When it comes to combining the elements of “New Naturalism” with the techniques of Vanguardist cooking, Chef Matthew Lightner of the new Atera in NYC learned from two of the very best and it shows both in his cooking as well as the style of the restaurant that he now leads. With a stage at noma and 18 months working at Mugaritz under Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, Lightner took those influences and others and has forged a personal style that is elegant, comfortable and above all, delicious.
Atera is a small restaurant located near the southern end of Manhattan on Worth Street. The restaurant that Atera most closely resembles in terms of its layout is Brooklyn Fare, though the similarity ends there. Both restaurants feature small u-shaped dining counters overlooking the open kitchen that lies in the back like a stage. The center of each “u” is reserved primarily for service, though some food preparation does take place there. This is somewhat different than Nashville, Tennessee’s The Catbird Seat, another new restaurant with a u-shaped dining counter. At the Catbird Seat all of the cooking and service occurs within the center of the “u.”
The atmosphere and decor of the three restaurants, as well as the service models differ once one gets past the similarity of the diner’s vantage points. At Brooklyn Fare, the mood is casual. The backdrop is a window open to the street and there is a great decorative emphasis on pots, pans and above all, an incredible fetish for china and flatware. At The Catbird Seat, the interior is minimalist, but comfortable with service directly by the cooks and from outside the “u”, from Jane Lopes who is in charge of the beverage program. At Atera, service is as refined as any three Michelin starred restaurant and the setting is quite elegant. The backdrop is dark, but there are spot lights so that the food’s finely tuned visual appeal can be fully appreciated. Somehow, the room manages to be warmly enveloping, but still cool at the same time.
Dining with a friend, we were seated in the center of the counter directly looking on to the central work space where Chef Lightner and his Chilean born sous chef Victoria Blamey, who first met Chef Lightner while working at Mugaritz, put the finishing touches on each dish.
Upon being seated we were asked if we would like a cocktail or some wine. Three house cocktails were described, each one sounding delicious, I opted to start with their version of a Vesper. This cocktail had gin, vodka and in place of Lillet, a house aromatized Pineau des Charantes, prepared with fresh and dried wormwood, other bitter ingredients, bergamot and white cardamom. The result was wonderfully dry, herbaceous and rich – an extremely elegant cocktail that any contemporary James Bond would adore.
My friend opted for the tequila based cocktail. This one was abetted by grapefruit and a licorice syrup. It proved to be a bit sweeter than expected, though still delicious and refreshing.
With cocktails comfortably and quite satisfactorily in place it was not long before the snacks started appearing. The first used the crisped skin of a jerusalem artichoke as a carrier for strained buttermilk that had a Greek yogurt-like texture, brassica flowers fresh herbs and chickweed. The dominant chord was of the jerusalem artichoke, but the other components added delightful riffs that played well off of that chord. The crunch of the crisped root kept rhythm along with some counter notes from the buttermilk. This was something that would also have been quite happy amongst noma’s snacks as well.
Andoni Luis Aduriz is the chef that Lightner considers as his mentor. The next snack, savory granola coated with black sesame butter shared Aduriz’ often minimalist visual aesthetic. This was a delightful savory bite that while bearing Aduriz’ influence, combined several ingredients in a way that I had never previously experienced.
Three snacks came together. The first was a bitter and crunchy malt cracker.
The cracker was followed by foie gras peanuts…
…which in turn was followed by pickled quail eggs. Conceptually, these once again owed a lot to Lightner’s mentors, but once again, these were delightfully original takes within that style that it was becoming quite clear, Lightner had mastered. Each was fun and tasty bite, but the quail eggs, in particular, were special. These were pickled to an interior that had the consistency of an aioli with light acetic notes that brightened the flavor. This was a fantastic bite!
Coming east, Chef Lightner’s friends urged him to try a lobster roll. He did and incorporated one into his “snacks.” This, of course, aside from being delicious, was not a typical lobster roll. Using only claw meat and mayonnaise, Lightner had fun with the bun. This was a meringue that was lightened to even more ethereal levels with yeast. This is the kind of dish that brings a childlike smile of memories recalled and this one did.
Beer cocktails have become quite popular and although my friend and I passed over Atera’s on the first round, we were encouraged to try it and we were both glad that we did on this round. The cocktail was centered around a Belgian Saison that was combined with a rhubarb, wildflower honey shrub, lemon olio-saccharum (lemon-sugar oil) and Peychaud’s and orange bitters over crushed ice. It was refreshing, balanced and delicious, probably the single best cocktail I had in a week filed with excellent cocktails.
Is this a new trend? Just a few weeks ago, I ate a razor clam dish served in a faux shell at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. Once past the general concept these were two very different dishes. This one was filled with diced razor clams, while the one at Osteria Francescana was filled with a variety of seafood and seaweeds. The one at Osteria Francescana came with a finishing shot of razor clam broth, while this did not. The shells were similar conceptually, but not in their specifics. This one actually looked and felt more like a real razor clam shell. It had striations, was a bit thicker and crisper and the technique was based upon Albert Adria’s air baguette technique. The one at Osteria Francescana was more delicate. Both were delicious. I wonder if one inspired the other or whether both were inspired by yet another iteration that I am as yet unaware of?
Seaweed crackers were crisp and tasted distinctly of the sea. I was pleasantly reminded once again of noma’s version of the New Naturalism.
It had been dusted with hay ash and underneath had what looked to be a small green mayonnaise serpent.
Lightner served the next dish. It was poultry stock that had been reduced down to the point that it could be pealed back from the pan and dried to the point of nearly becoming a cracker. This made a sandwich for a creamy feeling. The flavor was not quite as chickeny as I expected, but it was deep and full of umami.
This dish reminded me of one that I had eaten at noma. Here, Lightner used young garlic roots, whereas at nome Rene Redzepi used leeks. In both cases, we were instructed to eat just the roots. In Lightner’s version he included an aioli of confited baby garlic on the roots. The dish was not as successful as the one at noma as the roots were tough and difficult to bite off from the base. Ultimately, this was the dish that both my friend and I felt was the only unsuccessful dish of the evening. It had flavor, but the payoff was too small for the difficulty involved in eating it.
Some dishes are beautifully presented, but not in the least delicious. Other dishes are delicious without any care paid towards presentation. This dish, our first official “course,” was just as delicious as it was beautiful and it was very beautiful. Unfortunately, my photos don’t really do it justice. With a base of sheep’s milk yogurt with shad roe folded into it and herbs and flowers around it, the dish was topped with a circle of rhubarb ice dusted with licorice powder. With this dish, Lightner achieved incredible balance and lovely flavor and textures. The rhubarb ice was delightfully refreshing. It was creamy, crunchy, cold and floral. The plating shared an aesthetic with both Aduriz and Redzepi, but the costruction and flavors were entirely Matt Lightner’s. This dish is a great example that he was a student of both these masters, but also someone who is able to apply the lessons learned in new and exciting ways.
With the snacks and at this point, our cocktails now finished, it was time to move deeper into the main menu and begin the wine service. Instead of wine pairings, we opted to try several different half bottles of wine selected by Atera’s superstar sommelier, Alex LaPratt. The first, right up my alley was a nice, crisp German Riesling from the beautifully acid-rich 2010 vintage, the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese from J.J. Prüm, which held us through the fist few courses.
The wine paired spectacularly with the diver scallops with yuzu, gin botanicals and pickled white strawberries. each bite was different with some bites featuring yuzu, others the scallops, which had been pickled in gin botanicals and still others a combination of elements. The yuzu was prepared as an ice with buttermilk as the vehicle. This dish was simple in some respects and deeply complex and others, while totally enjoyable in every respect.
This next dish, pastrami-cured duck hearts with spring vegetables, both pickled and fresh and a dried mushroom and fish sauce vinaigrette, was served as an extra course not on the menu. The duck hearts had been pickled with pastrami spices, sliced thinly and spread amongst the vegetables. This dish is a masterpiece. It is exciting and delicious with an array of textures and complimentary flavors throughout.
Is delicious sufficient or must a main ingredient taste of itself for a dish to be successful? My friend and I were at odds over this dish. While I enjoy and respect preparations that pay total homage to the main ingredient (no one does this bitter than Etxebarri’s Bitor Arguinzoniz), I believe that deliciousness is the ultimate objective. If good ingredients are sublimated to that end, so be it so long as the end result is delicious. My friend feels that the main ingredient needs to be highlighted and supported rather than vice versa and if that is not done, then the dish is a failure. Lightner’s Fluke with barbecued onion, coriander and fennel seed was the dish that brought about our dscussion. This was a brilliantly flavorful dish with superb textures, but the fact that the dish was built around fluke tartare, who’s special qualities were hidden by the dish’s more assertive and quite delicious flavors left him feeling disappointed with it.
I have written my thoughts on bread service on numerous occasions.
Atera’s bread is superb, with a variety of breads served throughout the meal.
