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Atera review (a bit long)

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Below is my review of Atera. Review with photos is at:

http://hygeiasbowl.blogspot.ca/2012/0...

Note that photos are taken with the requisite crappy cell phone camera. If you really want to see gorgeous pics of the food, visit plumpdumpling's review at

http://www.donuts4dinner.com/2012/06/...

I did have some different dishes, however.

Behind a nondescript doorway in TriBeCa, something extraordinary is happening.

I won’t lie; this was possibly the most anticipated meal of my recent New York City trip, even more so than Eleven Madison Park. I had booked my seat 2 months prior based on some of the early buzz Atera was getting, and the 4-star review doled out by Adam Platt in New York Magazine only served to ratchet up the expectations. I had read the blogs, seen the pictures, heard the raves, and now I was here, ready to be astonished (or ripe for disappointment, I suppose).

The room was as described in the treatises I had read; smallish space, rectangular stone counter behind which the kitchen worked, focus on natural materials, table in the corner underneath a living wall of plants. As I was seated in the middle of the long section of the counter, it seemed to me that those already present were having an awfully good time, based on the animated conversation and the expressions on the faces of those tasting Matt Lightner’s food. It so happened that I originally had a reservation for 9:30 PM; the restaurant had phoned me earlier in the day to ask if an 8PM seating might be preferable (it was, and I’m rather glad I took them up on it, given that the meal ended up being over 4 hours long). The 8PM seating meant that as a solo diner, and beginning between the normal 6:30 and 9:30 seatings, I was out of lockstep with the rest of the room with respect to the dishes offered. Nonetheless, a sense of community prevailed as those around me were happy to comment on their own experiences (albeit, 2 and a half hours prior) with the food I was being served.

As I did with EMP, I opted to start the meal with bubbles - in this case, a Raventos i Blanc “L’Hereu de Nit” Cava Rosado by Sant Sadurn i D’Anoia. It was lovely and dry to off dry with some toast and pear notes. As I sat there sipping a rapid fire procession of amuse courses started to arrive and Chef Lightner came over and said good evening. Lightner’s cuisine has a definite modernist slant and there are some clear influences from his time at Noma and Mugaritz. Many of the dishes served were presented in such a way as to reflect nature in its various guises.

A beer and cheese macaron on a dusting of powdered hops was the first to arrive. I should note that as the amuse courses were considered “finger food”, no utensils were provided to eat them with, so I picked up the chilly spheroid and popped it into my mouth. I didn’t get much beer flavor from it, but it was cool and palate refreshing with a slight aftertaste from the cheese.

Next, a flax seed cookie. It was earthy and nutty tasting, with a slightly firm texture.

A crispy fried sunchoke with a buttermilk puree followed. It had a taste something like a potato but deeper and was very chewy. The buttermilk added a smooth, creamy note.

Next was a “lobster roll” which was actually delicious buttery lobster between two pieces of light and fluffy meringue.

Then, a horseradish parfait. This was a real mind bender for me – the frozen parfait seemed to suggest to my brain a sweet taste in the offing, but dissolved in a tangy, horseradish-y kick, creating a jarring sort of cognitive dissonance. I loved it.

The final few “snacks” as they were referred to by my server, had a theme in that they were all exercises in clever mimicry. These are sort of becoming a signature at Atera and I had seen pictures of them in several reports, but it was interesting to be faced with them on the plate.

Included in this ensemble of offerings was a crispy malt bread that was served on a flat stone, looked like a piece of tree bark, and had a roasted and slightly bitter flavor, a rich and minerally “peanut” made from foie gras, a creamy and garlicky “quail egg” which was actually an aioli based emulsion bound with xanthan gum, and a “razor clam” – with a perfectly created edible “shell” of hollowed out baguette painted with squid ink and containing raw clam and a clam emulsion (somehow I missed taking a photo of this one, but as it’s been widely talked about there are multiple photos online).

“Any shells in your teeth?” asked Chef Lightner with a grin as he whisked the plate away.

Finally, the snacks concluded with a lichen crisp. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this - it started as salty and when it dissolved on my tongue it left the impression of a forest after a spring rain. It was an exceptional way to end the amuse courses and left me gleefully awaiting the main dishes.

The first of these was a dish which included lumpfish roe in a sourdough mash topped with a gorgeous panoply of herbs and flowers. Chef Lightner explained that the lumpfish roe is used a lot in Nordic cuisine, but that these particular roe were harvested off the North American coast and provided by local fishermen.

“You spread them out on a table and they roll around like marbles,” he said.

The dish itself was stunning, with the herbal component adding a different taste with each bite, and I loved the fishy pop of the roe. The sourdough mash combined with the roe evoked a smorrebrød and I suspect this was some of the Noma influence in Chef Lightner’s cooking showing through. It was paired with a Camille Savès “Carte Blanche” Premier Cru Champagne, which had green apple, ginger, and yeast notes, and was a very nice accompaniment.

