Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to NoHo for a disappointing meal.
Enrique Olvera is widely regarded as one of the world's best chefs, leading the likes of Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme here in New York to rapturous reviews and "best of" accolades by the score. But since the former's a bit out of my bailiwick and the latter's too expensive, I had never been able to eat Olvera's food until this past weekend, when I finally hit Atla. This is his casual all-day cafe that opened about six weeks ago in NoHo.
Atla is located on a busy Lafayette Street corner, with a long, full-windowed frontage that gives the place a bright and welcoming feel. Inside there are two rows of tables and a bunch of seats at the bar, with room for about 50 in all. It's all very clean-lined and monochromatic, with some plants for ambiance.
There were also a couple of less-welcome touches, especially coming from an organization that, according to one famous list, also runs the 20th and the 40th best restaurants in the entire world: the cushions on the prime window benches aren't anchored to anything, so you and your neighbor will get to do some surfing together; and the soap in the bathroom was empty. Otherwise, the front-of-house staff is friendly and on top of things... like automatically not charging me for a dish I barely touched.
I was excited to finally try Olvera's cooking, even at the still-pretty-hefty prices he's charging here, but the two dinners I ate at Atla have to rank among the most disappointing meals in memory.
The most extreme example of this came with Atla's vaunted Herb Guacamole, which arrives covered dramatically by a single huge chip, to be broken and dipped. It looks great, and everyone orders it, but it tastes bad. The chip was flavorless and stale, the large chunks of avocado unripe, unseasoned, and woody. I couldn't even eat half of the small portion, and I wasn't alone: after a few initial forays the dish idled at other tables as well. Even four-tops of margarita drinkers were ignoring it!
The Fish Milanese was a bore, a thin filet buried under beige breading. Some bites didn't involve any fish at all, tasting more like dry toast that cost $18. The accompanying crock of vegetable ceviche tried to help out, but was too heavily soaked to taste of anything other than vinegar. The Nopal Salad was similarly overdressed, the cactus strips sodden underneath some bright mache and a dusting of cotija.
The Chicharrón missed the mark as well—the pig skin, though reportedly fried, had zero crunch or flavor-enhancing caramelization (it's the Mexico City way, said my server), and shouldn't be ordered by anyone who fears slimy, slippery meat. The salsa verde it's bathing in has some personality at least, and the soft tortillas were good, too. The Pambazo, a famous chorizo street-food sandwich, was dominated by the soft bun, warm and red from its soaking in red pepper sauce.
By far the best thing I ate was Olvera's Quesadilla with ($2 supplemental) mushrooms. It's a simple dish, and probably not worth $10, but all the elements—the fresh, chewy tortilla, the salty melted cheese, the earthy, pan-fried fungi—were given the attention they deserve.
Atla makes me sad. Despite its casual conceit this is still a pricey place—plan on spending about $45 per person at dinner just on food, most of which is, at best, mediocre. If, like me, this feels like your only chance to taste Olvera's cooking, it's probably best to skip it altogether.
Atla is located at 372 Lafayette Street, at the the corner of West 3rd, and is open for breakfast and lunch daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m, and for dinner from 5 until 11 p.m., except for Sunday when the kitchen closes at 10 p.m. (atlanyc.com)