Their butter made in house with Battenkill Dairy cream, which is aged alongside a JasperHill washed rind cheese, before it is made into butter. The result is a very European and very delicious cultured butter. It was hard not to slather it on the bread in great quantities.
When presented with such an array of wonderful dishes, it is often difficult to pick a favorite, but this next dish made that much easier to do. A very Adurizian preparation, Lightner’s squid and lardo with a squid and pork sauce was simply and utterly delicious. The sauce was reminiscent of one I had at Mugaritz. It had that same viscous mouth feel and depth of flavor that plunges right to the soul. As my friend said, “this is the dish that will make him famous!” While this may not be Chef Lightner’s only one, I do agree that this dish deserves great fame! It was certainly the dish of the night and one of the best I have had so far this year.
Another dish that should make Chef Lightner famous is his Dried Beet with trout roe, Bordeaux spinach and crustacean sauce.
The slow cooked beet had been covered with toasted black bread and was delicious in and of itself, but the addition of this wonderful crustacean sauce was sheer genius, taking this from a very good dish and making it a great one.
By this time we had need of another wine. This time, LaPratt chose a 2010 Vouvray, Le Mont Sec from Domaine Huet. As with his earlier choice, this was crisp and delicious, also pairing well with the next few courses.
These little bits of heaven came pre-fatted with no need for butter. They had been basted over the top with pork fat. The bottoms had a texture like fried dough.
Good descriptors get the digestive juices flowing. Soft shell crab generally doesn’t need any additional descriptors to get my mouth wet and ready. Same is true for brown butter.
This dish had these and more in its description. There were dried capers, a dusting of brown butter sediments, wild greens, kelp, the crab body stuffed with amaranth and the claws were individually seared. I was filled with excitement.
The dish was good. It was quite tasty and very creative, but ultimately, I would have prepared a simpler, well prepared whole soft-shell crab dredged in flour and cooked in brown butter with capers and lemon. Maybe it was the amaranth, an ingredient that I generally like. I suspect it was added to impart additional texture, but I think it diluted the flavor of the crab too much. This was a dish that I really expected to love, but I didn’t. In contrast to all of the dishes that preceded it, I just liked it. Perhaps, it was just that I was starting to get full and my taste buds were starting to fade.
If my taste buds had become a bit drowsy, they were reinvigorated by Chef Lightner’s next dish. Line caught halibut had been lightly smoked then poached in whey. It was served with spring garlic, roman chamomile, lava flowers and a sauce based on whey, an infusion from the halibut’s bones and more chamomile. Unlike the previous dish, I could not reference this one to one classic to me. Perhaps that was the difference. The crab did not surpass its more familiar to me preparation. This one, not having a point of comparison, excelled. The flavors were clear and balanced without over-reaching and the flavor of the fish was recognizable and clearly present amongst its delicate supporters.
The next course needed a red and Alex LaPratt brought the 2001 Viña Ardanza Riserva Especial from La Rioja Alta for us to try. This was a big, oak filled wine. My tastes of late have moved away from oak, preferring wines that focus more on the grapes than on the wood. I told Mr. LaPratt that I would prefer to drink something else.
He obliged with this lovely 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva from Felsina. This was still fairly big, but with less oak up front.
Lightner’s squab was plated simply, but looks can be deceiving. This was far from a simple plate. The squab was dry aged and served with dried pear skins, yes pear skins, that had been dusted with tarragon, elderflower and hops, a variety of greens and a seared, pickled ramp. The sauce was made from squab, ramps and pear vinegar. The effect was delicious.
Lightner’s main meat course was built around a loin of lamb grilled with spicebushand hay. The plate included baby spring onions, garlic mustard greens, spruce tips and wheatberries in an emulsion of duck egg and wheat grass. This is a dish different than one would find at noma, but similar in spirit to the kind of platings done by Rene Redzepi and his crew. There, the dish might have been prepared and plated in a similar fashion, though with mostly different ingredients. It was a delicious and interesting dish. Is it any wonder why the New naturalism has garnered so much attention and so many accolades? Not with dishes like this one, it isn’t.
To begin the latter part of our meal, Alex LaPlatt broke out something special, the 1985 Moulin Touchais, a non-botrytised sweet wine from the Coteaux du Layon in the Loire Valley. While I have enjoyed a number of legendary sweet wines over the years, this was one that I had never previously got to experience. This was honeyed, but balanced with great acidity, the way that any great dessert wine is. It was brilliant.
