A few months ago an Agatha-Christie-esque establishment popped up on the corner of Customhouse Quay, oozing sophistication. With its mysterious gauzy curtains and heavy use of brass, I was immediately deeply intrigued. It’s called Atlas.
Atlas restaurant is a nordic-inspired contemporary dining restaurant; it prides itself on high quality cuisine created by renowned Executive Chef James Pask and his team, using the finest produce available (much of it locally sourced). Additionally, for wine fans, Sommelier Yong Yan has developed, allegedly, the capital’s most expansive wine list featuring old world, new world, organic and local wines. Atlas offers something different from many existing Capital establishments; it feels like a place to get lost and pretend to be someone else, imagining you’re in some sophisticated Scandi-Noir drama, even if just for an evening.
Like a chic European man walking down Lambton Quay, Atlas caught my attention without warning. As any good millennial is wont to do, I made a dive for the menu online and a quick glance told me that this was the place to grant all my bougie-greedy-girl dreams; seasonal oysters; whipped beef fat and aged Parmesan; crayfish. So, excited, I suggested having my work leaving dinner there. I did not hold my breath, expecting to be told to get back in my Tank Salad box. What audacity was this? However, kindly (and, probably for their pocketbook, regretfully), my former employers obliged. (Fun fact: I used to work with James while I was a waitress as a student at another Wellington establishment.)
As those of you who follow me on my Instagram stories may know, it was a culinary night to remember. I am a very lucky lady, and did not think I’d be repeating the experience any time soon! But before I could even say ‘Lamb belly tatare’ I was fortunate enough to find myself invited back to Atlas for a media preview. The purpose was to celebrate Atlas’s launch of its ‘one-off’ monthly guest chef programme, starting with Atlas x Giulio Sturla x Black Estate Wine. How could I say no?
The idea for the event is to give diners a chance to taste something different in a familiar setting. Chef Pask came up with the idea of having a monthly guest chef and vineyard at Atlas restaurant – which is a new concept in the Wellington hospitality scene and even in New Zealand. Consequentially, Atlas is the first and only restaurant in the Capital to run a regular ‘one-off’ monthly guest chef programme.
The process? First, Pask identifies a respected chef from anywhere in New Zealand that aligns with the values of Atlas – using locally sourced produce and creating high quality cuisine. Second, wherever that chef comes from, Atlas sources a local winery.
For those of you who may not be aware, Giulio Strula was head chef of Roots, an institution in Canterbury that unfortunately had to shut its doors a few months ago. Strula is multi award-winning, and Pask saw it as an opportunity for kiwis to continue to experience his amazing creations in a completely different setting. I love the idea of people in the hospitality highlighting and supporting one another, so this particularly appealed to my sense of community - a theme The Residents blog has long been about.
We started with a few appetisers; cucumber, elder-flower, elder-flower capers and dill (a scandi-style delicacy reminding me of how I imagine food at Noma might taste) and smoked eel, radish and beetroot to start. Everything was light, devastatingly fresh and reminded me of the food Matt and I ate in Copenhagen last year on our big trip away.
Next, some Paua schnitzel with tangy wild green sauce and tart pickled seaweed. As you can see from the images snapped below, this was particularly stunning to regard visually, as well as delicious to eat. We paired this with Black Estate Damsteep Riesling 2018 which was very appealing with aromas of lime, orange blossom, mandarin and wild honey - a good match (the Damsteep Vineyard is located in the north east of Waipara Valley at the foot of the Omihi Saddle in North Canterbury).
We moved on to our next course: the most heavenly local bread with whipped beef fat and aged Parmesan. Call me a heathen but I could eat this all-blooming-day-long. I adore bread and butter - so if you can somehow enhance it in a culinary fashion beyond its simplest form, I am yours. I also tried a light and buttery clam chowder - Cloudy Bay clams, Meyer Lemon, tangelo and organic olive oil - which danced over the palette and was beautifully balanced.
We then experienced something quite special - a Chatham crayfish, enclosed in a tulip with white asparagus and shellfish sauce. The tulip was edible and the crayfish rich and juicy. While I enjoyed both, my jaw craved something crunchy to contrast the soft flesh. However, I was entirely won over by the white asparagus, which was like a beautiful Edouard Manet painting brought to life. I would devote my life to that asparagus. They were probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen - or eaten - all year; sweet, buttery and a hint of bitter, adorned with edible flowers.
Personally, I am a fan of raw meat (sorry) so I really enjoyed the lamb belly tatare, french sorrel and smoked yolk with sourdough. It was moist, tender and intoxicating. Although a little leaner than beef, which is traditionally used in tatare, I thought it worked well. We then also ate the Merino saddle lamb, shittake and black garlic. Perhaps it was the wine I’d enjoyed by this point, but this was probably the least memorable dish for me. It was pleasant but not something I would necessarily return for, unlike some of the other dishes. For the less adventurous diner however, it is a good staple from the menu.
Finally, we finished the night with coconut, sake and kawakawa and then rhubarb, plum, sorrel and goats milk. We were also treated to some petite fours. Atlas had certainly knocked it out of the park already, but the deserts were a home run. None of the diners I was with that night had anything except supreme praise for the selection of interesting and well-balanced dolce. This is particularly impressive when you take into account how hard it is to innovate with success in deserts and deviate without losing your audience. Everything was different, sumptuous and surprising.
We left Atlas that night full and happy after an incredible meal. Although dining at Atlas is a considered purchase if you want to go all out like we did, it is one well worth investing in for date nights, celebrations and any other excuse you might find. The guest chef appearances will be a monthly ongoing thing with different chefs and vineyards. Giulio Sturla x Black Estate Wine was the perfect match to kick things off.
One other cool things: Atlas diners also can experience an interactive and exciting ‘chefs table’ experience; which can seat up to 8 diners at a time in a private booth looking on to the kitchen. This is about offering guests a rare experience – they get to watch the chefs in action as they prepare, plate and present the course menu directly; it’s all in vogue overseas and guests like to watch and learn all about what they are eating. While I didn’t experience this, it sounds fabulous.
It seems like I might have an excuse to return to Atlas for a third time, very, very soon…
This experience was kindly gifted by Atlas Wellington for review purposes.