A newcomer to Little Italy’s dining scene stands out in a couple of ways: The cuisine isn’t Italian, and the staff showcases students receiving career-training. Atelier Culinaire, occupying a rather elegant space previously home to the Persian restaurant Ozra, also stands out where it matters most — the food.
Providing hands-on experience for soon-to-be graduates from nearby Stratford University’s School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, Atelier Culinaire (French for “culinary workshop”) opened in August. Students get opportunities to work in the kitchen, as well as out front.
Professionals hold key positions at the restaurant, notably executive chef Thomas Pons, a Baltimore native who has honed his craft at several restaurants in the region.
Our visit happened to occur when no Stratford students were engaged as servers, so I can’t vouch for how well those duties might be fulfilled. (With only one staff member handling all the tables that night, reinforcements, student or otherwise, would have been welcome.) But there were some helpers in the back, where an impressive meal was put together.
One of our appetizers, the cold lobster stew, signaled the quality of Atelier Culinaire (the restaurant’s original name, Atelier de Culinaire, has been shortened). This gem, served like a seafood cocktail in a glass lined with organic cucumber slices, brimmed with luscious lobster pieces, greens and mushrooms in a horseradish brandy sauce.
Also delivering considerable charm was the vodka-and-citrus-cured salmon, sharing the plate with expertly fried potato latkes and gaining additional character from salmon caviar, a honey mustard sauce, capers and pickled onions.
There wasn’t enough oomph to a red and golden beet salad, despite some rosemary cured egg yolks, but the presentation deserved high marks.
One of our main courses, roasted halibut fillet, also looked more promising than it tasted. Although the fish was finely prepared, it didn’t gain a persuasive flavor from being wrapped in prosciutto. Still, a sage and blackberry jam enriched the dish, as did a zesty timbale and spears of asparagus.
A surf-and-turf item, dubbed “Marylander’s best duet,” paired a steak fillet with a jumbo lump crab cake to unusually memorable effect. In a city swamped with crab cakes, it’s a pleasure to encounter one that actually exudes freshness and hearty flavor. That’s what we found here.
The nearly filling-free cake had an ideal mate in the straightforward, tender beef, which was all the more satisfying for having been cooked to what I’d call a genuine, old-fashioned medium (so many restaurants seem to hear “medium-rare” when you request medium).
A rack of lamb also arrived perfectly cooked, not to mention extra-robust, thanks to a crust of whole grain mustard, mango chutney, dried figs, pistachios and more, along with a merlot demi glace.
Desserts impressed. If there wasn’t much peach presence in the peach Melba, the excellent ice cream and raspberry sauce sure registered. And if you think lemon sorbet can’t be a knockout, think again. The version here proved to be a little masterpiece of intense flavor and crunchy texture; a mix of fresh berries provided the simple finishing touch.
Atelier Culinaire’s lovely little wine list gives the place another asset (a 2010 red blend from Australia found favor at our table).
And, by today’s standards, the restaurant represents a bargain. Regular prices are quite reasonable. If that isn’t enough of a draw, consider the recently introduced early bird special — two courses for $9.95, 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. That qualifies as a steal.
Atelier Culinaire 3.5 stars
806 Stiles St., Little Italy.
Cuisine: American and Continental.
Prices: Appetizers $6 to $12; entrees $19 to $40.
Ambience: A rather intimate space with a light, elegant design.
Service: Amiable, if not always well-timed.
Parking: Garage and street.
Special diets: They can be accommodated (calling ahead recommended).
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]