Sunday, March 10, 2013

Chef's Tasting | Atera

As I've already pointed out, February is a very meaningful month for me. Not only does my own birthday fall on the shortest month of the year, it also does so for one of my best friends, Lisa, who is no stranger on Four Tines one bit! So one thing is always in order -- where were we to go pig out and properly celebrate our birthdays? We've done the classic New York establishment (Eleven Madison Park), an authentic yet creative sushi omakase (Sushi of Gari), and a "secret and exclusive" restaurant with a heavy Japanese flair (Bohemian). What could possibly compare (or dare I say, top?!) to the awesome experiences we had at these restaurants? We knew we wanted to at least try for something completely different than any place we've dined at together -- something we weren't familiar with, something outside our comfort zone. So we threw things into the air like the Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Blanca, and Atera. Problem with these is what I like to call the Impossibility Factor. Account for how many seats are available each night and multiply that with how many seatings there are daily, then factor in their respective reservation policies and procedures. The fewer seats there are and the stricter the policies are, the more impossible it is to not only nab a reservation, but to get through to the receptionist in the first place. We've tried many a time for the Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare (oh, how many a Monday afternoon we've attempted to get reservations two months out...), proving only to be met with defeat and fruitlessness. I haven't tried for Blanca, and I would've normally considered it more for our birthdays, but given my erratic work schedule during this time of the year, making it out to Brooklyn on time for a reservation of this nature was more stress than I was ready to handle. So a meal for another day! :)

That left Atera, our glimmering beacon of hope for a original, new cuisine to tickle our palates. But with such ambiguity of where we'd be celebrating always comes a contingency plan (we had Soto in the back of our minds in the spirit of the familiar and of our forever love of Japanese cuisine), fingers crossed that our original plan would stick. My attempts for Atera began last December, where I was met with endlessly dial tones, punctuated with a prompt to leave a voice message for the receptionist regarding reservation inquiries. After two days of this uncertainty, I was finally greeted by a receptionist who took down my information and would call me back to let me know if my desired dates and times were available as they were planning for some guest chef dinners around that time which still needed to be sorted out. I waited, and when I hadn't heard back from them in a week's time, I called them back once again to follow up. Thankfully, the receptionist was able to squeeze us in for an 8 PM reservation the evening of Friday, February 7. Wahoo!

For those curious, the reservation policy at Atera has changed since I made our reservation. You can now make reservations (maximum party size is five) one of three ways. No longer with OpenTable, Atera is now listed on City Eats with select reservation listings available. Additionally, the reservation desk is open from Monday through Friday from 11 AM to 2 PM. Your last option is to e-mail the restaurant directly at It is a tasting menu only restaurant, with meals that typically last about two to four hours, depending. Along with all this, the restaurant also requires prepayment at the time of reserving (i.e., $209.35 per person, which includes $165 for the tasting menu, an 18% gratuity, and sales tax). Wine, cocktails, and additional discretionary gratuity will be billed separately the evening of your reservation. Once reserved, all sales are final, though reservations are transferable, subject to availability, should you need to make changes.

Anyway, to continue our epic birthday dinner saga, Winter Storm Nemo was pretty determined to ruin it for us. The Thursday night before our reservation, all the news stations were running rampant with warnings, precautions, and prepations needed to be heeded  due to the impending storm. Bottom-line: it was going to get ugly. I got the call from my office that morning, requesting that I work from home (eek!). I looked outside -- the snow was coming down very hard, sticking even! Was the dinner at Atera not meant to be? I had really hoped that this wasn't so. Keeping my fingers crossed for the duration of the afternoon, I received a call from Atera. I held my breath -- could it be that they were calling to inform me that the restaurant was going to be closed that evening? No, say it ain't so! I tend to have a mindset of the worst case scenario when it comes to things like this, so that certainly didn't help. To my relief, they were only calling to see if an earlier reservation would better accommodate my dinner party with the storm taking over Manhattan and all. So I did the sensible thing and moved our reservation up to 6 PM. Phew, another close call!

