First Impressions: Ato

Back story: Chef William Shen (who has worked at Jean-Georges, Morimoto, and Masa) and manager Katar Varivar (Bryant Park Hotel, Jean-Georges, the Gramercy Park Hotel) teamed up for a 14-seat restaurant “where French delicacy meets the Japanese emphasis on fresh and quality ingredients.”

The atmosphere: The space is bare-bones, and brightly lit. Four of the 14 seats are at a counter overlooking the open kitchen, where you can watch—and interact with—Shen. Everyone in the restaurant is on display to anyone who walks or drives along Grand Street.

The menu: It’s entirely small plates, and some of them are so small that you’re discouraged from attempting to share them. We ordered the asparagus (x2), amaebi (shrimp), salmon, fluke, uni, and black bass.

Gold star: The name Ato comes from the Japanese pronunciation of “art”; accordingly, the plating is a bit precious—tweezers have most certainly been deployed—and portions are dainty. At the time, it didn’t all look the same, despite the photos below (asparagus, salmon, and black bass, respectively). And I thought all of it—in particular the salmon and black bass—was very good, combining the clarity of Japanese flavors with French richness. I was still hungry at the end, but then I often am; when we go back, we’ll be sure to order the nigiri—the rice would’ve helped fill me up. Then the server asked if we’d like miso soup, a traditional way to finish a Japanese meal. It was easily the best miso soup I’ve ever had, made rich with an egg slowly whisked in.

Room for improvement: Because portions are small, you have to order a lot, which means the bill can add up—and if you’re going to spend more than $100 per person, you might reasonably expect more sophisticated lighting, or at least a candle on the table. The price/atmosphere question came up again with the service, which was capable and friendly, but not quite as attentive as it should be at these prices.

Anything else? When co-owner Varivar learned that we live in Tribeca, he said that they had hoped to rent the former Butterfly space on W. Broadway, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.

Contact: Ato is at 26 Grand (bet. Sixth Ave. and Thompson), 646-838-9392, atosoho.com.

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