At Atera, nothing is surreal as it seems. The blink-and-you-miss-it Tribeca doorway is discerning as it is a portal to a culinary Narnia, where chef owner Matthew Lightner promises one of NYC’s most inspired and dazzling dining experiences. Lightner opened Atera slightly a year back in March after winning a national reputation at Castanga, Portland, while cooking at Noma and Mugaritz prior. Technical mastery and sensitivity to nature distinguishes Lightner’s vision and character in his multi course tasting menu, spanning more than 20 plates over a time period of easily three hours.
The counter surrounding the open concept kitchen surprisingly houses 13 unexpectedly comfortable high chairs, where you steal glances of cooks solemnly engrossed in the work, primarily arranging food and condiments of hay, fresh moss or even polished bark. Ever masterpiece ends with a tweezered embolishment of the most unimaginable vegetation: glasswort, wisteria or even black locust blossoms. Intriguing.
Atera’s ” Vesper”
Atera’s cocktails are possibly the most inventive and articulate I’ve ever experienced ( Aviary aside), where Scott, the sommelier gives an ethereal recommendation of starting of with a Beer Cocktail. Comprising primarily of Voisin Belgian Saison as the base, the concoction mixed with rhubarb, wildflower honey, lemon, and bitters struck you on all senses, while seamlessly integrating with the series of imaginative snackings that followed. The ” vesper “, prepared with gin and vodka, came across as an extremely elegant cocktail, with a subtle fragrance of bergamot and a herbaceous dryness to it.
1. Beer Macaron, Sturgeon Caviar
Savory flavored macarons seem to be trending these days, where many tend to be misses than hits very often, this was actually pretty remarkable. The firm yet brittle texture of the meringue shell encompassed a juxtaposition of flavors, glamoured with the finishing touch of caviar salinity and a subtle lightness from the effervesce of creme fraiche.
2. Flaxseed, Coriander Cookie
The flaxseed cookie wasn’t as impressive as the macaron, while I found the the earthiness from the incoporation of dried mushrooms to be rather enjoyable.
3. Lobster Roll, Dry yeast meringue
An East Coast transcendence, this wasn’t any ordinary lobster roll. Comprising of only claw meat and mayonaise, the most remarkable aspect of the roll was the unique play of incorporating an yeast meringue bun, texture wise similar to an Air Meringue, aerated with a discerning puff at the end. Amazing
Dehydrated to the point that it shackles with the lightest touch, the sunchoke wafers rendered on the heavy side flavor wise, and at times too briny.
5. Pickled Quail Eggs & 6. Pig’s Blood Wafer
The ideology of pickled quail eggs evoke memories of Lightner’s early development to his mentors. A taste and texture sensation, the whimsical approach of actually establishing the shape of an egg from a base of aioli rendered me speechless. The pig’s blood wafer paled in comparison with a gamey first impression, where the filling of smoked cheese actually gave an interesting contrast.
7. ‘Whole Razor Clams’
Evolution of the modernist cuisine sometimes result in the boldest, unthinkable creations. The best part? You actually get bowled over and think, wow I just wish I had another bite of that. I stared in disbelief as one of the chef’s said ” Go on, the whole thing is edible”. Appearance-wise it seemed as tho the shell made from baguette and painted in squid ink was inedible. Filled with poached razor clams, the entire ” bamboo clam” embodied the natural flavor of the sea.
8. Rock Tripe
As pragmatic as I am on trying anything, consuming rock tripe, an algae that grew on rocks was a first. Weirdly or rather the initial flavor was a subtle nuttiness, but the extremely bitter aftertaste was somewhat overbearing and unpleasant.
9. Swordfish Belly
Pounded then lightly smoked, the swordish belly could have easily been mistaken for a slab of smoked ham texture wise, however packed with a smokey robust crustacean flavor.
10. Uni, Pickled Sweet Potato, Oxtail Broth
It took an hour or so before the meal started off proper with the first substantial course. The creaminess of the freshly shucked Santa Barbra Uni was something right up my alley. Flavor wise it took a halt midway when the evolving hot sour aspect of the oxtail broth embodying an oriental touch to it got too one dimensional.
11. Diver Scallop
Seemingly simple but deeply complex, scallops that were cured in gin packed a nice alcoholic punch with the different condiments and elements with the yuzu aspect primarily outstanding.
12. Crudo of Fluke
Another seafood course followed, where the tartar of fluke garnered mixed responses. The tartar itself brought about a sense of deliciousness and assertive flavors, but the topping of a warm onion sauce unfortunately masked the dish’s most remarkable aspect.