So there we were -- Lisa and I trekking through the streets of Lower Manhattan (let's face it -- they were wind tunnels at this point) with the wet, heavy flakes of snow blowing in our faces, drenching our winter coats. Miraculously, we somehow managed to make it to Worth Street in one piece, with the hungriest appetites. We were ready.

01 - interiors

The interiors of Atera were a lot darker than I had imagined in my head -- I was expecting more white, but dichotomy of the dark woods against the slabs of granite and slate turned out to be quite fitting for what Atera had in store for cuisine. Along with {2} the standalone communal table tucked away inside the restaurant, there was {1,3} seating surrounding the open concept kitchen with the widest counters and decently lofted ceilings, where Lisa and I sat for the duration of our meal. The lighting was selective and deliberate, setting the tone for what was to come.

Matt Lightner is the chef behind the brilliance that lies within Atera. His "pursuit of culinary excellence began in some of the world's finest kitchens." His past repertoire includes Copenhagen's Noma (with Chef Rene Redzepi), California's L'Auberge (with Chef Paul McCabe), and Spain's Mugaritz (with Chef Andoni Aduriz). It was during his time in Spain where Chef Lightner "gained a very natural perspective of modern cooking that built the foundations for the cuisine that garnered him accolades at Castagna in Portland, Oregon." Opening Atera close to a year ago to date, his latest venture here proves to be his most ambitious, as it "relies greatly on his innate connection to time and place to create a dining experience unique to itself." His aim is to have the food at Atera to be "unique, fun, clever, fresh, and seasonal" allowing its guests to "enjoy an experience that appeals to all senses: sight, smell, and taste." Each visit promises a new culinary adventure, as the menu is constantly changing every few weeks.

We were greeted by the nicest service team, including Joe, the lovely gentleman who was our captain for the evening. Once we were seated, not a wasted minute elapsed. It was like imaginary dominoes were set into motion, with their momentum picking up once we began our first "courses" -- the snack portion of the tasting menu.

02 - snacks
{1} Our meals each began with a beer foam buttermilk macaron, interior complete with sturgeon roe and crème fraîche. We loved this first bite -- undoubtedly indicative of what was to follow. It had a subtle intensity to it (sturgeon roe will do that to you), and the dark, wheat-like flavor from the beer foam played well against this. {2} Next came the coriander flaxseed cookie with mushroom powder -- also interesting and quite good, considering its overall earthiness that was clearly underscored by the essential flavor of mushroom that coated the cookie in a concentrated dust. {3} The kitchen at Atera continued to impress as the meal progressed onto the lobster roll on a dry yeast meringue. I think it was lightly "toasted" with a kitchen blow-torch -- look at that beautiful, lightly browned exterior! Everything that people love in a lobster roll was condensed in this one bite, as it collapsed onto itself, revealing favorably dolloped chunks of lobster meat and the lightest, fleeting merigue bun. {4} The snacks went on with sunchoke chips with strained butter and sour cream -- Chef Lightner's interpretation of the cannoli. While Lisa wasn't a fan of this, I really liked it -- clearly they had me at cannoli. The cream had a savory factor to it (notably discernible from the typical sweeter mascarpone piped inside the pastry shell), as the sunchoke only emphasized this factor even more. A cannoli can work as a savory course in the same way we've seen in crêpes and their fillings.

{5} Halfway into the snack portion of the meal, we were served a pig's blood wafer made from wheatberry with chicken liver and huckleberry jam inside and a pickled quail egg nested in a bed of loose hay. The wafer proved to be too out there for me (a little gamier for my liking, from the chicken liver mostly), but Lisa loved it to bits (say chicken liver, and she's there). The pickled quail egg was vinegary and was easily gone in one swallow, especially if hard boiled eggs are your thing. {6} I was puzzled by the sixth snack, which consisted of lichen chips (i.e., chips contrived from rock tripe) with black trumpet mushrooms and dried cornmeal. How fascinating that the chips were plated as if the rock tripe was back in its natural habitat. So clever! The taste, surprisingly enough, was redolent of deep-fried shrimp chips with the texture just more delicate. {7} When this came out to us, I nearly squealed. I knew what was contained in those pearly, curved stalks. Oh drool-worthy marrow! The lightly torched and blackened hearts of palm with bone marrow ragù was essentially a trompe l'oeil of original vessel from which the marrow came. Quite a literal play on marrow bones! If I had to pick a favorite snack, it would be this one. Last of the snacks was the {8}belly of swordfish cured and smoked like American ham. Thin and silky, it had a refined smokiness to it, and just when you think you're having a slice of legit cured ham, your tastebuds pull a quick one on you. Ha-ha, it's swordfish!

