One of the problems for me with writing about restaurants is that it is difficult to return to places that I’ve been and enjoyed when it seems that there is always something new and exciting that I have not yet experienced nor written about. Nevertheless, I do go back to old favorites when I can, but I do not necessarily write about them unless there is something compelling about the experience that will add to the discussion of the restaurant and the chef. Such was the case with Atera, Chef Matthew Lightner’s modern fine dining restaurant located in lower Manhattan. My first meal, had shortly after the restaurant opened, was excellent. I wrote at the time,
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.
During that first meal, Chef Lightner’s influences from Andoni Luis Aduriz and Rene Redzepi were clear and they were welcome as there wasn’t anyone else at the time in NYC doing anything quite like it. With this meal, however, Lightner’s influences, while present, were less obvious and his food more distinctively his as he built upon some themes and earlier approaches. That first meal was exciting because it was fresh for NYC and very, very good. This one, however, was even more exciting, because it showed that the voice of a top young chef has grown more clear, refined and personal as well as being even more delicious. Pair that with some of the finest service around, an intimate setting conducive to conviviality (each time we made friends with our neighbors at the u-shaped dining bar overlooking the open kitchen) and a great beverage program and one has a recipe for one of the very best restaurants in the country, let alone NYC.
My son and I had an early reservation. I was to meet him there and I arrived early for the reservation, prior to the restaurant’s opening. Waiting in the foyer outside the restaurant, I was able to overhear Chef Lightner’s briefing to his crew. It happened to be the day that the restaurant had been re-upped with two Michelin stars. Not to rest on their laurels, as with all great restaurants, Lightner paid attention to the details and focused on them in his presentation. I smiled at the thought of what was to come.
The pow-wow soon broke up and I was greeted and escorted to The Lounge at Atera, a basement bar, for a cocktail while I waited for my son. The downstairs space is intimate and cozy, though perhaps a bit cramped and dark for those with a touch of claustrophobia. It is also a fine way to sample some of the food of Atera as they have a bar menu.
The weather was unusually hot and summery for early October, so I had a Summer Comfort, which by my good fortune was still on the menu. It was refreshing, frothy and very, very tasty. The head bartender is Benjamin Foote. The cocktail hit the spot just in time as my son arrived and we headed back upstairs to the dining room.
We were seated in the exact same spot that I had been seated the first time I had been to Atera, that is, in the middle of the u-shaped dining counter facing the open kitchen – perfect! It got even better, though. Remember, how I wrote that it is easy to make friends while dining at the Atera counter? Well, it just so happened that one of the fellow diners I had become friendly with at that first meal, a fellow food-blogger by the name of Matt Abick, had been so enthralled with the restaurant that he now works therein the FOH as a Captain. Matt was our Captain and could not have provided better or more knowledgable and fun service. Witty, erudite and extremely personable, Matt did a tremendous job and not just with us as we were able to observe his interactions with the other diners too. Matt’s lead was followed by the rest of the service staff too as the service achieved just the right balance of formality and enthusiasm. I have only had equally good service at a handful of restaurants in the United States. Oh, and Matt started us out with a nice bit of bubbly from Playez-Jacquemart, a non-vntage blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
As with most top high end tasting menus today, our meal commenced with a number of small snacks. The first, beer foam macarons with creme fresh and caviar set the tone for the rest of the evening. Sweet, salty, crunchy, light and utterly delicious, it was a wonderful beginning.
The second snack was another stunner. Beets had been lightly pickled and coated in bees wax. The beeswax added texture and a bit of a honey flavor. This was fun and delicious.
Geoduck and air baguette was reminiscent of the Jamon Iberico with Air Baguette at Tickets, minibar and Bazaar, but the exchange of the jamon for the geoduck made a huge difference, making this an original take on a classic of the Modernist idiom.¹ Another similarity with the Spanish classic was that the bite was delicious.
Amaranth Toast with Ramp Tartar Sauce and Trout Roe was another well conceived and executed nibble. The delivery of the bites was particularly fun as they came on a bed of spongy moss, which provided its own set of tactile pleasures.