I was fascinated by the next dish, which included green almonds with lily buds and fresh almond milk. The raw almonds had a great crunch and a light, nutty, almost cherry-like taste, and the almond milk was smooth and had a slight acrid bite, presumably from the lily buds. A skin made from boiled cow’s milk was draped over the dish and added a creamy texture. The pairing with this dish was really interesting – it was a sherry, Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada no 30 “Capataz Rivas”. The sherry was similar in style to an Amontillado, and the nuttiness and toffee/caramel notes worked perfectly with this course.

Following this was a dish of diver scallops marinated in gin botanicals and served with pickled green tomatoes. The scallops were clean tasting and sweet with a hint of juniper, with the tomatoes providing a slightly acidic counterpoint. This was paired with a Kamoizumi Komekome “Happy Bride” Sake from Hiroshima which was delicate with some sweet and tart flavors and was served in a very interesting cubic vessel made from wood.

Atera’s bread and butter are amazing – the roll here is basted in pork fat and the butter is made with Winnemere cheese rind and is the best I have ever tasted.

Up next was a dish of lovely, sweet shredded peeky-toe crab with some sugar snap peas on a gelée of wild ginger and tapioca. Again, an amazing mix of tastes and textures were to be found here. A Loire Valley white, François Chidaine “Clos Habert” Montlouis 2005, was served with this, and was slightly off dry with some nice acidity and melon/pineapple/herbal notes. The same wine also paired with “noodles”, the next course, which was a ramen like dish containing a dissolvable packet of herbs, into which a rich chicken broth was poured. The noodles were chewy and had a slight oceanic flavor.

“Have you figured it out yet?” said one of the servers.

“Squid?” I guessed, and was rewarded with a nod. I could only smile and shake my head.

By this time I had struck up a conversation with the couple from Brooklyn next to me about our mutual love of fine dining. The kitchen noticed this and slowed the pace down for awhile, which impressed me; it showed me that they were paying careful attention. I found the atmosphere of Atera to be quite convivial – the counter seating makes for easy conversation, especially as a solo diner, and the soundtrack of classic rock mixed in with some folk made the experience seem a lot less stuffy than it maybe could have been (one of the servers caught me softly singing along to “Man of Constant Sorrow” and shot me a wry smile).

When dinner resumed it was with my favorite savory course of the evening – a trio of earthy, meaty morels stuffed with boudin in a pine nut gravy. It was served with a very unusual wine; a dry Tokaji, Királyudvar “Sec” 2009, from Hungary. I’m used to the Tokaji dessert wines, which I’ve had a few times. This wine had some of the same floral qualities of Tokaju Aszu but was also citrusy and minerally. The citrus notes were particularly good with the pine nuts in the dish. This wine was also paired with one of Atera’s signature dishes, the beet ember with trout roe and uni and lobster sauce. The flavor of the beet was incredibly deep and earthy and the crustacean sauce was cheesy with subtle ocean flavors.

Next was a very delicate halibut served with young garlic and whey, with daisy flowers sprinkled liberally on top. This was ethereally light, with the garlic only providing a slight heft. The pairing was with a C.H. Berres “Ürziger Würzgarten” Riesling Auslese 1997 – this delighted me as I am a huge fan of Riesling in general and especially Rieslings from the Mosel region. There were great stone fruit qualities in this one, with nice acid balance and a hint of petrol.

Then came veal sweetbreads in a savory toffee. This was gorgeously rich and delicious, with the toffee enhancing the delicate flavor of the meat, and was great texturally. The dish was served with a Marsala from Sicily, Marco di Bartoli Vigna La Miccia 5 Anni. This was fantastic, especially with the toffee, due to the great caramel notes in the wine, and was slightly oily with a long finish.

Finally, the savory courses ended with one of my favorite things, a fatty and unctuous slab of Wagyu ribeye, topped with raw mushrooms. The mushrooms had an interesting zip which apparently came from pickled marrow. A Sicilian red, Calabretta Etna Rosso 2001, was proffered, which had notes of leather, spice, earth, and nice tannins and acid.

There was at this point a cheese offered, which I think was from Vermont. However, after 9 glasses of wine I apparently neglected to take a picture and the details of said cheese (and the wine I had with it) are marooned in the foggy depths of my brain somewhere. I remember it was good, though (well, duh) and that there was a wheel of it sitting by the counter as I ate it.

On to desserts. The first was a “white rose” with wild flower sherbet. I don’t know what the rose was made of, but the plate was clean tasting and palate cleansing. It was served with a sparkling Muscat, Clairette de Die “Cuvée Impériale” from the Rhône Valley, which was zesty and creamy with some citrus and lychee.

Then came a perfect slice of peach with sunflower toffee ice cream whimsically molded to perfectly resemble a peach pit, which was placed on top. I could only shake my head in disbelief.

“Who thinks of these things?” I mused aloud.

“That man right there,” pronounced one of my servers, indicating Chef Lightner.

Indeed.

Coffee was offered, and I chose a Cerro Azul coffee from Colombia, which was roasted by a small batch producer in Massachusetts, I believe.