These nibble-worthy teasers were glimpses into the mind of Chef Lightner and the dynamic menu he has crafted at Atera. Could easily classify them as captivating, gastronomic mind games.

02a - drinks
Beverage-wise, we were offered a wine list as well as an unprinted rundown of select cocktails available to be crafted that evening, proving one true thing -- the captains at Atera are assuredly the most Renaissance-like service team I've ever seen. Not only do they expedite everything, entertain guests in between courses, and replace serviceware as the meal continues on, they also tend to bar service. They made each of our drinks! {1} I had a cocktail that contained mezcal, grapefruit juice, and some bitters (if I recall correctly, haha). I've been on a mezal kick lately, so it really hit the spot, as it was refreshing and had an well-balanced undertone of smokiness. {2} Lisa was a little more adventurous and tried the beer "shandy" cocktail that had a citrusy elements to it and a splash of vinegar. However unusual it sounded, it was absolutely delicious!

02a - bread
If you could judge the quality of a restaurant by its bread selection (I can attest that most of the best restaurants I've been to have one hell of a bread line-up), then Atera is no doubt up there. We got to sample the homemade rye bread with a butter that was blended with cultured cheese (giving it a little je ne sais quoi to its taste and texture). If we thought that wasn't fabulous enough, out came the sourdough roll basted in pork fat (yes, you heard me correctly, ladies and gents!) later on in the meal. The roll was indeed basted quite well, where with each bite, little droplets of fat oozed out slowly, and our fingers were left with the faintest glaze of oiliness. It was well worth it. Lisa even requested for a second roll.

With a tiny reprieve after the snacks, the larger-sized courses were soon served -- the next set of courses I would characterize as items you may find as starters/appetizers if Atera had a la carte dining.

03a - mains
{one} Imagine our excitement when we saw that golden lobe of sea urchin wading underneath the microgreens. This was pine nut miso with sea urchin and nasturtium (i.e., tropaeoleum majus). Upon tasting a bit of the sea urchin, Lisa and I automatically looked at each other, saying in unison, "Santa Barbara?! Yes, it has to be!" We asked Joe where it was sourced from -- Maine, he said. We've had our fair share of sea urchin in recent years where I thought we'd be able to discern its terroir (I supposed we're kind of snobby in that regard, haha), and the inarguably buttery texture here was a pretty disconcerting. It doesn't match up to what our palates were telling us, we told Joe. Our uni-fu was out of whack...or so we thought. We were just about to put our confusion to rest, accepting defeat, until Joe came back to us, saying that they had switched to Santa Barbara sea urchin that evening. Maine had been consistently sourced for the preceding evenings' menus, he explained. Complete honest mistake meant victory! Lisa and Stefie, 1; tricky echinoderm, 0.

{two} Second course was the diver scallops with fermented cabbage leaf, cabbage ice, and salad burnet (i.e., sanguisorba minor). The scallops were lovely, whose ideal temperature remained intact as a result of the cabbage ice. Very earthy indeed.

{three} What followed was the lamb loin tartare with black malt cracker, which at first glance, resembled a part of the rock on which it was served. I had never had a tartare of lamb before, so there's a first time for everything. It was not much different from steak tartare, only it had that overlay of expected lamb-y gaminess. Thankfully, Lisa and I love lamb enough to not really notice it -- I only wish there was a little higher cracker-to-tartare ratio. By the end, it was hard to consume all of that raw meat without a carby buffer. Still great nevertheless.

As dinner continued to progress, we moved into some heavier courses, what I would refer to them as more petite entrée-like.

