ATLAS Steak + Fish
Grand Villa Casino, 10224 104 Ave.

4:30 p.m. to late, seven days a week
11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday

Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns

Dinner for two (excluding beverages and tip): basic, $60; loaded, $90

Precious few restaurants in this town make ordinary food extraordinary. Even fewer can make steaks, pork chops and chicken that will satisfy both Trucker Tom and Fiona the Foodie.

Well done, ATLAS Steak + Fish – the casual but elegant restaurant in the new Grand Villa Casino that’s glued on to Rogers Place.

Executive chef Shelley Robinson walks this tightrope between mass appeal and fine dining as if it were a super-highway – pumping out dish after dish of familiar proteins, starches and sweets, but every one with a “Wow, is that ever good!” factor.

It’s too much fun to watch Robinson at her usual station at the open kitchen’s pick-up counter, inspecting every dish heading out to the dining room, turning one out of four back for some minute finishing detail. She’s a no-nonsense drill sergeant of a head chef, demanding excellence. You better be good if you want to last in Shelley’s kitchen.

ATLAS sits on a partially-glassed in balcony overlooking the Grand Villa Casino. The casino is your usual concoction of bells and whistles and fake excitement. But once you climb the stairs to ATLAS, it’s a different world.

There’s not a slot machine or gambling table on the floor of what looks like a fairly upscale hotel restaurant, all deep-brown upholstery and plush booths with enormous round tables.

A piano – a real piano, played by a real piano player – provides background music during the dining hour. The servers are conservatively dressed. Shortly after our arrival, a cart rolled by with all the fixings to create a table-side Caesar salad. Shades of the late, great Hy’s Steakhouse!

Our polite and polished server briefed us on how ATLAS differentiates itself from the pack. Its Josper (not Jasper, no relation) industrial oven is a combination barbecue, grill and oven through which many ATLAS dishes pass for a dab or a dollop of mesquite charcoal flavour. The oven – made in Spain and now exported to restaurants world-wide – is the first to be installed in Edmonton.

Here’s how chef Robinson’s creativity takes a popular starter – mussels – from routine to lip-smackin’ delicious. Clams and chopped chorizo are added to the mussels and tomato bisque. The dish is finished in the Josper oven, imparting a light, tangy, delicious smokiness.

The steaks – at least the 10 oz. New York Strip that came to our table – are outstanding, more than comparable to Ruth’s Chris or The Moose Factory – for my money, the other best steakhouses in town. The added touch, once again, was the taste and aroma of mesquite/charcoal clinging to the marbled fat of this sizzlin’ medium-rare, oh-so-tender and perfectly salt ‘n’ peppered steak. It didn’t need a $5-extra sauce. It was perfect unto itself.

The monstrous “Tomahawk” pork chop was a, thick glistening piece of succulent Berkshire pork. The meat was richer and moister than farm-factory hogs. Thanks to the Josper oven’s smoke, one more layer was added to the multiple flavours of the chop and its chopped apple/pork belly topping.

The only disappointment: A delicate salmon steak with its whiff of mesquite had cooled off between cooking and serving. Chef Robinson hadn’t started her shift. Had she been there, the salmon would have been re-heated before coming to the table. As it was, a post-dinner remark to our server about the too-cool salmon saw the dish removed from the bill.

Everything else was first-rate – the exquisite truffle and melted Parmesan fries shared as a starter, the complimentary bread starter straight from the oven, the shared sides spooned onto each plate.

ATLAS has that annoying steakhouse habit of not including veggies with mains, or sauces with its steaks. You get nickel and dimed on the small stuff. But, overall, its Keg-comparable prices - $33 for a 10 oz. steak, $28 for a salmon steak, $37 for that six-centimetre thick pork chop, offer excellent value for impeccable quality — other than the cool salmon.

Pre-Oiler games and concerts, ATLAS shortens its menu for time-constrained dining. The lunch menu looks interesting with octopus, venison carpaccio and bone marrow intermingled with the burgers and pastas.

One small warning – the pianist quits and the canned music gets louder around 9 p.m. With the background casino din, conversations become shouted.

Food notes

With Have Mercy launched upstairs, and sister restaurant/bar El Cortez established on the main floor for its Mexican small plates, Executive Chef Lindsay Porter is moving on from Old Strathcona to revitalize Woodwork, the contemporary bistro across from the downtown Westin Hotel.