UNIVERSITY VILLAGE can be a mall without a soul. Atlas, its new eatery, thankfully adds a sincere and honest touch to the increasingly upscale sterility spreading through the Village like a fungus. To be sure, Atlas owners Jeremy Hardy and Peter Levy -- also owners of the 5 Spot Cafe, Jitterbug, and Coastal Kitchen -- are aiming their fare at mall shoppers, specifically the mall-savvy Village clientele. Atlas is an airy and bright facility, soft on extremes and pleasingly big on thoughtfully prepared food, quick and friendly service, and subdued comfort.

We sat in the bar, and were pleased to note that even with the presence of several smokers, an apparently superb ventilation system left our clothes smelling spring-fresh after our departure. Our server was friendly and ultra-knowledgeable about the food, without bullshitting or pandering.

We charged headfirst into the menu with the West Coast American Antipasto ($8.75), a large plate loaded with dry (yet moist!) salami, wrinkly and pungent Sicilian olives, Greek olives, and capers. Mozzarella roulade (little roll-ups), copiously marinated and grilled vegetables, and some heartachingly fresh Rosemary Diamante bread from Essential Breads kept us moving as we ooh-ed and ah-ed our way through the plate. The ensuing Benne Kissed Crab Cake Menage à Trois ($8.25) had us literally clashing silverware as we fought to ensure our fair share of these decorative, fresh-tasting, curry-smooched Dungeness crab cakes. Two things set these crab cakes apart from so many others. Certainly they were fresh and moist, but a fresh and moist crab cake is not enough. Rather, it was the accompanying curried aioli and crunchy fried yam threads that stamped this appetizer as unique.

Sad as we were to leave the appetizers, we moved on to the entrées with the Beans and Greens Round-Up ($11.50). As the plate was put in front of me, I felt a little embarrassed, wondering if I was worthy of something so pretty and alluring. A large stack of sautéed greens (Swiss chard and spinach) lay under a large, sleek ear of corn, resting at an angle with its husk pulled back and tied into a pretty bow. Filling in around the greens were three smartly-sized black bean cakes (looking for all the world like nice little macaroons), crook-necked squash, walnut-sized patty pan squashlets, and a variety of peppers. This dish was absolutely flawless in design and execution, and left us delighting in the hefty increase in both the popularity and quality of restaurant greens in general, perhaps traceable to the increasing influence of multiculturalism.

The Achiote Bronzed Salmon Salad ($11.50) featured slightly overcooked fish over more perfect greens. The accompanying Navajo fry-bread left us interested in, yet unsure of how to respond to its crunchy, moderately oily outer crust and thin, soft interior. Its ambiguous texture and amorphous flavor resulted in sounds of "hmmm..." rising from all around the table. The Grilled Market Fish Plate changes daily, and on our visit it came with a large piece of tuna ($14.50). This was the closest we came to disappointment, resulting from the tuna's slightly dry and overcooked texture. The accompanying green beans were -- you guessed it -- done marvelously.

We concluded our march through the entrées with Niman Ranch Center-Cut Pork Chops ($13.50). Niman Ranch is an interesting outfit from California, unusual in their commitment to the humane treatment of animals, natural and antibiotic-free animal feed, and sustainable farming methods (Atlas carries both beef and pork products from Niman Ranch). Having been moved by the greens and vegetable-based entrées, I worked through the flavorful pork chops and their silently subtle gravy with less enthusiasm, but felt a little better about eating the poor little dead bastard than I usually do, knowing that it had not been roughed up too badly by the kindly Nimans.

In addition to the pleasurable and often thrilling food we had been served, we were happy to be on the receiving end of some kickass Ketel One vodka tonics ($5.50). When you add some reasonably priced house wines (the Campo de Borja Borsao was a bargain at $4.25) and the thoughtfully complimentary women's restroom tampons, you can walk away from a meal at Atlas with your head held high.

Atlas, 2820 NE University Village, 522-6025. Daily 8 am-11 pm. Full bar.

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