Atera - NYC

It has been entirely too long since my last post.

This summer has been a long one, full of surprises and seeming to never quite slow down enough for me to catch my breath. It has also been a summer of excitement, fulfilling experiences, and progressive steps both in my own culinary journey and the food style at First and South. I've just recently had the opportunity to step back (catch my breath), review the kitchen's successes and downfalls, and begun to evaluate a plan for the approaching fall and winter. It's been a tremendous learning experience to say the least.

Lucky for me, I did have a few opportunities to escape all the craziness this summer, if only for a few hours. The infrequent trips to the beach, woods, and quiet places allowed my brain a brief reprieve from the daily tasks and struggles that accompany running a full time kitchen. One such reprieve was in a short trip to New York City (the first since March) to have dinner at a new restaurant I've been drooling over since hearing of its conception.  It was just the escape I needed. A chance to relax, eat, drink, and be inspired.

Atera (which means "of the Earth") is a small intense restaurant, focused on bringing local, foraged, and inventive cuisine to the interested diner (or one just willing to be led on a culinary journey). I have to say, Matt Lightner's food stylings aren't for the faint of heart or palate. He often chooses challenging animal parts and flavor combinations that even I haven't come across. One thing is for sure. If you approach his food with an open heart and mind - you will love it. Guaranteed.

There is no menu at Atera - simply a willingness to comply. It is true that if you were to dine at a dear friend's home for dinner, the host would not offer you a menu, but make whatever they felt inclined to create that evening. Such is the case with Atera - even in it's cozy seating arrangement, you feel more as if you're dining at home rather than a Michelin starred restaurant.

A view of the kitchen/line. A centralized plate up table was situated in the middle of a U shaped bar where up to 15 guests could sit and enjoy the show...

Our first of several "snacks" before the meal began. A "cookie" made of malt, flax, and cold frozen pork fat. The outside of the cookie melted once it hit the tongue, while the middle was left with toothsome crunchies - much like a Nestle Crunch Bar. This course may have been very texturally interesting, but on a flavor scale, it unfortunately missed the mark.

The next was a dried sunchoke filled with strained yogurt and wild herbs. The sunchoke was fashioned in such a way that it mimicked a fallen tree stump that had rotted and filled with flowers and herbs. TIt was, first and foremost, beautiful. he textural contrast between the wonderfully crunchy sunchoke and the thick creamy yogurt was something to behold. The earthy, slightly sweet, and salty crisp was a perfect counterpoint to the delicate herbs, flowers, and tangy yogurt.

The following bite to arrive was in a somewhat familiar form. Atera's take on a lobster roll. Gracefully dressed lobster meat (perfectly poached) was squooshed between two unbelievably light toasted yeast meringues. They melted on the tongue. Tasted just like a lobster roll, absolutely no bread - pretty magical.

These were by far my favorite bites of the "snacks" portion of the meal. Frozen horseradish parfaits with grated mustard and halibut. We instinctively grabbed the frozen treats between the folded piece of wax paper and took a bite. The flavors melded beautifully. Spicy horseradish, subtle yet meaty halibut, and another kick from the mustard - like a fish dinner in frozen astronaut form. More delicious than I could have possibly imagined.

Pig's blood crackers with whipped pork fat. Tasty. Good utilization of product. Other than that, there's not much more to say about these.

Foie Gras Peanuts. Chilled duck liver mousse that had been pressed into a peanut mold. Looked just like the real thing, tasted nothing of peanut - which might have been a nice take actually.

Pickled "Quail's Egg". Quail's egg is in quotations here because this was yet another bit of trickery. These were not in fact eggs at all, but gelled mayos of various flavors. When bitten into, the egg burst with liquid "yolk" and the flavors of the pickling brine swept across your tongue. Another mark for presentation, but that was all.

One of Atera's already signature dishes - the razor clam. Completely edible, shell and all. The shell is made from dried painted bread and crunched delightfully, the inside was filled with paper thin strips of raw razor clam, clam mousse, and fresh herbs. Again, another textural adventure here.

This next course was possibly the strangest of all the dishes. A dried crisp made of lichen was perched upon a bed of rocks, underneath the crisp was a single dot of vinegar emulsion. The crisp was reminiscent in flavor of a dried mushroom, and the vinegar didn't really do much to bring it to that "next level". Aside from the excitement that this dish would bring to a biologist, I really saw no point. Sorry Atera.

Diver Scallops, Pickled Green Tomatoes, Sesame
The first course of the actual tasting. The acidity of this dish was refreshing and bracing. The green tomatoes were pickled in gin botanicals. Flavors of juniper, coriander, anise, and lemon jumped right out at you. Some of the rounds of tomato were false - they were in fact a green tomato sorbet that had been pressed into rounds - they melted away on your tongue instantly, leaving it cleansed. The sweet raw scallop was a real treat and the toasted, nutty sesame seeds made for some lovely texture. This dish was tiny as can be, but incredibly complex when it came to flavor. 

