Dundas and Brock weren’t looking their best the other night when my family and I met up for dinner at The Atlantic (1597 Dundas St. W., 416 219 3819). There are barricades along the sidewalk (water main repairs, not G20) and odd blue hoses sticking out of the pavement, perfect for tripping unwary feet. Flags, vuvuzelas and the other gaudily gimcrack trappings of the World Cup are for sale everywhere (Portugal and Brazil are the favoured teams in this neighbourhood and both are still involved, though other nations are not (sob)). The Atlantic is chef Nathan Isberg’s own place, formerly an unpretentious Portuguese family restaurant, now renovated on a minuscule budget. Pretty it ain’t – dark blue walls, rough boards to hide the ceiling, plain old wooden tables, vintage junk-store knick-knacks – but it is hip and wry and casual enough to bring a smile of approval from its cool 30-something clientele. There are a couple of model ships to admire (one built by Isberg’s brother) and good music from some Indie-lover’s iPod. An extraordinary old black-and-white photograph of a harvested whale on a slipway will dismay sensitive diners; others will see it as a sombre reminder of the blood-letting that underpins most acts of eating.
There are other nice touches. A blackboard over the bar offers an unusual cocktail list including an “All day breakfast: cold slice of pizza, ½ btl of beer and a deep sense of foreboding” or something called “The Terrorist” – it’s a cup of mint tea. “Yes, it’s quite a funny list,” agreed the waitress, “though I’m not sure how practical it is.” The dozen wines offered are all temptations and delightfully inexpensive – Daniel Lenko’s 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay for $39, for example, or a sensational Catalan “Syrahnnosaurus Rex” from Domaine Ferrer Ribiere at $60.
Isberg was one of the Queen West wunderkinder a few years ago, dashing across the road to stretch his culinary muscles between both Coca and Czehowski. His relationship with the owners ended in tears, however, and though things are patched up now, he is eager to go it alone as Atlantic’s chef-patron. And I do mean alone. There is no one else in the kitchen. Hence the structure of the menu – 18 small dishes ($3-$12) plus cheese ($13) and three desserts ($7) and the occasional G20 Special – that night it was “dinner served in a fake lake, $1.8m, free after 10pm.”
How to describe the food…? The overall mood of the menu is almost defiantly rustic, consciously domestic and yet slyly exotic – as if Isberg had gone back to school to take a second philosophy degree and was rustling up food one night for other students in his digs. A bowl of priest-strangler pasta with scarlet flecks of pickled chili and a runny Sao Jorge cheese sauce is surely in that basic league. Mussels with salt cod, chorizo and a big slab of toasted brao cornbread are dominated by the sweetish, garlicky, salty bacon personality of the chorizo – which is one way of doing mussels, just not very subtle. But that may be the point. Isberg seems to be chasing big, bold, simple, salty flavours at Atlantic. Fat sardines, grilled and smoked, are as robust as they can be, with nothing but a lemon wedge to mitigate the delicious pungency. Orecchiette are stirred up with tender chunks of braised duck leg, flecks of smoked mackerel (works nicely with the duck and boosts the umami), and lots of bitter, garlicky rapini. Another people-pleasing pasta dish stirs tiny spherical fregola with excellent chanterelles and tangy wild leeks.
Occasionally, a more delicate approach showed the value of finesse. A simple steamed fillet of halibut, for example, was gorgeous over a fine mix of roasted cauliflower and couscous with a smoked paprika dashi – restraint paying dividends. Lovely little steamed artichokes came with a bowl of bagna cauda into which each precious petal was to be dipped, but the rich liquid was so spiked with garlic, salty anchovy and caper that the flavour of the artichoke risked being lost. Cold edamame and mint soup, supersmooth and richly textured, was oddly sweet and overminted – and sweetness and mint only really go together in cocktails, candy or toothpaste. Or in one of the evening’s desserts – a lightweight chestnut-flour crepe wrapped around chocolate mousse and topped with caramel sauce that was crunchy with salt crystals. Fresh chopped mint was the dominant impression and here it worked beautifully.
Three years ago, Isberg and I spent a few days together in New York where we both admired the rustic, tapas-sized dishes at Blue Ribbon, Casa Mono and The Spotted Pig. Of course, it’s much easier to be quaint and simple when you can draw on the limitless resources and personnel of Mario Batali’s empire. Determinedly independent these days, Isberg goes it alone. The price point will keep the place more than busy (it was packed on the night we were there) but I’m looking forward to finding out what this chef will do next.

Tasty steerage
  1. i went to this restaurant, the atlantic. i was very dissatisfied. the food was bland and the service left something to be desired. i won’t be going back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *