My first time at Atera was shortly after it opened. It was excellent, but perhaps a touch derivative. My second time, last year, showed a more assured and refined voice, that I found to be exceptional, stating
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.
Clearly, it was a restaurant that had spoken to me and one that I had enjoyed immensely. Sometimes those restaurants can be the most difficult to return to. Expectations can be so high, that they may be difficult to live up to. I need not have been concerned though, because my third time, and for the first time accompanied by my wife, somehow, actually exceeded my already high expectations, confirming and solidifying my view that Atera is one of the very finest restaurants in all the land, perched with but a hand full of others and not meaningfully exceeded by any.
The menu at Atera changes seasonally, but not wholesale, as there were a few dishes that have remained over time. Some, like the minimally revised lobster roll have been on the menu throughout. I say minimally revised, but the truth is that while maintaining its essential nature and appearance, the dish, taking a nod from the Heston Blumenthal march to perfection, has continued to be honed and improved, resulting in a bite less sweet and even more satisfying than its already very good original rendition.
The remarkable breads too, have remained consistent over time, but when they are this good, that consistency is a totally welcome base of familiarity, recognition and continuity. I no longer typically eat much bread, but happily scarf down the servings here.
There were a few dishes that returned from last fall’s menu, albeit with some minor variations. An air baguette with geoduck and lardo was a worthy holdover from my last meal and the only one that was a true repeat without any apparent change.
A serving of amaranth toast with smoked trout roe and tartar sauce was also a repeat, with the difference that the bite was expanded upon by a couple of other trout related bites that preceded it, effectively expanding the theme and creating a study in trout.
The first of the trout based dishes was a brilliant bit of seasonality. It paired trout liver and brown butter with fresh peach with the liver substituting spectacularly for foie gras, especially when accompanied by Sommelier Scott Cameron’s choice of an Austrian Smaragd Riesling.
Lightner continued his exploration into the next bite, incorporating more of the trout liver and brown butter, but creating a more distinctly savory experience by exchanging the peach for smoked trout meat. The amaranth toast followed here, completing a terrific trilogy of trout that took off where the previous menu I had left off.
Chef Lightner really does like to explore the intricacies of ingredients and there were a few more dishes that were variations on earlier themes. Last October I had a carrot and sea urchin dish, but that dish was enhanced by a variety of flower petals. This time, he did a dish emphasizing the relationship between carrots and sea urchin, but he removed the flowers, and added a lobster gelee to roasted carrots and uni, finished in front of us with a spooned over carrot-sea urchin emulsion. Visually, it was a study in orange, while both visually and gustatorily, it was totally unlike the earlier dish, whilst still being delicious.
This divergence of experiences from a familiar palette of ingredients was a theme throughout the meal, that I only now got to understand, respect and admire. While the structure of the meals over time were similar and utilized many of the same ingredients, the actualization of those ingredients was manifest in a variety of ways that highlighted the chef’s ability to get the most out of his ingredients, both in terms of flavors as well as concept. While the carrot and sea urchin dishes resembled each other over the year by virtue of the consistency of their main ingredients, the net result was two wildly different, yet equally delicious dishes. The same can be said of a dish involving razor clams, a favorite ingredient of Chef Lightner. especially when paired with garlic. Last year’s dish, which included almonds along with the clams and garlic, all combined into a beehive formation that was a study in white, was a tour de force of flavor and texture. The current variation substituted leek for the almond. It was no longer white on white on white as it now included green and the geometry, while still impressive, no longer featured the construction of a beehive. The result was a very different dish that begs comparison only because of the primary ingredients.
Using artichoke petals is another conceit of Chef Lightner, but there are few if any chefs in my experience who use them to better or more artful effect. The last time, he had a dish of artichokes and artichoke petals masquerading as rose petals. It was delicious. Even better though and a candidate for my favorite dish of the year was the same conceit of costumed artichoke petals (pickled in rose vinegar), but this time accompanied by fluke, pickled rose petals, marigold leaves and mushroom tea. Colorful and beautiful, it was a masterpiece of nuance and flavor.
The wine served along with the artichoke and fluke dish, was, of course, a rosé. This particular rosé hailed from the Jura in France, a 2007 “Corail” from Chateau d’Arlay. It was as fantastic a pairing as I can recall with the wine perfectly picking up and accenting the mushroom notes of the dish.