Peeky-Toe Crab, Young Artichoke, Herb Infusion. 
Another stand out dish. Young tender leaves of artichoke were stuck into a swipe of strained buttermilk on the side of a bowl. Meaty bits of sweet peeky-toe crab peaked out from within. The bottom of the bowl held a chilled, super aromatic infusion of herbs, namely dill and parsley. You could smell the broth before the bowl hit the table. A spoonful of the buttermilk, artichoke, crab, and broth made me nearly cry with joy. Incredibly fresh, stunning execution, tremendous flavors. This one was a real winner.

Lamb Tartare, Smoked Beefsteak Tomato with Rye Cracker. 
This dish was simply delicious. And I believe the answer as to why lies in that very statement - Simple. Two perfectly fresh ingredients were combined (in a way that frankly I had never seen before), chopped raw lamb, and a smoked tomato puree, served with a simple rye cracker. The combination was rich, intense, and primal. The earthy cracker was served on a rock and brought forth images of woods and meadowlands, grains swaying in the breeze. The lamb in question, was to be eaten near a smoky fire. In this case cooking it wasn't even necessary.

Seared Duck Heart, Tender Young Vegetables, Warm Mushroom Vinaigrette
This one was another eye opener and added another item to my list of thing I had never tried before. The vegetables were mostly raw (which wasn't a problem due to their age) aside from some of the tougher stems and roots which may have been blanched. All were mixed with various wild herbs and flowers - a very refreshing and light salad if you will. 
The duck heart itself was astonishingly tender, like WOAH tender. Couldn't believe it. We were told the hearts underwent a light pastrami cure before being seared and sliced. The middle of the heart was, for lack of a better word, completely raw - and boy was it GOOD! Not at all slimy or chewy as one might expect. The warm mushroom vinaigrette really tied the whole dish together by grounding (pun intended) the two elements.

The first of several bread courses was next to follow. That's right, bread service in the middle of the meal. When you think about the progression of a meal, this approach, although unorthodox really makes the most sense. Bread is typically heavy, rich, and filling. Eating it before a delicate course (like the green tomatoes and scallops) would have ruined the entire progression. This bread was of the hearty whole grain variety, served warm with house made butter that had been cultured with cheese rind. The butter in turn took on a delightful cheesy quality. The stick was sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and when combined with the bread was... heaven.

Our waiter simply described this next dish as "Chef's take on ramen." 
Interesting. And suspicious. In the hot bowl before us laid a pile of rice noodles, and a plastic packet containing what appeared to be spices and herbs. The server poured a steaming hot chicken broth into the bowl directly over the packet and it vanished before our eyes, literally melted away, leaving nothing but the various herbs. Have I mentioned I love magic?? THIS WAS MAGICAL. I proceeded to stir all the noodles around in the broth, excited to dig in. The ramen did not disappoint. The broth was meaty, rich, and warmed my core as a good chicken broth should. The noodles were perfectly cooked just a slight bite of al dente ten-  but wait. Something was different. Another bite. These noodles had a texture that was very strange. Delicious. But not quite right. I called our server over. "Excuse me, what are the noodles here made of." The polite server smiled at me gently as though he already knew what my reaction to his answer would be. "The noodles are made of squid, sir." Brilliant! The chef had taken fresh squid, sliced it into thin noodle-like strips and quickly blanched it. Unbelievable how much they resembled real rice noodles. This course was, unfortunately, the apex of our meal. The courses to follow were all incredible in their own right, but in my opinion, they did not stand up to the first five.

The next bread to arrive, a sourdough type of roll brushed in hot pork fat. It literally oozed warm fat when you bit into it. In a word, bliss. This roll needed no butter. Reminded me of a very savory doughnut.

Beet Ember. 
This dish was... strange. I'm not sure if all the components worked quite as well as the chef thought they did. The large lump of coal in the background is actually a roasted beet (roasted very well I might add) coated in a black malt crust. When that crust was broken, the piping hot beet revealed itself to us in all it's bloody, earthy glory. 
The beet itself was delicious, no doubt about it. Surprisingly meaty and fulfilling. It was the accompanying garnishes that threw me off: Smoked trout roe, a shellfish emulsion, and oyster leaf. The beet was great, the accompanying garnishes were also great. I'm just not so sure they worked together. Again, just my opinion.

Honey Brined Hake, Strained Yogurt, Milk Thistle. 
This dish was nice, but not standout. It just didn't have that wow factor like several of the other dishes. The fish was nicely cooked and the wildflower honey brine lent it a subtle sweetness, almost scallop-like. The strained yogurt was a nice touch and added a creamy, tangy element that the meaty hake really needed. The milk thistle, as far as I'm concerned, had no purpose other than being able to say you put milk thistle on the menu. Despite these miniscule flaws, I did make a mental note to myself: honey and fish, when done properly, can be a delicious combination!

