If I had to sum up my meal at Atera in one word, my choice would be ‘unnatural’.
Strange choice, considering that the restaurant that employs a full-time forager and is helmed by a chef with staging experience at Noma, the Danish institution of everything foraged and fresh. But what word can better sum up the sometimes puzzling, occasionally revelatory, usually delicious and invariably interesting dishes that made up my dinner?
“Some beer foam to start?” “The next course is bone marrow *wink*”. “Yes, lichen, the symbiotic relationship of fungi and bacteria, is edible”. “That (white crisp)? That’s the beef tendon”. And all that was only the pre-meal snacks.
What isn’t unnatural at all, with the exception of the playful snacks to start, is Chef Matthew Lightner’s commitment to producing beautiful, harmonious and delicious courses of food.
Sometimes he takes the easy route with the self-evident use of animal fat together with a control and balance that brings out the best from saturated fatty acids.
On occasion though, true inspiration arises from the plate and what starts out as bewilderment from the list of ingredients turns to ethereal bliss.
Apart from the the wholly unilluminating use of the word ‘delicious’, it’s hard to pin down the identity of Atera with one easy concept that fits into the paradigm of modern dining trends.
The foraging aspect is certainly played up. Presentations come alive as a result of the well-chosen local garnishes and the menu that I take home is accompanied by species names for the each of the foraged components.
Never do the foraged plants or self-grown vegetables take center stage though. Atera is no Blue Hill at Stone Barns and the tiny space hidden inconspicuously in Manhattan it occupies will never be mistaken for a bountiful farm.
So what if we approach this from the other big name of Chef Matthew Lightner’s culinary resume, namely 18 months spent at Mugaritz, the heart of whimsical gastronomy in San Sebastian.
Yes, each plate is likely to contain at least one component whose appearance and/or texture will make you question your server’s explanation. Seeing heart of palm masquerade as a bone or a piece of Colorado River salmon prepared in the style of Virginia ham will do that to you.
But just like the foraging aspect, the food doesn’t rely on scientific tricks to achieve success. And that is why I must reach back and grab onto the one strand of continuity in this meal: unnatural.
Atera has rightfully earned 2 Michelin stars since its opening last year and it won’t be long before more accolades come running its way. It’s well deserved for how it breaks away from existing paradigms on food to find its own little niche.
Whether Chef Lightner can maintain the allure with time like wd~50 remains to be seen. Even with the initial success, there are still some kinks to be worked out before Atera can vie to be one of the biggest names in global dining.
Service was impeccable for the foodies becaue of how much the waitstaff knew about the preparation of each dish, but the pacing of the meal got jumbled as a result and there were a few pauses of noticeable length.
Some have criticized their policy of charging the tasting menu price (no à la carte menu here!) plus the 18% gratuity before eating at the restaurant (ended up being $210 without drinks) but to be honest I don’t find the policy or price too unreasonable and three days is a understandable commitment to ask for when preparing a meal with such intricacies.
Even in its current incarnation Atera is well worth the visit for the interesting if not always tasty pre-meal snacks and the faultless dedication to flavour and texture of the main courses and desserts.
Never has unnatural tasted so delicious before!
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
Beer Foam Macaron, Crème Fraîche, Caviar – 3/6 (Good)
What better way to start a meal than with a macaron? Only in the strange gastronomical world of Atera of course. Savoury macarons are on the rise but going from savoury to beer foam seems like a little stretch.
The beer foam macaron shell was tasted like a denser version of a dehydrated crisp with a distinctive texture of solidified bubbles and barley flavours that felt unmistakably like beer foam, if eating beer foam was ever supposed to be natural.
Moistening the beer foam a little was the slight tartness of a well-prepared crème fraîche and the expected pop of the caviar underneath. The latter part did fall a little short though. The creme held its end of the bargain, but the salinity of the caviar felt a little weak compared to the beer foam and the caviar ended up being a little lost in the whole snack.
I liked the juxtaposition of beer foam bubbles and caviar conceptually, but the final result fell a little short of what it could have been.
Flax Cookie, Pine Nut Butter, Coriander, Mushroom Powder – 2/6 (Okay)
Texture texture texture. It can be just as important as taste when evaluating how much I like a dish. In spite of how interesting and unique this flax cookie was, I’m hard-pressed to say that I liked it one bit because of its texture.
When I hear the word cookie I imagine a gooey and buttery texture, not the gummy mouth-sticking creation that resulted here.
The flax gave this snack a strong earthy feel that was augmented by the distinct nuttiness of pine nut and some coriander, although I wished the ‘butter’ in pine nut butter was stronger even if it made this less of a health snack!
Mushroom powder sounds great in theory, but all it seemed to do was absorb every last drop of liquid in my mouth without imparting much umami although it did some added earthiness.
I didn’t mind the earthy flavours at all, but I wanted a total do-over with the textures.
Lobster Roll, Yeast Meringue – 4/6 (Very Good)
Macaron, cookie, _____. What completes the blank? At Atera, lobster roll is the correct answer.
Instead of the typical buttered-up bun, the pairing for the lobster was a light and airy yeast meringue that gave a firm crunch before disappearing without a trace after entering the mouth. The yeast flavour was quite light and I don’t think I would’ve noticed it without prior notice but I didn’t complain because it meant that there was nothing to mask the lobster!
The texture and flavour of the lobster was totally different from what I’m used to in a lobster roll. Its meat had a round yet firm texture that didn’t seem to fall apart in strands and retained moistness really well.
The taste was as unnatural and delicious as I’ve ever had lobster and felt as if the lobster flavour had been concentrated without any seawater flavour retained. No butter or mayo needed here, just one damn aggressively flavoured lobster. I’m really curious to see what the cooking technique for the lobster meat was!
It’s not quite the no-holds-barred buttery satisfaction of a typical New England lobster roll, but this was a delicious and interesting lobster treat!
Cannolo – 2.5/6 (Okay – Good)
- Sunchoke skin crisp, sour cream powder, steamed buttercream
Chalk up another one on the curious but unmemorable snacks (or should that be savoury desserts?).
Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are starchy tuber vegetables similar to potatoes in consistency. The sunchoke skin was extremely hard and crisp with a light dusting of a potent sour cream powder. Again I found myself using the word earthy to describe the sunchoke skin, but it was mild at best and I couldn’t identify the sunchoke element.
Accompanying it was a steamed buttercream. The steaming took out most hints of butter leaving a pretty light and slightly sweet cream.
This was an interesting creation, but not particularly noteworthy in terms of taste and I found it to largely be a study in textures with the sunchoke skin and acidity from the sour cream powder.
Beef Tendon, Cured Egg Yolk – 4.5/6 (Very Good – Excellent)
As different as this may be from tendon’s natural form, I’ve actually had beef tendon prepared in the style of chicharron before, namely at Diva at the Met in Vancouver when it was headed by Hamid Salimian.
The appeal of serving this is understandable, as beef tendon in crisp chip form is probably the farthest thing texturally from its normal gelatinous state.
The true magic here was the “sauce” for the tendon chip. Cured egg yolk? Yes please! Only a light dusting of the
cured egg yolk fairy dust was needed to turn this from interesting to memorable.
All the richness of egg yolk and the funky effects of curing somehow became concentrated in a powder that added a liveliness that I would never expect to taste in beef tendon. Package these in potato chip bags and I’d never buy any other snack from the supermarket!
Pickled Egg - 5/6 (Excellent)
- Egg aioli (yolk) + milk gel (white) pickled in spices including mustard, coriander and thyme
If you’ve eaten at any trendy restaurant in the past year, chances are you’ve seen something pickled on the menu. Everyone’s looking to get into this age-old tradition and artisanal pickling groups like Cultured Pickle are gaining popularity by the minute with their meticulous approach to the craft.
