What serves the tourist and what serves the townsfolk can present a thorny problem for restaurants in resort areas. On the one hand, Cape Cod and the Islands' restaurateurs must make a good chunk of their annual income from summer visitors. On the other, for a steady income and an established life, restaurants must stay open year-round and draw a local crowd. Two such restaurants -- Bleu, on the Cape, and Atria on Martha's Vineyard -- illustrate ways to straddle the seasons. It's early June after a rain-soaked week, and we sit in the basement lounge of Atria watching a bartender teach a newbie how to mix various cocktails as we sip white wine. The bar area, subterranean but cozy, features a giant fish tank, along with a chalkboard advertising a burger. In the winter, chef and co-owner Christian Thornton says later in a phone interview, Atria is open on weekends downstairs only and is a popular local place for casual food and live jazz.
Upstairs in the airy dining room, which is less than one-third filled, the young waitstaff is eager but still a little tentative at times, as if it's still in rehearsal. The sophistication of Atria is reflected in its contemporary artwork in marine shades of blues and greens and its svelte and spare decor. Chef Thornton's menu buttresses the impression. Thornton, who is from California, says his major influence were the years spent at Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC, which uses only certified organic products. Thornton's Atria has its own farm where greens, tomatoes, and other vegetables are grown, and his menu cites local fish and other products.
His food falls under the New American umbrella with a few Asian splashes. An appetizer of tuna tempura has just the right suggestion of crunch around a fat nugget of rare tuna. There's a little zip from a miso vinaigrette and pickled ginger and a soothing taste and texture from cucumber cut paper-thin. But the main sensation is the tuna, clean and bright on the palate. A salad of arugula, from the restaurant's farm, sparkles; the sweetness from oven-roasted tomatoes balances the arugula's first-of-the-season peppery bite.
Seafood floods Atria's menu. Cod wrapped in prosciutto is milky white and moist. The lobster-whipped potatoes really taste like the crustacean and add richness to the fish. Native swordfish gets a blanket of local watercress as well as a tangy lemon beurre blanc. The best, though, are plump scallops, each seared to a brown crunch on top, over wide folds of lemon fettuccine tossed with arugula and herbs.
The extravagance of the seafood dishes makes a filet mignon with a cone of fries and bearnaise sauce seem austere. Even here, the restaurant's produce plays a part, and in the French manner, the fat chunk of steak is served right on top of mixed greens.
Atria's desserts are extravagances, too, and buoy one before the shock of the check at this quite pricey place. A sweet, dense chocolate cake is topped with coffee ice cream, and the tartness of a lemon mousse is balanced by mint in the whipped cream. Seasonality and creativity reign at Atria, making you glad summer has arrived.
Bleu, in the Mashpee Commons shopping area, has a city feel despite its Cape location. The space, formerly home to a restaurant called Contrast, is basically divided into half bar area, half dining. Chef and owner Frederick Feufeu (that really is his name) opened the restaurant last July, adding some French bistro dishes to a wide-ranging menu of everything from Asian-tinged dishes to grill fare. The chef, who cooked at the Rainbow Room, among other restaurants in New York, obviously tries to appeal to many types of diners, from the seasonal to the residents.
Feufeu is from the Loire region, and he shines in his homestyle French specialities. We start one evening with rillettes, a creamy pork pate served with triangles of toast. The pate has an earthy flavor and, once it warms up from a refrigerator chill, a rich, smooth texture. A salt cod chowder has both the punch of the salty fish and an appealing thin texture, much more a French than New England version of chowder.
A duck cassoulet with tiny white beans and fat garlic sausage warms a cool late-spring night. Braised rabbit might have benefited from a little more browning, but the meat is moist under its Dijon mustard glaze.
Venturing beyond the bistro specialities, though, brings mixed results. Roasted lamb rack chops are savory little nuggets of meat rather too heavily crusted with pecans and goat cheese. Accompanying this is roasted eggplant puree wrapped in thin slices of sauteed zucchini. It's a pretty construction but seems to have little seasoning. But the oddest is a Caribbean takeoff on halibut, which is enclosed in a banana leaf and called a tamale. The fish itself is fine, but the vegetable garnish, along with grilled bananas, is unpleasantly sweet. And a separate container of steamed rice topped with chopped pineapple is just a bad concept.
Best to leave the fruit to dessert: A large goblet of fruit macerated in sweet wine and topped with a pecan-nougat ball appealingly and lightly finishes the meal.
Though wide choice may appear to be the way to satisfy the audience year-round, Bleu might benefit from a more tightly focused menu, sticking more closely to chef Feufeu's French roots.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants. Grill 23 & Bar 1/2 161 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-542-2255. Crowds flock to this big restaurant with a luxe men's club look. The steaks, especially the fantastic Kobe ribeye cap, and seafood are attractions. But the place's very popularity pulls in even more fans. (6/3/04) The Federalist Bar 1/2 15 Beacon St., Boston. 617-670-2515. Jer.Ne Bar 12 Avery St., Boston. 617-574-7175. These hotel restaurant bars offer full menus. The Federalist's small plates are every bit as ambitious as the main menu; Jer.Ne's more casual fare features a great burger. (5/27/04) Salts 798 Main St., Cambridge. 617-876-8444. New owners bring new luster to this intimate spot near Central Square. Chef/co-owner Gabreil Bremer's style is sophisticated and his flavors true. And the whole duck is fantastic. (5/20/04) Scollay Square 1/2 21 Beacon St., Boston. 617-742-4988. This place has the feeling of old Boston (though the real Scollay Square was several blocks to the east). The best of the fare are classic steaks and chops in this friendly spot with the added advantage of outdoor seating on Beacon Hill. (5/13/04)Spire Nine Zero Hotel, 90 Tremont St., Boston. 617-772-0202. A young chef, Gabriel Frasca, with his first kitchen is wildly creative. Frasca's style starts with French technique and then takes off with contemporary American energy. His finely crafted dishes are worth seeking out. (4/29/04) Terramia 1/2 98 Salem St., North End, Boston. 617-523-3112. A longtime favorite for inventive food in the North End brings in a new chef, Chris Bussell. He manages to embellish the new-wave Italian cuisine, keeping Terramia fresh and exciting. (4/22/04)
Bristol Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-2053. The Bristol, sans the lounge designation and with fuller menu, sports stylish classics. But the real energy is in the power breakfasts. (4/15/04)Istanbul Cafe 1/2 1418 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton. 617-232-1700. Moving up from a small place to a stylishly appointed restaurant, this Turkish restaurant celebrates a light, vegetable-rich cuisine. (4/8/04)