Atera Review (long): Like An IMAX 3D Arthouse Film
As usual, full review with photos on the blog: http://ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot...
The general feedback I got from friends and from reading reviews going into my dinner at Atera was that there was a lot of technique on display, but not everything was tasty. After my dinner there a few weeks ago, my verdict is exactly the same.
I liken the experience to paying for IMAX 3D to see an arthouse film. When people pay extra to go see a movie in IMAX 3D, they tend to want to see an entertaining blockbuster. Something that excites and entertains from start to finish Similarly, when people pay top dollar for high end dining, most are looking to be wowed by a meal where they can say, "This is one of the best ::whatever ingredient:: dishes I've ever had!"
Atera, however, is very much like an arthouse film. It's about the chef's unique vision and his journey that he wants to take you on. While they cater to allergies and dietary restrictions, they will not cater to dietary preferences. There's a lot of visual beauty and technique that one can geek out on, but you have to be really into the genre.
Overall, it feels like there is much less of an attempt to connect and relate the vision with the diner than at other high end restaurants around the city. If you're a foodie that can appreciate all that's going on at Atera, you might have a good meal. But if you're saving up to go out for one big delicious, celebratory night out, you could easily walk out of there disappointed and be like, "What just happened?"
Because my friend couldn't sit in the high barstool/chair arrangements in the main dining room, we ate in the library/private dining room. It's a nice, cozy space downstairs next to the prep kitchen. While this removed the interaction with the chefs that's a part of the experience, we did get dedicated servers and the service was excellent.
There were 22 "courses" in total. Before the proper set of courses are a set of snacks. The first one of the night was a beer macaron with caviar. The beer flavor was not very strong, and the flavor combination with caviar was not particularly memorable. Not a strong first impression.
Up next were flax cookies. They're pretty much what you would expect flax cookies to taste like, being a bit more flavorful than cardboard.
Their version of a lobster roll involved using slightly toasted yeast meringue in place of the bread. An interesting idea, but the most noticeable thing was that the lobster mixture itself wasn't very good.
The next three items were all variations of cracker or flatbread. Unfortunately, the menu they sent me afterward (by mail!) had no descriptions of the snacks so I don't recall what these were.
Next were quail eggs which we just popped into our mouths, only being told well after things were cleared that the egg whites were actually made of aioli while the yolk was a real quail egg yolk. The difference was lost on us, however.
Their play on razor clams was a sight to behold. The edible shell was made of french bread hollowed out to have just the crunchy crust remaining, and then hand painted with squid ink. The filling was a chantilly cream also flavored with razor clams. While it was visually stunning, I couldn't shake the fact that the flavors were mild while I'm so used to razor clams being intensely flavored.
Lichen. Not something made to look like it. This was pretty much it. It was moss that was cooked and reformed into a cracker-like shape, and it pretty much tasted like wet grass.
Swordfish cured and prepared in the same way as ham, sprayed with ham essence. This gave the swordfish a more tender texture, but the fish and pork flavors didn't marry as well as say pork with shellfish.
After the snacks, we moved on to named courses.
GRILLED TOMATO ICE WITH SEA URCHIN
I've had tomato ice before, but the grilled flavor really comes through here and makes the dish unique. This was one of the tastier dishes of the evening. The slightly smoky grilled tomato flavor enhanced the briny ocean flavors of the sea urchin underneath, while the sweetness and tartness of the overall dish was balanced well when blended together.
DIVER SCALLOPS WITH PICKLED GREEN TOMATOES AND SESAME
FEATURING SUMMER PURSLANE
The dish was well balanced across sweet, sour, nutty, and salty flavors. While everything is featured to achieve said balance, it's hard to say it's a successful scallop dish when the scallop does not stand out in sweetness or meatiness.
PEEKY-TOE CRAB WITH COLD HERB INFUSION, STRAINED BUTTERMILK
The cold herb infusion combined with the buttermilk was light and refreshing. You would think those flavors would highlight the sweetness of the crab, but that wasn't the case here. Perhaps the crab just wasn't that sweet to begin with.
