids as well as a glut of lo­cal res­i­dents

SOUND: Pa­trons can ex­pect ear­worms from artists like Ce­les­tine Ukwu and His Philoso­phers and Grace Jones

REC­OM­MENDED DISHES: Big hits in­clude egg­plant za­alouk and the choco­late and car­damom tarte

DRINKS: Think old world wines, Québé­cois craft brews and cock­tails with Moroc­can twists PRICE: $100 for two OPEN: Tues. to Sat. 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. RESER­VA­TIONS: By phone or through their web­site 18 Dupont St. 416-546-9050 at­las­restau­ I com­pletely don’t get it. As a busi­ness owner, I fail to un­der­stand how a restau­rant with eight ta­bles (10 or 12 if you make them deuces) can make a liv­ing. Even if it’s full ev­ery night. Which At­las is, and for good rea­son. Th­ese peo­ple who opened At­las spe­cial­ize in the tiny per­fect bistro. Their French resto Chabrol in Yorkville is even smaller than At­las. Cava, their orig­i­nal resto, is big­ger. But not big.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that while chefs all around them are ex­pand­ing, of­ten look­ing for a big­ger can­vas on which to paint (or shall we say a big­ger foot­print to scale up prof­its), part­ners Doug Pen­fold (the chef) and Niall McCot­ter are adding restos, but tiny ones.

My con­cerns about scale and prof­itabil­ity aside, their oeu­vres are all su­perb. I con­tinue to adore the food at Cava; Chabrol is a tri­umph of la cui­sine française; and At­las, their third resto, fol­lows their model of both im­pec­ca­ble food and ser­vice.

Chef Pen­fold was in­spired by his trav­els in Morocco. Out of that came At­las. For we who are ig­no­rant of Moroc­can cook­ing, the servers are both schooled and help­ful. We start with harira, a fab­u­lous lamb soup en­riched with mar­row, smooth and hearty, and a clas­sic Moroc­can dip, a bit rich for my taste, called am­lou. This is pul­ver­ized al­monds puréed with ar­gan oil and honey, served with Mal­don salt, to coun­ter­act the sweet­ness, and har­cha — won­der­ful warm skil­let bread made of semolina. Har­cha makes pita feel like a poor cousin.

They also do splen­did sar­dine kefta. A sar­dine “meat­ball?” You bet, and it works beau­ti­fully, thanks partly to its rich tomato sauce spiked with cel­ery and ras el hanout. This trans­lates into “head of the shop,” be­cause it’s the Moroc­can mother spice. Its key notes are co­rian­der, cumin, car­damom, clove, all­spice, nut­meg, gin­ger, cin­na­mon, turmeric and pa­prika.

For food­ies who like to try ev­ery­thing, the tagines are a lit­tle awk­ward, since they’re for two or four peo­ple only. And there are only two of them — fish or goat. We’d like more flex­i­bil­ity on this, be­cause the tagine is won­der­ful. First the cer­e­mony of bring­ing the hot tagine with its con­i­cal ce­ramic lid to the ta­ble, lift­ing the lid and let­ting the aro­matic steam es­cape. Then the flavours, savoury and sweet, deep and com­plex.

I con­fess to hav­ing avoided the goat tagine. No love lost between me and goat. But the cod­fish tagine was mag­nif­i­cent. Big chunks of ten­der cod with zuc­chini, pota­toes and green peppers in a strong rich sauce with hints of sweet spices. I coun­sel or­der­ing a tagine, but skip the steamed car­rot and raisin salad with or­ange blos­som wa­ter and arugula, for it is bland. In fact I’d do more of the dips and har­cha as apps and use the calo­ries up front, be­cause the dips ’n’ har­cha are more fun than the Moroc­can-in­spired desserts. I don’t love laven­der in my food, and other sweet scents like rose­wa­ter are, to me, best left in my per­fume. And I didn’t find enough pis­ta­chio flavour in the pis­ta­chio ice cream that tops the dense choco­late tart.

But all in all, At­las is adorable — a tiny jewel of a gift to the city. Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cor­don Bleu de Cui­sine in Paris. She has writ­ten ar­ti­cles for nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the New York Times, Ma­clean’s and Chate­laine.

Clock­wise from left: a pa­rade of the of­fer­ings at At­las; own­ers Niall McCot­ter (left) and chef Doug Pen­fold; the ca­sual in­te­rior

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