It could so easily have gone wrong. Superambitious young chef works and stages with the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Shannon Bennett, Mark Best and Lennox Hastie, then thinks it's time he opened his own joint (he is 23 after all). He convinces his brother and a mate to help bankroll him at a site in a not-hot part of South Yarra and then doesn't stint on the fit-out. He decides a conventional restaurant format will stifle his "learning process" and so declares he'll be changing cuisines every four months, opening with Vietnamese before moving on to Israeli, Korean and Mexican. And it'll be tasting menu only.
It's tempting to plug your ears, close your eyes and wait for the boom.
There's noise coming from Atlas Dining right now, but it's not the death rattle of immolated hubris. It's the sound of an appreciative, if slightly surprised, buzz. And it increased further in January when the young bespectacled chef in question, Charlie Carrington, turned the dial from Vietnam to Israel. It was the moment he proved he's more than a one-trick pony.
Inside Atlas Dining.
His first trick, a modern take on Vietnamese cooking, was an impressive opener. For starters, it positioned the restaurant as an acceptable risk. A four-course tasting menu set you back $50, with the well-proportioned six-course version just $15 more. At a time when some players around town are charging those prices for a single course this seemed like ridiculously good value. (Spoiler alert: it is.)
Then there was the way Carrington came armed with a lengthy repertoire of Vietnamese dishes, enough for him to change the menu incrementally from week to week. It was a cleverly calibrated play for the return visit, making it possible for punters to come back a month after their first meal and eat an almost entirely different set of dishes. Aside, that is, from the superb chicken liver parfait that was a constant.
Flavoured with leatherwood honey, dusted with daikon ash and served with house-made spelt sourdough baguette, prettily crosshatched by the char-grill and slightly smoky, the parfait acted as a kind of mission statement. It showed understanding and respect for the cuisine's influences and flavour profiles without being bound by them. It also showed that youthful ambition and tasty, skilfully cooked food don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Octopus with daikon "noodles", sweet potato and pomelo from Atlas Dining's Vietnamese incarnation.
All the dishes on Atlas's Vietnamese menu, including a dessert of grilled then poached peaches served with a cashew-nut praline, suggest that time Carrington spent at Firedoor in Sydney was not in vain. It's a fortunate thing, given the Atlas kitchen is similarly equipped with a hearth, wood-fired oven and grills, and that char and smoke are a feature in every dish.
It's there in an achingly pretty octopus dish, the curled tentacle lightly pickled in chilli, vinegar and sugar before being char-grilled. Its subtle smokiness worked a treat with tart fermented daikon "noodles", puréed sweet potato mixed with chilli jam and pale pink pomelo pieces.
Then there was the dish of little discs of asparagus cooked in smoked butter and served with iceberg lettuce leaves fermented in a mix that included fish sauce and coriander. It was there again in the blistered skin of a butterflied King George whiting plated with batons of pickled carrot and radish sprinkled with Vietnamese mint leaves, and with the whisper of smoke behind a pho-flavoured wagyu tartare.
The rolled leather pouch containing cutlery for the entire tasting menu.
There were memorable, Instagrammable moments in Carrington's Vietnamese phase that could inspire return visits, but there's neither time nor space for dish sentimentality in Atlas world. January rolled around, Vietnam was shown the door and Israel moved in.
Given the chef came back from a fact-finding mission in Israel just days before Atlas reopened and that Israeli food has little profile in Melbourne, there's a refreshingly seat-of-the-pants feel to some of the restaurant's new menu: tightrope-walking tension.
You'd never know it from the dining room. It's the same space it was when the crowd was tucking into Vietnamese food: politely hued in earthy neutrals, clattery when full. The split-level room features timber floors, joinery and furniture, softly backlit timber and tan leather banquettes, and mirrors on faux-distressed walls with the main décor statement a large, compass-like circular brass fitting in the ceiling that nods to Atlas's travelling and exploring philosophy - the journey, if you must. In the courtyard out the back, just past the open kitchen, there's a hanging brazier that hammers the fire theme home.
Sommelier Mali Williams.
The front of house staff, led by sommelier Mali Williams, are well informed and personable. They're also very efficient, with just three waiters negotiating the 50-seat restaurant on a reasonably busy night. It's impressive, given that they're dealing with multicourse menus, but intelligent time-saving touches are at work here.