So far my presentation has not been in chronological order as I have been noting repeat dishes or continuations of style from previous meals to this one. There were enough to afford a certain level of continuity and familiarity, but not so many as to be predictable or a boor. Instead, to me, they demonstrate growth and range, especially from the dishes that are variations on past themes. It is clearer to me than ever that Chef Lightner, Chef de Cuisine Jaime Young and the rest of the Atera staff are continuing to grow and develop an incredible style, that, yes, has influences from a few of the most influential chefs that they have worked with and learned from, but that they have forged into their own. The multitude of courses not yet mentioned will further attest to that.
Our first bite of the evening was a lovely one with a generous piece of king crab laying on a bed of cream that had been infused with rose geranium, wild ginger and lemongrass with a variety of flower petals adorning the surface. It had a floral sweetness to accent the aquatic sweetness of the crustacean.
This had been accompanied by our opening cocktails, for me, a Highlands Float, a delicious and elegant Rye and Absinthe based cocktail and for my wife a Sherry Flip, a cocktail based on Fino sherry from Emilio Lustau and a peach liqueur. Both were superbly balanced, elegant and deeply satisfying.
A number of the dishes discussed above followed the crab, each with an interesting and delicious pairing from Scott Cameron, until we were served a dish unlike any that I had previously had at the restaurant. This was a lamb tartare treated as an nduja and combined with spot prawns, lamb fat and nasturtium leaves. The result was sensational with a bit of a kick from the nduja spicing and a fruity pepper from the nasturtia without being too much. The dish was a tour de force of balance maintaining elements of subtlety underneath surface of aggressive flavor.
The pairing, featuring a Syrah Rosé from California was superb, picking up and rolling with the nduja spicing to create a formidable combination of spice, umami and floral delight. The wine itself is a product of a collaboration between several sommelier friends, including Brian McClintic MS, who was featured in the movie Somm. Theirs is a label to watch.
The following course tied itself to the previous one with an element of shrimp, but cleaved itself away by providing it within the context of a rich dumpling along with chicken in a truffle-smothered chicken velouté. To cut the richness, a squeeze of lemon was provided to be applied just before eating. The truffle finish was long and luxurious, pulling everything together. The net effect was almost like eating a divine chawan mushi, but with a purely European flavor palette.
The pairing here was also inspired. I’m a big fan of Sherry and feel that as a whole the class doesn’t get the proper respect that it is due. If that is true, then it must be because too few people have tasted sherries as wonderful as the Almacenista Palomino Fino made by the small producer José Luis González Obregón and bottled and distributed by the Lustau Sherry House. This was equally delightful with or without the dish, though the dish was enhanced by the wine.
For me, a sign of a great restaurant is when they take ingredients that don’t typically thrill me and make them do just that. Such was the case with the hay smoked, pickled herring in a barigoule of summer vegetables. Herring is a very assertive fish, but here the assertiveness was reined in and controlled by the brightness of the vegetables. A mineral laden Sancerre, Cuvée La Jouline 2012 from Dominique Roger was a beautiful complement to this full flavored dish.
The talent that Chef Lightner has that few other chefs in my experience have to the same degree is an ability to make flavors weave in and out of a dish, maintaining subtlety, but letting more dominant flavors express themselves without overwhelming the supporting elements. A prime example of this was a dish of cedar smoked Winterpoint oyster with smoked potato purée and dried tomatoes. The smoke danced in and out of the other flavors, always enhancing and never suffocating. Lightner’s talent here brings to mind the talents of Bitor Arguinzoniz of Etxebarri and Joshua Skenes of Saison, both of whom utilize the subtleties of smoke in mind-blowing ways. The pairing was a sake, Sasanishiki, Kuranohana, & Cedar: Ichinokura, Tarusake, Tokubetsu Junmai Ohzaki, Miyagi-Ken, Nipon, that was aged in barrels made of cedar wood. It proved to be yet another outstanding pairing.
Lightner’s food can be deceptive, giving an air of simplicity by virtue of a plating spare in appearance such as his dish, cod, black walnut, chamomile. The dish may have a minimalist appearance, but it is actually quite complex. The cod itself was cooked to to state teetering at the line of too raw and too cooked, but never crossing out of sheer perfection. Again, the flavors provided by black walnut done several ways, chamomile , castelveltrano olive and a honey brine for the cod played with each other like a well written symphony. The pairing of a crisp white, the 2013 Sigalas, from Santorini, Greece, was spot on.
