My wife had gotten tickets to go see a show at the new Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City last fall and we decided to go over early to have dinner before the performance. A place that has been around for over 15 years - and one that I had never been to before - is Atlas Restaurant & Bar in downtown Iowa City. We decided to go there before heading to Hancher.
Jack Piper and James Adrian were friends growing up in Burlington, IA, both going off to study at the University of Iowa. Piper and Adrian worked in restaurants in the Iowa City/Coralville area all through school and after they graduated. Piper ended up working at the Stein Erikson Lodge in Park City, UT, while Adrian would up at the famed Commander's Palace in New Orleans. The two hooked up again at a restaurant in Boulder, CO where their dreams of running a restaurant in Iowa City gained some traction. They moved back to Iowa City and opened the-then-called Atlas World Grill, a restaurant inspired by America's history and the plethora of cuisines found across the country. Their goal was to use locally grown foods and produce whenever it was available to them.
Barbecue was a mutual love for Piper and Adrian, and after numerous trips to Kansas City to sample some barbecue joints they decided to open their own place. Both had become barbecue judges through the Kansas City Barbecue Society and in 2005, the two opened Jimmy Jack's Rib Shack on Iowa City's southeast side. (Click here to read Road Tips' entry on Jimmy Jack's.) In the summer of 2011, Piper and Adrian, along with Atlas chef Brady McDonald, opened their third restaurant - Basta - next door to Atlas along Iowa Ave. in downtown Iowa City.
Atlas is located in the heart of downtown Iowa City at the corner of Iowa and Dubuque Streets. (see map) After parking in one of the parking garages in the area, we got into Atlas around 4:30 that afternoon and went in. We were seated at a booth along the wall in the main dining area just past the bar area. There's also a smaller dining room off to the side of the main dining area. It wasn't much longer after we were seated when our server Erin came over to greet us.
It turned out that we were given lunch menus - they don't start the dinner menu until 5 p.m. And while the lunch menu shares some of same items with the dinner menu, it's not as extensive of a selection up until 5 p.m. We sort of looked at one another and thought, "Well, should we stay or should we go elsewhere?" We decided to stay and we ordered up a couple drinks and an appetizer while we waited for the changeover to the dinner menu.
We ended up getting the Burrata appetizer - it featured a creamy mozzarella cheese ball resting in olive oil along with pesto, roasted cherry tomatoes with chopped fresh basil and grilled bread. Mixed together, the fresh mozzarella, pesto and roasted tomatoes had a wonderful, but light flavor. It was a nice set up for our meal. My wife had a glass of pinot grigio and I had a pint of the Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, a nice surprise since it's one of my favorite beers.
Erin had given us dinner menus to look over while we enjoyed our appetizer. When Atlas first opened nearly 17 years ago, Piper and Adrian knew that they needed something other than eclectic foods to draw in the college crowd that populated the downtown bars and restaurants. They came up with a chicken burrito that evolved over the years into what is now a burrito that features fried chicken tenderloins, a Yukon potato purée, chopped carrots and celery, and crispy onion strings with a choice of Maytag bleu cheese or ranch dressing, and a spicy Buffalo-style wing sauce. The Atlas Macaroni and Cheese featured four different types of cheese - Gruyère, Fontina, mozzarella, parmesan - with slow-roasted Roma tomatoes mixed in.
For meat entrees, they had a boneless pork chop with blue cheese and bacon-filled peaches, and they had a steak frites entree - a 10 ounce Black Angus strip steak with maitre d butter (butter whipped with salt, pepper, parsley and lemon juice), and served in a pinot noir reduction sauce. Fries, or - for a slight upcharge - truffle fries are available on the side. Atlas also features a number of vegetarian and gluten-free dishes on their menu.
They had a couple specials that night. One was a sushi-grade seared tuna filet and the other was a bucatini pasta dish with shrimp. I asked Erin how the bucatini was prepared and she said that it was heavy. I thought she meant that it came in a heavy cream and that's what I ordered. What I found that she meant was that the dish was rich, not heavy. It featured a handful of plump grilled shrimp in a light white wine and oil sauce with fresh basil and cherry tomatoes. While the taste of the pasta was light, it was very filling. And it was also very good.
My wife went with the Farm Stand Pilaf - toasted faro with quinoa, kale, locally-grown mushrooms, squash, fried oyster mushroom chips, a carrot vinaigrette, roasted beets, and garlic scapes (the flower bud of garlic that is usually pulled off early in the summer to allow the bulbs to grow). Atlas offers grilled chicken, grilled salmon, grilled shrimp, or falafel to go along with the Farm Stand Pilaf for a slight up-charge. My wife asked if she could get some of the seared tuna instead of the other offerings. Erin went and checked with the cook and she came back and said that it would be a $10 up-charge on the dish. I didn't mind - she paid for the theater tickets. Plus she enjoyed it very much. She gave me a bite of the tuna and it tasted fresh and flavorful.
While we were enjoying our meal, I remarked that I couldn't believe that I hadn't been to Atlas before this. (My wife had been there before with her daughter.) The food was very good, the service was also efficient, professional and friendly, and the atmosphere was comfortable and laid-back. Atlas is a great place to catch a meal anytime when you're in downtown Iowa City.