My friend and I were all in for the optional cheese course, which included four different cheeses, all of American origin. It was served with an apple bread. From left to right above, the plate included “Moses Sleeper” from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont; Ascutney Mountain from Cobb Hill Farm in Hartland, Vermont; Mountaineer from Mountain Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia; and Mossend Blue from Bonnieview Farm in Craftsbury, Vermont. All of the cheeses were supplied by Anne Saxelbyand were extraordinary. American cheeses have arrived and these examples were proof if additional proof was needed.
The first dessert was called rock, which is exactly what it appeared to be. It looked like a nice, gray, rounded river stone with a bit of moss.
Unlike most stones though, this could be cut into and unlike most stones, it was rather delicious. The inside consisted of a Meyer lemon and wild ginger sorbet. On the outside, there was a soft crust made from brown butter cookie dough. The moss was a parsley meringue that had been frozen and shaved on top of the rock. Underneath lay wheatberry gravel. This was magnificently tart and slightly sweet. It was totally refreshing and invigorating. Clever and delicious is a wonderful combination.
The second dessert was banana ice cream studded with marshmallow and candied parsley root. On top there were pieces of lemon chiffon and dried milk skin. This had great flavor, but the overall balance was a bit on the sweet side for my preference.
Like the play on the lobster roll and the softshell crab that came earlier, this was an interpretation of an American classic. In addition to wonderful strawberries, the dish included wild ginger ice cream, a frozen shortbread cake with toasted flour and sheep sorrel, the latter item keeping everything in harmony and balance. This was a great interpretation of the classic and did what reinterpretations like this should do: it made me smile.
Served on a frigid plate, the main element of this dessert was made to appear like a lump of charcoal.
The “charcoal” was actually a chocolate meringue that had been aerated and bathed in liquid nitrogen. It sit atop goat’s milk ice cream. This was another lovely combination that was full flavored and well balanced.
The mood this final dessert created was one that would fit seamlessly in the autumn, but managed to work just as well in the spring. Bourbon cask ice cream was made by steeping Battenkill Valley cream in a recently retired Tuttletown Bourbon cask for two weeks before it was made into the cream. The resulting flavor was subtle, but present. This was paired with a malt and hazelnut cake that had been lightly dipped in Bourbon, chickweed and beautiful and delicious “oak leaves” and “twigs.”
The end of an amazing meal was nigh. A beautiful Austrian nocino from Nux Alpina was a lovely way to ease into the finish.
The petits fours, as always in finer dining establishments, brought up the rear. Black walnut caramels and hazelnut truffles were perfect with the nocino and a particularly fine and appropriate way to end this glorious dinner.
It seems that exciting food and fine dining are returning to New York again. From the ill-fated Pillar and Plough and Romera to Isa, Acme and Atera, chefs with creative vision (successful or not) have once again been opening restaurants in NYC. I never made it to Romera in NYC, but my meal ay L’Esguard outside of Barcelona back in 2005 was superb. By the reports I heard, Romera was a different restaurant than L’Esguard. Though much of the food was the same as Miguel Sanchez Romera served back in 2005, the concept of Romera with its water pairings and its incredibly high introductory price sounded pretentious and a set-up for failure. In contrast, Matthew Lightner, came to NYC with little fanfare after garnering rave reviews at Castagna in Portland, Oregon.
Chef Lightner’s influences, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Rene Redzepi, are readily apparent in his work. He learned a lot from them and is not afraid to use what he learned, but that doesn’t mean that he is simply copying them. Lightner is not quite as “technoemotional” as Aduriz nor as regionally identified as Redzepi. Rather, his work is a continuation of a school of cooking that goes back to at least Michel Bras. Lightner has been a very astute pupil and has incorporated what he has learned into his style, a style that I expect will continue to evolve the longer he is in NYC. Lightner, based on this meal, works in this style very well, creating dishes that are beautiful, delicious and (mostly) novel. His cooking is exciting. It is a breathe of fresh air to see his style of cooking in NYC, especially in a restaurant that is once again welcoming elegance and fine service back to the city. It seemed that these were the threatened species of NYC fine dining, but Lightner, General Manager Eamon Rockey and the entire staff have managed to make a restaurant that is both elegant yet extremely relaxed and comfortable at the same time. This combination of factors – delicious, beautiful and creative cooking, an outstanding beverage program, perfect service and relaxed elegance make Atera, for me, the most exciting new restaurant in NYC in some time.
Edited to add: I have just learned that Alex LaPratt has left Atera. This is unfortunate news.