Barbecued Veal Sweetbreads, Hazelnut. 
Let me just start by saying I love sweetbreads (thymus gland of a young cow). I also love bbq. I also happen to love hazelnuts. This dish should have been a no brainer, but it just fell short. The sweetbread itself was slightly undercooked which made it a little more rubbery than it should have been. The hazelnut glaze was nice, sweet and nutty, but it wasn't at all reminiscent of traditional bbq. There was no tang, no smoke. Lastly, a single limply charred garlic scape (the top of the garlic plant) was placed next to the sweetbread. Why? I'll never know... 

Mangalitza Pork, Purple Carrots, Licorice. Another astonishingly simple dish. This one was all about proper execution. A perfectly medium slice of pork loin, delicately glazed in its own fat. It glistened in the light. A single carrot - beautifully cooked. Much like a piece of meat (maybe that's the correlation the chef was going for here) it was tender and toothsome, but still had the slightest crunch to it. The carrot was dusted with a dark licorice powder. It was initially sweet, then earthy, and lastly felt cool on your tongue the way an anise flavored liquor would. The two together were a match made in heaven. Initially, I was going to critique this dish for not having a sauce. But after remember how stinkin' juicy that slice of pork was, I don't think it needed a sauce at all. 

White Rose, Wildflower Sherbet. An excellent way to begin the dessert courses. This was cleansing and refreshing. The rose was made of a frozen gel flavored with wild white roses. The sherbet, I presume, was steeped with wildflowers. Both components were very aromatic. The dish was small and precious, and upon eating it, I was transported to far away meadows and flower fields. Very effective.

Peach, Sunflower Toffee. Another bit of Atera trickery. A perfectly poached peach (not at all mushy or slimy) was set in the center of a chilled plate, peach pit and all. The pit itself turned out to be a frozen sunflower seed toffee. Not only did the textures play well with each other, but the flavor combination of sunflower and peach were delicious.

Strawberry Shortcake, Wild Strawberries, Raw Milk Ice Cream. This was a special dish. The "shortcake" was in fact cake that had been blended, folded with ice cream, and remolded - so something like a vanilla cake ice cream. The tiny wild strawberry were absolute flavor bombs. Wild strawberries are scarce and hard to find. They are sweet, tart, and concentrated with pure strawberry flavor. Seeing them on this dish made me laugh like a kid. SO grateful the chef was willing to share them with us. Lastly, very few dairies in the country are licensed to sell their milk raw (that is, without pasteurization) and with good reason. However, raw milk has everything that you want in a dairy product. It is rich, complex, and if done right, probably tastes something like what the cows have been eating. The three components combined (along with a little mint), made for one hell of a dish. 

Churro, Salsify, White Cardamom, Cinnamon. The surprises continue! A bite from this churro led me to believe that something was up. Only when asked, did the server reveal to me that the churro was made entirely of salsify (a long slender root vegetable). It was coated in sugar and cinnamon, and a white cardamom chocolate ganache enriched the bite considerably. Surprisingly tasty.

Bourbon Cask Ice Cream Sandwich, Almond, Vanilla. A traditional ice cream sandwich with a twist. The vanilla ice cream base had been aged in bourbon barrels. So while the ice cream contained no bourbon, it still carried that smoky, oaky, flavor with it. It was sandwiched between two malt and almond cookies.

Black Walnut. The last trick of the night. Two truffles were disguised as black walnuts lying in a bed of moss. The resemblance was uncanny! Upon biting into them, they oozed with rich caramel, surrounded by a very dark chocolate and cocoa shell. I couldn't picture a better way to end the already spectacular evening.

I think it's obvious from my course descriptions what I thought of this new gastronomic masterpiece. The food was beautiful, inspiring, and magical - but above all else, simply delicious. There wasn't a single course that didn't want more of. Matt Lighter has created a fantastical "Fern Gully" of restaurants, that transport the diner far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Stepping back into the streets of Manhattan was a harsh reality that came crashing back onto us very quickly. On our walk back to the car, I secretly longed to travel back to the forests, sea sides, and meadows we had just visited...

Eat Well, 

**Photo Credits: Katelyn Nicole Luce 


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About Cooking Curiously...

This is a place for food nerds to roam free. A place for me to document my tales and experiences concerning that wonderful substance known as FOOD. I find it incredible how many forms it can take, and the impact it can have on our lives. Hopefully, I can make some of those forms tangible here. The following posts will range from travel stories to new dishes and recipes, some restaurant reviews, maybe just an interesting food thought. Regardless, this is meant to be an open forum for both myself and any followers. Feel free to post and comment. Enjoy!

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