One of the best is that the cutlery for the entire tasting menu is delivered at the start of the meal in a rolled leather pouch. Unroll it and the utensils for each course are lined up from left to right. It's a simple idea but one that frees the floor staff from having to reset the table for each course, and limits interruptions at the table, often a drag when making your way through a multicourse menu.
Williams is a calmly enthusiastic presence on the floor and her wine list, which changes almost at the same pace as the menu, has a similar quality. Her choices range democratically across the world, favouring small producers and equal opportunity in winemaking styles. The list is a tight two pages and there's a matching option (again excellent value at $55), which always includes a couple of unlisted options, such as a bright and gorgeous field blend from Austrian winemaker Ingrid Groiss called Gemischter Satz.
A selection of wines from Atlas Dining's wine list.
Elsewhere there might be fiano from Heathcote (Chalmers), Georgian mtsvane (Pheasant's Tears), pinot noir from Chile (Montsecano) and a tourigacabernet- mataro blend from South Australia (SC Pannell). There's nothing from Israel on the current list, a shame given the exciting things being done with grapes in that part of the world. Still, there's a fine line between theme and theme park and Atlas's philosophy towards the cuisines it takes on - interpretive rather than definitive - could be the reason that the wine list casts a wider net. That, and knowing they might have trouble tracking down Korean wine for the next cuisine change.
Carrington's Israeli equivalent of the Vietnamese parfait starter is, unsurprisingly, hummus. It's a good one, with whole warmed chickpeas in the classic chickpea purée flavoured with lemon, garlic and tahini. It's served with house-made pita that's steamed for a few minutes after being finished in the wood-fired oven, so there's fluffiness, crispness and a faint hint of the fire in the mix. The texture of the hummus is excellent, the flavour elegant and robust enough to have you looking sideways at your normal hummus go-to.
The food's all pretty to look at. A dish of hearthburnt eggplant, sliced and served with a thick pistachio and tahini purée, is made sculptural with vine leaves grilled crisp over coals that fan out from the eggplant. The leaves are dressed with pistachio butter and finished with sweet, crunchy pistachio praline crumb.
Burnt eggplant with vine leaves and pistachio praline.
Pickled garfish (a tribute to the totemic pickled herring) is served with pickled onion rings, a scatter of puffed freekeh and a superb condiment, originally from Iraq, called amba. Like a mango pickle, it's tart, sweet and spicy, made with fresh and dried green mango and flavoured with sumac, white pepper and paprika. Its friendship with fish is rock solid.
A course of three salads follows. An ode to the power of simplicity, they number grilled runner beans dressed with lemon and garlic, burnt and peeled bullhorn peppers served with goat's cheese and sprinkled with a native thyme, sesame and sumac za'atar, and a "collapsed" oxheart tomato, blanched, peeled and cooked on the hearth, then filled with a mix of tomato, onion and cucumber dressed with lemon juice, tomato seeds and olive oil.
Sweetbreads poached in brown butter, lemon juice and za'atar are blitzed into a superbly rich emulsion and served with slices of grill-toasted challah and a pepperonata-like sauce of jalapeños, green peppers and tomatoes. The warmth and tartness of the sauce works beautifully with the rich sweetbread purée and the smoky sweetness of the challah.
Halva with date ice-cream and date purée.
There's halva for dessert, almost as natural a choice as the hummus starter and just as good. Made fresh with a decent (but not overpowering) whack of sesame flavour, it's teamed with date purée and a date ice-cream that's rich and refreshing.
By pulling off Atlas Dining's first baton change so successfully, Charlie Carrington makes the whole thing seem less gimmicky. He'd already proved he has talent and an affinity for the nuances of cooking with fire with his Vietnamese menu, but a lot of one-trick ponies look good when they first come prancing out of the stalls. The quality of the Israeli menu at Atlas, the understanding of the cuisine and the intelligence of the interpretation has given the restaurant ballast. Suddenly there's anticipation. What will he do with Korean food? And Mexican? And after that? What's next? For a young chef with his first restaurant, Carrington has registered on the radar very quickly. Keep an eye on him.