13. Tartare of Lamb Loin, Black Malt
Consuming the tartar distinctively comes across as rather odd initially with its distinct gaminess, but compounded together with the excessive bitter aftertaste of the black malt cracker evokes a sense of cohesiveness.
14. Seared Duck Hearts, Young Vegetables
The variety of more than a dozen blanched tender young root vegetables was a sight too pretty to resist, with each mouthful packed with a different neutrality and flavor. Inspired by Michael Bras’s Gargouillou, but better with the addition of ducks heart pastrami, which in fact had a very ducky taste to it somehow.
15. ” Ramen”
A bowl of ” Ramen ” that followed brought back fond memories of my childhood with convenience being the most admirable aspect of it. I was left to figure that the ” noodles ” weren’t actually proper noodles made from flour but actually shrivels of lightly blanched squid that packed a distinctive chewiness, while exuding the fragrance of sunflower oil. The most engaging moment of the course had to be the dissolving sachet made from potato starch as the wholesome Chicken Bouillon was poured into the bowl as I gleefully slurped down every mouthful, while embracing youthful memories.
16. Brined Hake, Yoghurt
Fish which tends to be on the oily side are never my cup of tea. The delicate piece honey brined hake was cooked to perfection and surprisingly, It wasn’t as oily as I had expected it to be. Good, but something I wouldn’t have on a regular basis.
The vegan course unfortunately comes across as the most uninspiring with the feature of a celeriac confited then slow roasted till tender in a Yam crust. The distinctive root flavor of the celeriac is rather unusual, and definitely not for the common palate.
18. Roasted Squab, Foie Peanuts
A change in tides follow with a stellar meat course, featuring a game bird with much excitement. Prepared the traditional way, the squab is seared skin side down for the desirable crackling exterior, before being finished off in the oven. Quick glances at the perfect hue of pink didn’t make things any better, where the fact that the flavor of the meat really came through without being excessively gamey had me sold. An interesting thing to note was the pairing of a petite foie gras terrine shaped in the form of a peanut. Rich, flavorful without being too overly cloying, and most definitely a perfect accompaniment.
19. Beef Strip
Equally as impressive as its predecessor was the beef, a thick slab of a 28 day dry aged Creekstone Farms New York Strip. At this juncture, I was starting to lose hope of ever coming across a slab of meat as stellar as Peter Luger’s. Lightner tells us to hold for a second, while he drizzles rendered age beef fat over. It was that transcending moment I had been searching for all this while. Meltingly tender while eluding a musky, ethereal beefy flavor, you most certainly couldn’t ask for anything more!
20. Pear, Almond Milk Ice Cream
We were feeling rather queasy at this point that we opted to skip the cheese course, a signal that the series of savory courses had ended. I was left rather intrigued at the theme of a pear dessert which saw slices of pickled pear dehydrated which gave much intensity in sweetness. The addition of milkshake soil and almond milk ice cream actually worked, giving rise to really maddening textures.
21. Raw Milk Ice Cream, Branca Ice
Texture rich, real raw milk is nothing like the run of the mill milks cartons you usually get from supermarkets. Interestingly or rather the use of raw milk gives ice cream a granulated texture, which on the hindsight adds some depth. The Branca Ice shard which reeks excessively of vodka shows promise when taken together with the ice cream.
22. Parsley Root Split
Quintessentially conceptualized on the ideology of the classic banana split, you had banana ice cream studded with marshmallow and candied parsley root, topped with lemon chiffon and dried milk skin. A very clever play indeed, where the dessert showcased great flavors, but rendered a little too much on the sweet sight, preferably suited for diners with a sweet tooth perhaps
Again we were left to figure what exact the ” Churros” were made from. I came close with a rather pragmatic answer of celeriac, only to be corrected that candied salsify was used instead, dusted with sugar and cinnamon powder before being deep fried to a perfect golden brown.
24. Bourbon Cask Ice Cream Sandwich ( Screams TKO)
25. Petit Fours
At times, Lightner’s food fails to live up to its striking first impression. The urge to show off a trump may be rather silly at times, but queerly or rather pleasing in all retrospect. Influences from Andoni Luis Aduriz and Rene Redzepi are readily apparent in Atera’s cuisine, but that doesn’t mean he’s copying them. Seasonal cooking has been condemned cuisine to a narrow alley of simplicity. Matthew Lightner however chooses a different path, foraging a whole new different entirety to recreate moments of genuine beauty. His cuisine isn’t as flawless as Keller’s Per Se or Ripert’s Le Bernadin, but Atera promises arguably the cities most fascinating dining experience to date.
77 Worth Street (Broadway), (212) 226-1444