This dinner was almost completely different from my first. One exception was the continued presence of Lightner’s take on a lobster roll. This had changed slightly from when I first had it, but its essential nature was the same. The light sweetness of the meringue “bun” worked to enhance the lobster’s natural sweetness. For anyone who has followed this blog, it should be apparent that the balance I least prefer in my savory courses is gratuitous sweetness. I don’t mind sweet, so long as it is in balance and has a real purpose. This dish was sweet, but it didn’t go too far. Lightner did a fine job of keeping that element in check even while highlighting the lobster’s sweet essence.
The snacks had all so far been superior, but the next one took it up yet another notch in the cleverness department. Beef tendons had been slow cooked on the bone for twenty-four hours until they fell off. They were then cleaned, dehydrated and flash fried before they were served with an uni-fish sauce to create a crisp, delicious, unique and fun snack a la shrimp toast.
The next snack came in two parts. The first was a pickled quail egg and the second were wafers made from pig’s blood sandwiching a center of chicken liver paté and huckleberries. Nice.
The next snack was a bit of a surprise in that it had the distinct feel, look and taste of comfort food as opposed to the high concept, technique driven cuisine that had preceded it. That is not to say that it wasn’t great or didn’t belong on the menu. It was truly delicious and showed another facet of Lightner’s cooking. It was perhaps the simplest dish on the entire menu or at least it appeared that way. Onions had been marinated in sherry vinegar with cayenne, salt, pepper and olive oil and then layered on top of the sourdough toast. Cabot Cloth-Bound Cheddar was then melted on top. Ultimately, it was elegant comfort food that my son said that he “could eat all day.”
Lightner has a penchant for trompe l’oiel like pieces. He enjoys playing with his ingredients to create things that look like and represent one thing, but come from something actually quite different. This snack, which included the “bone” was completely edible. Obviously, the “bone” was not actually bone. Stepping in to mimic the bone was heart of palm. The bone marrow was actually bone marrow. The dish reminded me of his previous razor clam dish without being as derivative.
One of the more intriguing snacks was the swordfish belly. This had been cured and had a chewy texture that was not as fatty as tuna belly. With noticeable, but not unpleasant saltiness, the bite had a nice flavor that would benefit from additional familiarity. This was, in essence, the exact opposite to the cheese/onion/toast dish. Where that was immediately approachable comfort food, this was unusual and challenging as we had to search our taste memories for descriptions, characterizations and context. Both dishes were quite successful for what they were, while the contrast in approaches increased their individual and collective appeal. This was the last of the little bites as we moved on to the next phase if our meal.
The snacks were fun, intriguing, creative and delicious, but it was here that Lightner started to get truly serious. Much of hat we had experienced had been the product of his playing. That is not to belittle the bites. That is just to say that they were clever and fun. With this next phase, those elements weren’t forgotten, but the results were more about emphasizing the serious nature of top flight combinations of flavors and intricate, finely tuned technique. Starting with the caviar and black walnuts, a dish that visually reminded me of a bowl of lentils, Lightner explored the elements of saltiness and bitterness without letting either get out of hand. The nuttiness on the finish left this as a dish that will haunt.
With the next course, Lightner served the first of a number of true “wows.” While it turned out that all of the orbs were Jupiter grapes, it was not readily apparent before eating them that at least some of them might not have been olives too as visually the grapes looked quite similar to olives. Instead the olives were present as a tapenade under the grapes as well as with olive oil. An unintuitive combination to me, the dish was sublime with a perfect sweet/savory balance. It was one of the very best dishes that I have had all year.
The next dish was served by Chef Lightner himself and was another “Wow!” Though he called it “a simple salad of artichokes” it was anything but simple. Using parts of the artichoke often discarded, Lightner transformed them into something truly special abetted by a touch of vinaigrette.
With the artichoke course out of the way, we started the main phase of the meal and a progression of wine pairings chosen by Sommelier extraordinaire Scott Cameron. His first choice, designed to accompany our next dish, was a Pinot Grigio. actually made as a light rosato. It was creamy, soft and a beautiful match with the next dish.
I must admit, I had some trouble with this dish, but I did eat and enjoy it. It was indeed rather delicious, but then bluefin tuna, when well handled, usually is. I no longer order bluefin and generally prefer to avoid it, given its shaky status as a species. As such, I will not address this dish further.
One dish that I will address further was Lightner’s sensational white on white on white construction of garlic, razor clams and almonds. A brilliantly conceived and executed dish, the presentation was marvelous². This was truly food as art. It was delicious and subtle with slight variations in texture. This was another of my favorite dishes of the year.
It was extremely well paired with a beautiful, crisp junmai sake. It was clean and light on the palate, but with an earthy savoriness.
I do love sea urchin. It is not often that I don’t like it when it is in good hands, but on the same token it is not easy to make an uni dish that stands out beyond others. Lightner did. He paired Santa Barbara uni with a variety of flower petals (calendula, sunflower and nasturtium) along with carrots prepared several ways (blanched carrot purée, roasted carrot miso and soy combined with heavily reduced carrots). The result was sensational. The textures were smooth and creamy, while the flavors were sweet with a touch of sour. It was truly a fabulous combination that was synergistically enhanced by the pairing.
Cameron used a beer for this pairing. Mean Time, a British porter from Greenwich (thus the name), was light for a porter with a maritime sea foam quality and, of course, bitterness from the hops. The bitterness played nicely off the sweetness of the uni, while the foaminess of the beer worked to cut through the creamy smoothness of the dish.
Sometimes a dish will bring entirely unexpected taste associations. Black Cod Sashimi with Crispy Skin was such a dish. It tasted like a Montreal style bagel with cream cheese and lox. When I told the waiter about my surprising association, he went and found out that the dish was actually made with strained buttermilk. I wasn’t totally crazy after all.
It has been an exceptional year for scallop dishes. Another to add to the list was this one from Chef Lightner. The live scallop was gently cooked over the coals. The scallop and the roe sac were served with fermented cabbage and hazelnut butter.
Grüner Veltliner is a versatile food wine. Its minerality works well with a wide range of foods and it worked quite well with this dish.
It has also been a great year for beet dishes and Chef Lightner delivered here too with another sensational dish. Dried beets were matched with gorgeous blackberries and a brown butter consommé. Another “Wow!” dish, this combined fantastic textures with an intensely savory and buttery sweetness. Not to be dismissed was the dish’s visual appeal. The bleeding of color from the beets into the consommé was beautiful beyond what I was able to capture in the photo above.
Once again, the pairing of beverage with food was synergistic and outstanding. This time, the liquid vehicle was a French cider from Normandy made by the former Chef-Sommelier of L’Arpege, Eric Bordelet. The cider was earthy, intense, complex, just slightly sweet and absolutely delicious.
Sake is such a food friendly beverage. Somewhat neutral, it has plenty of flavor without being overly assertive. Once again, it provided a stellar match for the dish it was paired with.
That dish was in itself another knock-out. Peekytoe crab raviolo in a toasted grain dashi was so full of finesse as well as flavor. The raviolo skin was made from yuba with the crab set in a lobster sabayon as the stuffing. The flavor was pure crab highlighted by the depth and umami of the dashi – terrific!
The beverage pairings were not entirely alcohol laden. The next pairing was actually a tea, I believe the first time that I have ever had a hot tea paired with a savory dish in a western tradition restaurant. The tea was delicate, earthy and floral.
Of course the dish was Asian inspired. Centered around products associated with pine trees, in particular Matsutaki mushrooms and pine nuts, this dish also brought in foie gras and blueberry to complete the balance. It was wonderful and the tea made a lovely complement to the dish.
Bread service is not taken lightly at Atera, which is as it should be if bread is to be served at all during an extended tasting menu. We were not wonting for calories or in need of filler. It is serve as its own course and deservedly so. Thankfully, this is one of the experiences from my previous meal that was kept intact including the Harbison butter. Boulangére Sheena Otto does a great job both with this bread as well as the pork fat bread that comes later.
Mirroring the crab raviolo from a bit earlier, the next dish brought together more seafood in a bouillon. This time the seafood was sepia and the bouillon was roasted chicken. The overall effects of the two dishes were quite different, though. The raviolo was all about the sea, while this one used the cuttlefish as a pasta like vehicle to carry the deep, rich flavor of the chicken broth. In essence, the dish was an enhanced chicken noodle soup, but what a chicken noodle soup!
A Ribeira Sacra from Galicia was useful to add clean minerality to the dish. These are delicious, food friendly wines that work just as well with seafood and more earthy dishes.
Speaking of food friendly wines, perhaps Riesling is the most food friendly of wine varietals. Using clones from Germany, the next wine was made in the Finger Lakes of New York State. Slightly off dry, it had excellent balancing acidity and fine floral notes, both of which were useful in pairing the next dish.
The bacon fat roll was served along with the wine just before the next dish. With the bacon fat baked inside and permeating the bread, butter wasn’t really necessary, but it was sooo good.
Deliciousness does not have to hit one over the head. Often, deliciousness is more subtle and seeps in more slowly, leaving the diner with a wry smile and an intensifying sense of pleasure. Nova Scotia halibut had been brined then grilled and topped with roasted garlic and rose petals. Off to the side of the plate was a sauce made from the roasted bones of the fish reduced and emulsified with a chamomile oil. The Riesling was ideal.
Yet more bread preceded this dish, a seeded multigrain roll. The timing of this bread was no accident as it led into the avian nature of the dish. Chef Lightner often takes inspiration from the visual arts² and this was apparent with his squab plating, which was inspired by an illustration done by the late artist Charlie Harper. In lesser hands this kind of approach can be contrived and fall short, but not so in Lightner’s. The plate consisted of the beautifully roasted breast of Four Story Hill Farm squab with a ragú of its offal in a concentrated tomato and garlic sauce, currant tomatoes, pickled elderberries, black garlic and fennel fronds. The dish was as delicious as it was beautiful.
The wine pairing was no slouch, either. I would intuitively have put a rich red, perhaps a Burgundy up against the squab, but Scott Cameron went with the 2000 Semillon from Livermore Valley from Kalin Cellars. That is why he is the sommelier and I’m not.
Cameron’s expertise was apparent throughout the meal and it continued with a wine grape that I had never tasted before. Made from the Lagrein varietal, a relation to Syrah and Pinot Noir, was a nice 13% alcohol and different enough to be interesting as well as delicious.
We still had two more savory courses to go, but this was the last of the meat based courses. A nice slice of lamb taken from the rack along with a generous portion of its unctuously warm fat was served with a pepper condiment and New Zealand spinach. Fat can be wonderful or it can be off-putting. The way this was served and at the temperature it was served, the effect was most definitely the former. The flavor was rich and shouting delicious at a very high volume. It was yet another standout.
Had I already mentioned that it has been a great year for beet courses? Of course I did, much earlier in my description of this epic meal. Chef Lightner had already served a course based around a dried beet. It was magnificent. Ordinarily, I would balk at a fine dining restaurant repeating an ingredient, but not in this case. Though the beet in this dish had also been dried, the treatment and the net effect was quite different, though even more delicious. The beets had been cooked in a pressure cooker until soft, then dehydrated and cooked in a garlic-thyme butter and served with a Bordelaise sauce. The effect was of a venison like beet meat, that was intensely savory and delicious, another “Wow!” This was similar conceptually to the incredible beet dish that my son and I had at L’Arpege earlier in the year, though they were indeed distinct and wonderful dishes.
We started to segue into dessert, but that had been preceded by a formal service of tea, a green tea from China for my son and a Rooibos tea from South Africa for me. The service was handled with finesse and respect for technique. The teas were marvelous.
The teas were not actually meant to accompany the first dessert, though. For that, Scott Cameron concocted a special cocktail in front of us that they called an Arolla Stone Spritz. It consisted of a bubbly gamay, Pine Liqueur, pine sap and lemon oleo saccharin.
It was a marvelous cocktail that went very, very well with the Japanese style cheesecake that was our intro into sweets. Made from Harbison cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, it was light and delicious accompanied by lemon sherbert. A bonus of this delightful course was that the cheesecake itself was served in a way that it resembled an actual slice of cheese.