Lightner’s years cooking in Spain left him with an appreciation for mar y montaña dishes, a theme that I have seen in different ways over the years at Atera. Abalone with wheatberry and pork continued the theme following several earlier courses that also reflected a surf and turf sensibility. This wasn’t just any pork, though. As one would expect, it was a special piece of pork – Mangalitsa rib loin. The surf and turf theme extended into the sauce poured over the dish, a consommé of roasted potato skins and dried scallops. While I love the ascendance of the vegetable in fine dining, I will always be a fan of meat and seafood, especially when done with as much skill and imagination as this. A pairing with a Roussanne from Qupé Winery, the Bien Nacido Hillside Estate 2010 from California’s Santa Maria Valley proved a fine complement to the dish.
Chef Lightner has a well developed sense of humor as evidenced by serving a hush puppy next. Hush puppies are distinctly American fried corn meal fritters and are typically low brow comfort food. At Atera, they were still quite comforting, but with smoked egg yolk, they were anything but low brow.
Fowl are frequent flyers on the Atera menu, typically found towards the finale of the savory portion of the meal. On my last visit, squab was the solution. This time, however, we dined on a delectable dish of roasted duck. Generous slices of Four Story Hill Farm Pekin duck breast and a roulade of deboned thigh were served with a dried construct of apple and matcha sticks and herbs. The crisp sticks added an undercurrent of sweetness that effectively cut the richness of the duck. Unusually, the duck was paired with a white wine, a combination of Savagnin and Chardonnay grapes made in an oxidative style in France’s Jura Region. The wine was “L’etoile” “En Banode” from Domaine Montbourgeau. It was another great example of the sommelier’s ability to find unusual, interesting and delicious wines and pair them exquisitely with the non-traditionally prepared dishes.
The sweet part of our meal commenced with a cocktail served to us by Scott Cameron. It was off dry and bubbly with the bubbles centered and directed by a small cube of muscovado sugar at the bottom of the glass. It ws toatally delicious, sweet enough without being cloying. The cocktail proved to be a fabulous accompaniment to the first dessert.
In addition to being the savory chef, Chef Lightner also manages the desserts. They happen to be as spectacular as the savories. Rhubarb and black licorice are not nor have they been to my knowledge considered a classic flavor combination, but after this dessert, I am convinced that they should be. The black licorice came in the form of a caramel laced atop a rhubarb sorbet and rhubarb pates de fruits. The combination of flavors and textures was dynamite and bracing.
“Luli” is a Chinato Vergano from the Asti region of Piemonte, Italy, that is to say that it is a wine laced with quinine and other ingredients, sweetened and fortified. Most chinati that I have had are red wine based (typically Barolos), but this one is made from Moscato and works as a lovely dessert wine. It was not the first time I have had it at Atera, but it is like an old friend, who is always welcome.
The Luli was a pairing for the second dessert, a combination of strawberries, almonds and hibiscus. This too was delightful.
A third dessert was an off-menu surprise. It was a fermented rice pudding with melon, that was seasonal, beautiful and delightful.
The final dessert course was another bit of clever fun from Chef Lightner. Appearing like a piece of cow hide, it’s bovinity came from the raw milk used to make the ice cream that went with the Hungarian sponge cake “spots.” It was every bit as delicious as it was clever. This delight was lovingly washed down with a 2004 Vin Santo di Chianti Classico from Fattoria di Felsina.
No detail is too small when it comes to the quality of the meal at Atera. The teas service is a prime example, as top quality teas are steeped and served with the utmost attention to detail.
Mignardises are not an after thought even if the room for them may have been lacking. Nevertheless this panoply of pleasure required eating, regretfully bringing the formal meal to an ending.
Still, this was too wonderful of a meal, of an evening, to let go too soon. My wife and I made our way down to the Atera Lounge, where we left ourselves under the supremely capable care of Benjamin Foote, Atera’s head bartender.
Foote applied the same extraordinary level of attention to detail in the Lounge as we found in the dining room and concocted us a couple of amazing cocktails each. He would carve pristinely clear large cubes of ice to round them so that they fit just so in the glass.
The glassware and mixing equipment were of the quality one would expect.
The cocktails themselves were elegant, balanced, delicious and well crafted, providing the perfect punctuation for a sensational evening.
To me, Atera is the perfect fine dining restaurant. It grabs my attention, fuels my imagination and satisfies all of my senses. The food is original and extraordinary. If that were all, it would still be a great restaurant, but the quality of the food is matched by the friendly, warm, inviting intimacy of the space, the care of the beverage program and the knowledge and enthusiasm of the service staff who genuinely appear to care about the diner’s pleasure. There may only be a handful of restaurants in the United States in my experience that offer as complete a package as Atera. It will be interesting to see how the restaurant fares this week when Michelin announces their New York City star ratings for 2015. Atera currently holds two. In my opinion, without a doubt, it deserves its third. We will see.