A few final courses to make the meal complete – a strawberry shortcake with wild strawberries and clover leaves (I used to eat clover leaves out of my parents’ yard as a kid and the zingy taste really took me back), a “churro” made of salsify, which tasted like the regular, chewy, delicious, cinnamon crusted dough version, a bourbon cask ice cream sandwich, with almond, vanilla, and oak, which was sweet, woodsy, and delicious, and some chocolate truffles, one of which was shaped to look exactly like a black walnut. A final pairing with the Rare Wine Company’s Boston Bual Madeira, perfumed of orange peel, clove, and toasted nuts, was a fabulous way to end the night.

As I made to leave, I spoke with sous chef Victoria Blamey to congratulate her. I would have done so with Chef Lightner as well, but he had retired for the evening as he had an early trip to market to make in the morning. Clearly, this was without a doubt one of the most ambitious, well executed, and dazzlingly creative meals I have ever had. I don’t know if Matt Lightner is destined to join the colossi of New York dining, but based on what I experienced here, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. I certainly hope he succeeds and that he continues to innovate. As John Stuart Mill once said, “That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.”

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  1. Great review! How much did it cost?

    1 Reply
    1. re: swannee

      It was $150. Pairings were I think about $90. I thought it was extremely reasonable given what was offered.

    2. Great review. Based on your review and plumpdumpling's review and gorgeous photos, I've made a reservation for the end of the summer. Looking forward to it!

      2 Replies
      1. re: ellenost

        Excellent! Enjoy - I'll wager you will.

        1. re: gourmandish

          Actually, just called up from the foggy depths - as I recall the cheese course was served with a Nocino, which is a walnut liqueur, lovely and delicately flavored. I don't know why I remembered this - it just came to me as I was sitting here.

          Thought I'd share for the sake of completeness. The beverage pairings, for the record, were fantastic.

      2. I'm pretty sure you were there the same night as we were - definitely unusual for a single diner to come 'mid-service'.

        And all I can add is that this was probably the best meal I've had in North America in 10 years. And superb wine pairings - I particularly recall the manzanilla pasada (love the Equipo Navazos wines) and the Boston Bual Madeira with dessert (how could I not with my avatar!).

        And for reference, the wine pairings were $99.

        2 Replies
        1. re: estufarian

          Are you the fellow Torontonians I was speaking with? You must be.

          1. re: gourmandish

            Indeed we are.
            Also agree with you on EMP - and thank your lucky stars you had to miss Brooklyn Fare!

        2. Fabulous report! I ate there in April when I think it had only been open for a few weeks and was blown away by the meal. The space was fantastic and the innovation was extremely impressive. Looking forward to returning when the season changes since I'd imagine the menu would, too (and in fact many of your amuses were different than the ones I enjoyed).

          1. I'll try to post more later, but, in a word, my meal on 31 July 2012 was spectacular. The dishes were incredibly inventive, interesting, beautifully presented, and, in the main, delicious - but delicious in a different way than one is used to using that word for. Everything has been thought through, including the plates on which the dishes are served. Service was efficient and courteous. Wines by the glass are available and the sommelier is extremely knowledgeable and a pleasure to discuss the wines with. To me, the restaurant that it is most similar to is Agape Substance in Paris. They have in common that they both serve black food on black slate dishes, at any rate. (Gagnaire is a totally different sort of place and, on my last visit, incredibly disappointing - it can happen to anyone.) I find Atera a better bet than either Brooklyn Fare or Momofuku Ko. The former is more conventional and there doesn't seem to be the same level of intellectual effort going into thinking about the meal as a whole. For sheer deliciousness, nothing will ever beat Ko's grated foie gras in my book, but there isn't enough variety from visit to visit. I don't know what the new Eleven Madison Park is like, nor the new WD-50. But Atera has raised the bar. The prix fixe is $150. By the glass, wines start at $13. There was no cheese course.

            1. LOVED my dinner tonight at Atera! About 25 courses, and even I was full (and very happy) by the end of dinner. I was the first guest to arrive, and sometimes as a solo diner, I get shown to a not great seat. At Atera, I was shown to the center seat at the front counter so I had a great view of everything. Service was very attentive, friendly and polished. Atera's wine list had an excellent selection of German Rieslings, and their very knowledgeable sommelier helped me select an excellent half bottle. The food is among the most creative and delicious that I've enjoyed. I won't spoil any of their surprises, but if you enjoy creative cuisine, I urge you to make a reservation for dinner at Atera.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ellenost

                As a frequent solo diner, I'm familiar with the "not great seat" routine but also received the "front and center" seat at Atera. I'd guess they might recognize that our seat location becomes even more important when we're alone; if we choose to interact with others, this will dictate who we talk with & if we keep to ourselves, our vantage point/view takes on greater importance in the absence of a dining companion to converse with. Based on how well thought out everything seemed to be at Atera, it wouldn't surprise me. I went on a whim after I scored a last minute reservation in May (I'd never heard of it & saw a single 8:00 rez pop up on Opentable the day before and was intrigued) and was rewarded with not only a great dinner, but an experience I will cherish.