03b - mains
{four} The mind games started to intensify with this course -- "noodles" with red rambo radish (i.e., raphaneous sativus) and concentrated "soup packet" onto which a hot broth was poured over into the bowl. Funny play on instant ramen noodles with the naturally crafted soup packet (potato parchment enveloping select herbs and spices), but what instantly clicked was that the "noodles" were not in fact noodles. They were made from squid! Loved that little twist -- expectations and actuality at odds!

{five} The amusement didn't stop there. Joe brought out the dried beet ember (dusted in hay ash) with smoked trout roe, crustacean (sea urchin, lobster, and roe) emulsion, and upland cress (i.e., barnarea verna). I think I may have not heard the first part about the beet, because I didn't realize that the rock-like thing on my plate was actually edible, not until I looked over at Lisa in complete awe that she was able to "cut" into a rock. You got me, Atera! The hay ash really gave the beet some extra character and brought it into a completely different flavor realm. The creamy and briny crustacean emulsion paired nicely with it all, coming together as one well-composed dish.

{six} The last of the seafood courses was the cod a la plancha brined with wildflower honey and served with a small pool of yogurt, carrot, and crushed nuts (either walnuts or hazelnuts). The cod was just exquisite -- flaky, buttery with honey glazed in all of its little crevices. The nuts and carrot added some contrasting texture and really brought out the flavors of the cod. Very well done!

03c - mains
{seven} As minimalist and abstract as the last course, next came the roasted aged squab with fresh peanuts (very soft!) and burgundy cold (i.e., oxalis articulata). The aging of the bird certainly added something extra to this course (very savory, juicy, and flavorful -- even just for this sliver of meat here). Easily one of the best squabs I've had the pleasure of tasting!

{eight} Last of the savories was the wagyu beef strip with toasted wheatberries and winterbor kale (i.e., brassica oleraceae). Triple wins for this course -- one, for the awesome marblization in the wagyu (ZOMG, so good!); two, for the inclusion of wheatberries (one of my new favorite grains to enjoy -- the toastedness made it even more awesome); and three, for the beautiful leaf of winterbor kale that made me change my mind about this vegetable, as I had previously written it off as too bitter. I think I've finally joined the bandwagon -- I can finally say that I enjoy kale, thanks to Atera.

As for the wines we had for our series of entrées, Lisa and I sipped on two different whites (for Lisa, it was the Clairette de Die Traditional (a "Cuvée Impériale") produced by Jalliance from the Rhône region of southern France with no vintage; for me, it was the assyrtiko produced by Domaine Sigalas from Santorini, Greece with a 2011 vintage) -- both of which had some noteable mineral qualities to it that our sommelier invited us to pair well with our meal. They went stunningly. As for the red, Lisa and I each had the grenache/mourvedre (a "Vieilles Vignes") produced by Château du Mourre du Tendre from the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages in France with a 2005 vintage. I loved this wine, but I think Lisa really fell in love with it, so much that she had a second glass of it!

At this point in the meal, I was very surprised how the gradual (and fitting) progression of the meal was starting to fill us up, leaving a decent cushion to conquer dessert.

04a - dessert
{nine} This first dessert was a monochromatic creation of pear with almond milk ice cream and mead (i.e., apis mellifera). This was a nice segue into the sweeter courses of the evening -- very delicate in flavors with the pear and almond pearing with the relatively heavier flavor from the mead (very honeylike). Loved the almond milk ice cream!

{ten} Next we had another visual play on food -- "cracked egg" with goat milk ice cream, sugar, and egg yolk jam (prepared sous vide). The partially broken shell (made from a milk chocolate, I believe) was made to emulate a cracked egg (thus, its name) with the goat milk ice cream as the egg white and the egg yolk jam as the yolk. Very artistic and visionary! Though the ice cream was a little too savory for my liking (still acquainting myself with goat cheese these days), Lisa absolutely loved it -- right up her alley!

{eleven} What followed was a banana split with spiced marshmallows and candied parsley root (i.e., petroselinum crispum). There was an unusual progression into savory desserts as this portion of the meal wore on (as opposed to traditionally "sweet"), and this was especially evident with this dessert, especially with the inclusion of parsley root as an ingredient. It was almost like a dehydrated version of the usual banana split with all the trimmings, only much more lenient on the stomach and waistline (i.e., not as heavy with ice cream and whipped cream). The parsley root was an interesting touch to it, somehow making it a more matured dessert (if that's even possible).