The next dessert (all of the desserts were the product of Chef Lightner’s fertile imagination and compositional skills) was yet another Wow! moment of the meal. Looking a bit like a whoopie pie made by a gardener, it was indeed called a “Garden Pie.” Consisting of sable, herbs, blueberry and whipped cream it was a fantastically well balanced and brilliantly delicious dessert. It did not have a specific pairing nor did it need one.
The next dessert did have a pairing and it was a marvelous one, combining a dessert wine and amaro into one beverage. Most chinatos that I’m familiar with are made with Barolo wine. This one, however, though it was from Asti, was made with wine made from Moscato grapes that were fermented dry. This was then combined with spirits that had been seeped in a variety of aromatics. The end result was delightful, making a fabulous digestif to work alongside a dessert.
The dessert accompanying the Iuli was one inspired by Chef Lightner’s childhood. in Joplin, Missouri. His grandmother would crumble up saltines and mix them with milk along with something else like some strawberries. Here, Chef Lightner took that inspiration and made it into something very, very special. The crackers were actually buttermilk meringues and the ice cream was flavored as saltines. A bit of strawberry put the combo over the top.
The next dish was the only one all night that I thought was more clever than truly delicious. It was indeed quite clever, though as it was another visual joke. Cracked egg (goat milk) ice cream with egg yolk jam and a sugar shell was a great concept that in other situations may have made a greater impression. Here, however, it had many tough acts to follow. It was the one dish that had a decidedly sweet flavor profile (yes, I know it was a dessert, but I still prefer the sweetness to be not quite so totally dominant) and relatively narrow flavors. Had the sweetness not been as significant as I found it, the subtle nuances of the dish might have spoken to me more. Nevertheless, the fantastical construction still allowed the dish to be quite enjoyable.
Our final wine pairing of the evening involved a wine well known (and appreciated by) to me, the Don PX Gran Reserva from Bodega Toro Albalá. It is a beautifully balanced, brooding and delicious Pedro Ximenez dessert wine from Spain that spent twenty five years oxidizing in oak before release.
The PX was paired with the penultimate dessert of the evening, a very lovely toasted Walnut Sundae with celery root. Between the nuts and the celeriac, the savory elements in the dish brought back to my playing field. This was another superb dessert with enough sweetness to qualify for the descriptor, but enough savoriness to make it palatable, complex and delicious.
Our final dessert was an ice cream sandwich made with ice cream for which the milk had been steeped in spent Tuthilltown Spirits Baby Bourbon barrels. This was a tasty, light and fun dessert.
The mignardises were another holdover from my earlier visit.
The eating was done, but with such a fabulous meal, it wasn’t quite time to call the evening to a close.
I spied some lovely beverages in a cabinet directly behind us, so I chose a glass of Whistle Pig ten year old Rye to bring this phase of the evening to a close. It was a fine choice to culminate a totally outstanding evening. The food, beverages, atmosphere and service were all top tier. When I first visited Atera I was excited to see a return to developing new fine dining restaurants in New York City. I saw that with that first excellent meal that Chef Matt Lightner and his new restaurant had great potential. With this meal, I came to fully realize that the potential shown in that original meal had now come to be realized. Atera has become a mature restaurant that is now truly one of the finest restaurants in the country at a level only a handful of other restaurants are at. It combines all of the wonderful things that make contemporary fine dining a worthwhile experience worth the not inconsiderable tariffs they demand. Atera is delicious, creative, luxurious, relaxed, fun, easygoing, intimate, educational, whimsical and outgoing. It has an open kitchen that is interactive enough without being a sideshow. Most of the engagement is left to the very capable front of the house staff, but when the Chef or the cooks interact, it is heartfelt and meaningful. This was one of the very best meals that I had the pleasure of experiencing all year and Atera has become one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. I look forward to my next visit.
For these and more photos, please see my Flick’r Photoset.
¹The dish lacked jamón, but it didn’t lack pork as it contained a layer of pork fat draped over the geoduck. The baguette contained a light smoked potato purée.
²See The Spanish Hipster’s recent post on Atera with some background on the inspiration for the construction of this dish.