It can’t be that special then for a Michelin-starred restaurants to be pickling eggs then correct?
This may have been technically a pickled egg, but it’s about as informative as calling a lion a ‘cat’ is. It may have presented as a freshly-laid egg, but this was definitely no normal egg!
There was so many different flavours here it was almost impossible to keep up! The foundation was a creamy egg-forward aioli with a delicate balance of garlic and olive oil wrapped inside a milk gel, largely for texture rather than flavour.
Now time for the pickling! The pickling liquid was described as a pretty standard concoction including mustard, coriander and thyme. The result was a complexity of taste that felt wholly unnatural yet irresistibly delicious.
What was an unusual construction masquerading as an egg still managed to feel like one even with all the other influences that threatened to derail its essential flavour.
Totally unnatural, but I don’t mind bending the laws of nature if the result is this tasty!
Pig Blood, Huckleberry, Chicken Liver Pate – 2.5/6 (Okay – Good)
Somehow pig blood crackers keep popping up on menus even though the reception is usually negative.
So why my lukewarm review? No it’s not the idea of pork blood, but rather how diluted that flavour was. I’m no stranger to eating pork blood, namely in the form of gelatinous cubes in hot pot, so I really expected this to have a stronger ferric taste and was left wanting.
It’s partly influenced by culture, but I don’t find anything instinctively revolting about the taste of blood. Yes, the iron can have a strong overpowering flavour, but limiting our definition of pleasurable foods to savoury and sweet while ignoring other tastes severely limits our appreciation for the vast universe of flavours that exists.
I felt the same way about the chicken liver pâté. It didn’t have quite the buttery texture and liver taste that I was going for and as with the pig blood, everything felt too safe about this combination. I did notice the huckleberry though and liked how it balanced the astringency of the crackers.
To be fair, the clientele at Atera wasn’t foodie heavy and a good number of the people there were simply looking for a nice meal without the same level of curiosity about the food as most destination restaurants.
Given the level of talent on display throughout this meal though, I really wanted something more representative of the ingredients used.
Lichen, Black Truffle, Herbs - 3/6 (Good)
This was my first time eating lichen and more likely than not one of the few times I’ll be eating lichen in my life. Somehow I don’t see lichen replacing ketchup chips as a Lays flavour…
Surprisingly, the taste of the lichen was not as earthy as I imagined it to be even though there was still a hint of that in the crisp. I loved the presentation though with the lichen perched on top of a rock as is often the case in nature.
Flip the crisp over and you find two types of dip: a black truffle dressing and a herb based mayo. I really enjoyed the herb mayo which had all sorts of nuances in flavour yet was simple and creamy at the same time. The black truffle sauce was a little sour for my liking which overpowered the truffle taste.
Bone Marrow - 5/6 (Excellent)
- Grilled heart of palm with veal marrow
I’m usually not one to be obsessed about trends, but one thing I don’t mind seeing back on menus is bone marrow! I grew up in a culture where bone marrow is revered as a premium food though so it’s never really died down for me!
Arguably the highlight of this bone marrow was not the marrow but the bone itself! The heart of palm was showcased wonderfully with the perfect tender bite from grilling and a delicate but distinct and slightly tart flavour that reminded me of fresh white asparagus I had in Barcelona.
Filling in for the bone marrow was, surprise, real bone marrow! It was taken from veal and had this addicting salty and umami kick that almost felt fishy in the manner of salt cod. It didn’t have any of the porous and soft bone marrow texture and overall it reminded me of an Asian MSG-based snack in a good way.
Aperfectly cooked vegetable paired with irresistible umami dust. This was so good that no fancy presentation was needed, but that extra bit of creativity put this over the top!
Thanks for reading and check out PART II for the amazingly delicious seafood part of the formal meal!