{twelve} With another game up his sleeve, Joe had us try to guess what the main ingredient of this course was, with a hint that it begins with an S. It was on the tip of my tongue, but I kept getting distracted by the sugared exterior, making it majorly obvious that it was a twist on the churro, those deep-fried Spanish confections. Though I had to resort to Google, we finally concluded it was salsify in churro form, served with cinnamon and white cardamom (i.e., elettaria cadamomum) as well as some chocolate spread for dipping. You can put cinnamon sugar on anything, and it'll taste good, even on a root vegetable like salsify (typically found in European cuisine), but the white cardamom gave it an even further twist -- a lingering gingery flavor on the palate. Add the chocolate, and it was perfect!

04b - dessert
{thirteen} Last of the desserts was the bourbon cask ice cream sandwich with almond, vanilla, and oak (i.e., quercus robur). This ice cream sandwich very much reminded me of an Oreo in some regard -- just with a slightly spiked center (woohoo bourbon!) and a more intense from the oak.

{fourteen + fifteen} As mignardises, we were given two kinds of chocolate truffles -- a hazelnut truffle and a black walnut truffle. Both were amazing, though the walnut truffle, of course, was texturally and contextually the more noteworthy. It took shape like a walnut shell, sitting on a bed  of greens, as if just fallen from its tree. Both had the right amount of ganache melting with the nutty flavor bursting from inside.

A meal for Lisa and me is never complete without pots of loose leaf tea for each to relax and ruminate with over the details of the meal that just transpired before us. Lisa enjoyed a jasmine green tea while I had an oolong, both of which were brewed at ideal temperatures and steeped precisely with a timer. The teas we had here were divine -- so much that  they resteeped the leaves for us so we could enjoy another cup each.

Lisa and me celebrating our February birthdays at Atera.

Findings: Wow, oh wow. You have no idea how much I've been waiting to write up my review on all this and the sheer wondrous ingenuity of Chef Lightner and his team in the kitchen. I am relieved that I've finally found the time and words to do just that. I am unashamed to say that I may have found where the direction of creative fine dining is headed in New York City -- right here in this little establishment. With his continental and global influences that he carried under his experienced toque -- Western American (SoCal/Portland), Nordic, and Spanish -- Chef Matt Lightner creates a very unique experience with the restaurant's dynamic tasting menu that is bound to stun, wow, and awe. Not all things at Atera are what they seem, and these playful surprises that continually change every few weeks (as the menu evolves with a balance of the seasonal offerings and creative inspiration) are what bring the restaurant's loyalists back for more -- god knows I'm officially an Atera-phile now! :P

While the cuisine and cookery is pretty impeccable, I cannot forget to note the service team that kept us entertained, quenched, and content. From the moment we stepped into the foyer until we retrieved our coats to bid adieu, everyone was very welcoming, knowledgeable, and helpful. We were being tended to without becoming overwhelmed, which was key, and the beverage service offered many winning recommendations that complemented our preferences and tastes. Everything about dinner service was totally seamless, and we loved Atera even more for that. The positive interaction between us and the service team (especially Joe, our captain) really made the experience for us.

Lisa and I have been loyal patrons at Eleven Madison Park for the past three years, if only because of the unparalleled service and the talent in the kitchen. I'll always have a place in my heart for it, but the recent menu change (though I cannot observe for myself -- only through Lisa's most recent experience) doesn't have me as hopeful about its sustainability as my top favorite. So I dare say it -- Atera outdid itself that evening and has us proudly noting that it has become our new favorite fine dining locale. This dinner was unlike anything I had ever experienced in this dear city of mine, and I cannot wait to return to experience an entire new menu by care of Chef Lightner. Thanks again to everyone at Atera for making this such an unforgettable birthday celebration for us! :D

Price point: $165 per person (prepaid with an 18% gratuity and sales tax), $12-18 for each glass of wine, $16 for each cocktail.

--Febraury 2, 2013

77 Worth Street
New York, NY 10013

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