The lamb tartare was quite good. Topped with some lamb fat or oil, it tasted fresh and was not gamey at all.
BLACK MALT CRACKER
This came with the tartare to provide a crunchy texture, but I'm much more used to malt flavor in sweets.
The bread was quite good, and the extra salt on the crust was a nice touch.
The butter is brushed with the rind of a cheese, carrying a cheesy richness in its soft texture.
FEATURING ANISE HYSSOP
Not only did these noodles not look like ramen (they look more like udon noodles), I could immediately tell these were squid strips on first bite. I thought this was a complete fail. The dish was neither tasty nor creative nor successful in its attempt to be whimsical.
ESCABECHE VEGETABLES WITH COCO BEANS
FEATURING ANISE HYSSOP
Our friend who couldn't have the squid had this instead, which seemed more successful. Atera does very good things with a wide array of vegetables, but seems a bit weaker in coaxing concentrated flavor out of a main protein ingredient.
SEARED DUCK HEART WITH TENDER YOUNG VEGETABLES, PASTRAMI SPICES
This was one of the best dishes of the night. The duck heart was amazingly tender while the vegetables and spices filled the range of textural senses and sweet, sour, and bitter tastes in perfect harmony.
One of the more interesting things I found was that the balance in some of these dishes was extraordinary. While Thomas Keller's approach is to leave the diner "wanting one more bite", the approach here resulted in a feeling that every portion was exactly enough. While that is a marvelous feat, it does take away from some of the excitement of keeping the diners on their toes.
SOURDOUGH BASTED IN MANGALITSA PORK FAT
One of the best things of the night, just a gut bomb that puts even Momofuku's gut bombs to shame. Especially if you go for the overkill by putting some of that cheesy butter on it.
DRIED BEET "EMBER" WITH HAY ASH
FEATURING TROUT ROE
This was probably the only dish of the night where I thought, "This is one of the best ::whatever ingredient:: dishes I've ever had!". This was a brilliant preparation of beet, with the smoky charred exterior flavor matching well with the sweet vegetable, creamy crustacean sauce, and the salty roe. The roe also played a role in providing a texture contrast to the soft flesh of the vegetable.
BRINED HAKE WITH WILDFLOWER HONEY AND YOGURT
I think I had fish with honey before at WD50, but I wasn't a fan of it either time. I also wasn't a fan of the fish's texture, which was more stringy like bacalao as opposed to something that resembled flesh.
BARBEQUED VEAL SWEETBREADS WITH HAZELNUT
FEATURING GARLIC CHIVE
It is rare to get barbecue sauce in a fine dining meal, but here it was. It wasn't bad, but was a bit overpowering. I thought the best part of the dish was the garlic chive. My friend who couldn't have the sweetbreads had the same preparation with cauliflower. I didn't taste it, but I imagine that the flavor and texture of cauliflower probably stood up better to the sauce than the sweetbreads did.
BEEF STRIP LOIN WITH MARROW, SMOKED ONION, MATSUTAKE
FEATURING LOBSTER MUSHROOM
The beef is aged about a month, and everything in the description sounded amazing. And yet, while this tasted good, there was no wow factor. This should have been a wow dish, but ended up underwhelming amid the expectations.
WHITE ROSE WITH WILDFLOWER SHERBET
FEATURING SEA ROSE MALLOW
I thought this was too tart for my tastes, but my dining companions thought it was fine. Another example of elaborate preparation, with the rose water frozen and reformed to look like a rose.
DRIED FRUIT WITH RAW MILK ICE CREAM
Another guessing game where they asked what we thought the fruit was. I got it immediately that it was tomato. It's an interesting combination, as I kept thinking that it tasted good while having it feel weird in my mouth at the same time.
It had already been a long meal and I don't quite recall the end of dinner snacks. I believe one was a caramel truffle.
BOURBON CASK ICE CREAM SANDWICH WITH ALMOND, VANILLA
It was nice at this point to have something that was more of a straightforward sweet treat. The bourbon, almond, and vanilla flavors worked well together.
