by Ron Bernthal
Before I moved out of Manhattan in the 1970’s I spent a lot of time on the Upper West Side, between 110th and 116th Streets. So it was nice to return for a visit to a “newly” opened (fall 2018) restaurant on 109th Street and Broadway called Atlas Kitchen.
Perhaps it was because the restaurant’s name was similar to the name of my father’s former chinaware business, Atlas China, and the fact that the new restaurant was actually serving Chinese cuisine persuaded me to visit my old neighborhood.
The restaurant has a lovely interior, with a beautiful mural of mountains and towers by the artist Qiu Anxiong in the style of traditional Chinese watercolors. The staff was welcoming, and very patient explaining to my dinner companions and I the various menu items, many of which were unfamiliar to us. Yes, they do serve the more common Kung Pao chicken, beef with broccoli, and sesame chicken, and white or brown rice was served upon request in small, white china bowls.
But most of the menu at Atlas Kitchen is adventurous and interesting, and includes appetizers like spicy duck togue, chicken feet with two spices, and sour & spicy white and black fungus. There are eight main poultry items, including Hunan style spicy duck with pork blood, and braised chicken wing, feet and gizzard with vinegar sauce, and 17 items are listed under the noodle/rice category, which also includes a selection of dumplings and soups.
My table ordered a mixture of the familiar – sliced pork with garlic and sautéed chicken with ginger, along with a few of the restaurant’s more popular dishes – Hunan style braised rice noodle, organic cauliflower in drywok, and a wintermelon with pork ribs soup. All dishes were excellent, especially the soup (a meal in itself) and the cauliflower. The crunchy rice pudding dessert was also good, and the selection of beverages – Chinese beer, Wong Lo Kat iced tea, coconut water, Wang Wang milk, and watermelon juice was very diverse! Next time I will try some of the seafood – braised fish with perilla (a healthy, Asian leaf with the flavor of anise), sautéed spicy Little Neck clam, or the steamed whole fish with green pepper. Also available are lobster, sea cucumber, coral shrimp and king-crab.
The chef, Kaiyuan Li, has worked at New York City restaurants for more than 20 years and his specialty, as noted in the names of many of the menu listings, is cuisine from the Hunan region of China, although culinary styles from the six major regions of China are also available.
Located in the south central part of the Chinese mainland, Hunan is known for its natural beautify, surrounded by mountains on the east, west, and south, and by the Yangtze River on the north. It is one the most beautiful provinces in China, but does not receive many American visitors. Its capital city, Changsha, is hardly a well-known name, but for thousands of years, the region has been a major center of agriculture, rice and tea production, and orange groves. Most of Atlas Kitchen’s menu is dotted with one or two little red chili symbols (spicy or very spicy), indicating that the many Hunan-style dishes are hot and peppery, just like most of the cuisine consumed by the 67 million people in Hunan province.
The restaurant space is a good size, with about 15 tables in the main dining area, and a pleasant communal dining table in a private area in the back. The décor is mostly beige and brown, with a light wood ceiling, nicely designed drop-down light fixtures, and of course the delicate and beautifully illustrated Qiu Anxiong artwork on the walls. It is a simple and serene atmosphere, quite soothing actually, perhaps to off-set the fiery nature of the Hunan cuisine.