Dining » Cafe

A Fine How-Do-You-Do

Restaurateur Jean Donnelly makes a tasteful homecoming


Ten deceptively simple-sounding steps to launching a successful St. Louis restaurant:

1. Move to St. Louis.

Husband and wife Michael G. Roberts and Jean Donnelly, co-proprietors of Atlas Restaurant & Lunch Room, relocated here three years ago from San Francisco, where Roberts had clocked his culinary-school hours and worked his way up the ranks at a few French restaurants. For Donnelly, a trained chef herself, the move doubled as a homecoming -- she grew up here -- but it was also a business decision: St. Louis is cheap.

2. Do not make "Open Restaurant" number two on your list.

Roberts and Donnelly came here a full three years ago. The plan was to first establish themselves on the local food scene. Roberts signed on as the sous-chef at the Sheraton in Clayton, while Donnelly worked at Big Sky Café in Webster Groves. About a year later, they registered at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park for a class in food-and-beverage cost control, even though Roberts already had some relevant experience under his belt. Only after completing that course did the couple commence to scope out real estate.

3. Wait patiently for the place of your dreams.

For Roberts and Donnelly, that meant sidewalk access, sidewalk eating and a real café feel. The location they chose -- formerly occupied by the Sunflour Café -- is a simple, one-room establishment with a tiny L-shaped bar. Photos of Paris adorn the whitewashed walls, and little ramekins of sea salt top the tables, complete with tiny faux-tortoiseshell spoons. The space isn't breathtaking -- Sunflour's old carpet seems to have survived the transition, and the bar offers an unfortunate view of the stoves -- but it is unfussy and inviting.

4. Substitute the toque for many different hats.

Cooking is her first love, but keeping staff (read: labor costs) small prompted Donnelly to leave most of the kitchen duties to Roberts; though she does occasionally revel in slicing and dicing, her unofficial job title is front-of-house manager/staff manager/wine buyer/bookkeeper. When he's not single-handedly concocting every morsel of food served at Atlas, Roberts does all the purchasing of ingredients. The couple collaborates on the dessert menu.

5. Don't call it "frugal" -- call it "fresh."

Though still a gleam in Roberts' eye in restaurant years, Atlas has already shifted from a winter menu to a spring one. Gone is the cassoulet, gone are the roasted winter vegetables in parchment. In has come the spinach in phyllo, the goat-cheese-and-herb flan with spring vegetables. This sounds like the hallmark of a nimble chef, and indeed it is, but it's also another one of those business decisions: When something's in season, it's of higher quality, it's less expensive and you can often procure it locally, affording the opportunity to build a good business relationship with purveyors. It's like buying tomatoes at the end of the summer vs. buying blueberries in the middle of winter. Additionally, the less time that elapses between when the goods come through the door and when they are brought to the table, the less storage space you need to pay for. And Atlas does pass along the savings: Entrée prices top out at $16.50.

6. Make your food do double duty.

Roberts works with a limited palette of main ingredients -- another cost-cutting measure masked as gastronomic ingenuity. The gravlax appetizer, cured in-house, registers lusciously on the tongue, complemented by a mayo-licious celery-root remoulade and a cucumber-and-tomato salad tossed in dill sauce. Salmon reappears as a grilled entrée, topped with a crust of horseradish and celery root and, again, accompanied by the cuke-and-tomato salad. Meanwhile, a pleasing cucumber soup (a regular off-the-menu item) is served warm, making for a perfectly understated starter. An asparagus soup appears periodically, and a side dish of uncomplicated grilled asparagus rightfully receives full-time billing. The lunch menu lists a roasted-duck-breast salad, the dinner menu a roasted-duck-breast entrée and a duck-confit appetizer. There's a pear-and-blue-cheese salad and a dessert of pear poached in red wine.

7. Attract with opposites -- or not.

Roberts gets a lot of mileage out of pairing soft and sharp, sweet and sour. A warm shrimp salad glazed with lobster sauce finds bite in a handful of sun-dried tomatoes. Sour cherries jazz up the aforementioned duck-breast salad, just as raisins and sunflower seeds abet the duck confit. But even when Roberts goes mild-on-mild, he's liable to soar. Piccolo fritto (a Euro-flair way to say "vegetables tempura") is lighter than air. Chicken-liver flan with tomato purée thumbs its beak at foie gras. Pasta baked with asparagus, tomato and ricotta tastes earthy and hearty. Bread pudding audaciously busts out of its dessert typecasting, providing easygoing accompaniment to a jus-drenched grilled chicken breast.

8. Keep missteps to a minimum.

The sole blot on Atlas' menu is the lobster bisque: too watery -- where's the cream? -- and served way too hot.

9. Get all Jules Verne with your wine list.

Though it's surely not meant to be a play on the restaurants' name, Atlas' wine list makes for an impressive assemblage from around the world, with plenty of quirky picks. Particularly with the whites, lesser-known varietals abound, such as the chenin blanc from one of South Africa's best wineries, Cape Indaba; McDowell's California viognier; and Kendermann's pinot grigio -- a pinot grigio from Germany is intriguing all on its own. The reds could stand for a bit more diversity, what with two syrahs and two merlots on a list that totals just nine. But then again, the 2000 Pourra Côtes du Rhone is all you need -- a velvety-soft pour and a great vintage.

10. Save the best for late.

On weekends, Atlas stays open an extra two hours as a desserts-only café, a twist the sweet stuffs more than merit. Tangerine cake comprises two spongy layers sandwiching a mousselike filling so flavor-crammed it's hard to believe it's not a slice of actual tangerine. The sweetness of the poached pear sneaks up on you, hidden behind the strangely appealing flavor of the red wine. Both the affogato (vanilla ice cream bathed in espresso) and the profiteroles (puff pastry and vanilla ice cream doused in chocolate sauce) receive a flourish when the server pours the toppings at tableside. And though crème brûlée may be ridiculously ubiquitous in this town, Atlas' version is too good to mock.

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