CHURRO WITH SALSIFY AND CINNAMON
FEATURING WHITE CARDAMOM
This dish to me is the epitome of what I feel is wrong with Atera. I bit into this to discover it had kind of a tough, chewy texture. When I commented out loud about the texture, the server, who's in on the joke, quipped, "Oh I'm sorry, did we give you a stale one?" He then explains that it was not a regular churro as we know it, but rather it was made of salsify through some elaborate process. While that was cool, it was still tough and significantly worse than a real churro. Maybe they were hoping that I'd be sitting there pondering this salsify creation, but the only thing that popped into my mind was "WHY WOULD YOU SERVE ME A STALE FRIGGIN' CHURRO?"
Thanks for the review, I've been thinking of going back some time this winter. Allow me to present some counterpoints.
I really liked the "churro", and thought it was a lovely petit four, especially in its chewyness. I know a lot of people don't like it much. I think the reason it works for me is I've only had 1 actual churro before in life [well I've had tons of Chinese churros, but that's a distant culinary relative], so I don't have to force any preconceived expectations. Instead, I find myself comparing this dessert to both the stroopwafel and the toothpaste tube petits served from the cart at The Modern. So I find all three instances to be really nice chocolate-with-pastry desserts, the kind that leaves you wanting seconds and thirds of.
The tri-story beef taught me how to eat beef again. On this, I have two, interrelated observations. First, it was a fairly meditative dish in which I found that in order to extract the flavor I had to actually chew the meat thoroughly. It wasn't obvious to do this, but the portion was big enough to try different ways of eating (and notice the minimalism on the plate, just the slab of beef to be attacked, and the small portion of really funky accompaniment). Second, like you I wasn't particularly sold by this dish *at the table*, but I found myself days and weeks after *thinking back to this dish*, especially in contexts where I was eating or cooking meat, thinking about flavor. So for me, this turned out to be a pretty powerful culinary experience, but not until *after* the fact. That is, if a dish can make a diner appreciate red meat anew, it's doing something right. (But as with the churro, I'll disclose that maybe I grew so fond of this dish, because I rarely eat red meat.)
On some of the other courses:
* Flax seed cookie - The platonic ideal peanut-butter-on-cookie, so gooey and delicious.
* Sunchoke and goat cheese - It says, cannolis are for kids
Lobster meringue roll - Agree, I didn't like this one either.
Scallops pickled tomatoes - I was least pleased by this dish. Everyone complains about the scallops in this one, and I kind of agree.
Ember beet - I just didn't "get" it. :( But it's cool to see everyone raving about it, maybe I'm just not noticing something. Possibly I found the sauce too cheesy for my taste.
*** "Razor clam" - Tastewise, a pleasant mix of textures, and it smelled like a *fresh* clam.
* Squid Ramen - Agree that the concept was a little cutesey/frivolous, but that is actually very good quality squid, and a generous serving of it. Sometimes minimal preparations work best.
Rose ice - I don't remember it tasting of anything at all.
*** Raw milk ice cream - Really, really fantastic, a superior ice cream.
* I had like, four breads, and they were all really great, I was very impressed.
I enjoyed the meal a lot, enough to be thinking of going back. And it's hard to compare value because the format is so different, with a dozen main dishes--I think "ambitious" is the word to use. At $160 base price there are certainly other choices; as an example I feel the strong pull of $70x2 meals at Kajitsu instead. In the end it's really up to the diner, and what their palate (and wallet) is ready to risk and accept.
I haven't been back to Kajitsu since the chef change, but that's one of my points exactly. There are quite a few places doing wonderful things with vegetables these days, and they become much more inviting at a lower price point on my assertion that Atera tends to miss more than not with their proteins.
On the beef dish, I did chew thoroughly. That was one of the great discoveries when I first had the calotte de boeuf at Per Se. That it grew in flavor with every chew and reinvigorated with every sip of wine. I like comparing restaurants, even hypothetically, and I just feel that with those same ingredients, any of the other top places I know would have come up with something more flavorful and memorable.
The raw milk ice cream definitely was great, and probably the reason I could get past the weirdness of the dehydrated tomato.