The Art of Atera
The week after Hurricane Sandy wasn't really the week to be dining south of 23rd Street. Unfortunately that was exactly when my impossible-to-get reservations were set for. Thoughts of eating at Atera, a small, on-the-radar restaurant in Tribeca, had been floating around in my head since I read the reviews in the Times and New York magazine last summer. I'm sure you've guessed correctly that my Saturday reservation–six days after the hurricane–was cancelled. It took another six weeks of patient phone calls to reschedule our make-up dinner.
I'd had an unusually busy day (moving apartments) and eaten next to nothing, so when I rushed out the door I realized I had given almost no thought to what lay ahead. The city block Atera is on is a nothing block south of Canal on Worth Street. So dark and quiet was the street that while I was standing outside, wondering if I should go in, the host finally came out to get me. I guess one of us knew I should be there.
The dining room is intimate and dark, with a U-shaped dining counter and gray walls save for one that is covered entirely in plants. I pulled up my chair and looked around. It was equal parts museum, jewelry counter and makeup store. The other diners were spaced out so that no one was rubbing shoulders. I leaned and peered but that's the best I could do while I waited for my friend to join me. In the meantime I ordered a drink, a Paloma, a pink thing made with mezcal and served in an old-fashioned champagne glass.
At Atera you don't really get to choose, once you've made the reservation your choices are limited to with alcohol or without. I chose without, which I would highly recommend. It's the one area you have control over and the only way you can attempt to put the brakes on a long-winded meal.
The first bite was a beer macaroon (made out of meringue) with sturgeon cavier. So small and delicate I held it between two fingers and contemplated the white cocoon. Then I popped it into my mouth. It was sweet and savory with a briny finish. It was appetizer meets dessert–a unique way to kick off the meal. The next bite (and this is how Atera refers to their dishes, bites first, plates second) was a coriander cookie with a flaxseed crust, dusted with porcini mushroom dust. The theme of sweet and savory overlapping in my taste buds was unique and compelling. Another concurrent theme seemed to be about the visual and the texture. There were faux razor clams that looked like they were made by an art forger. These didn't wow me with their taste but they surprised me with their sleight of hand. There were crispy sunchoke chips filled with sunchoke puree and dusted with flakes of dried sour cream. The chips were so crisp that it was hard to experience anything else, but I can't fault a man for using one of my favorite ingredients. Miniature lobster rolls appeared next, with another use of meringue and another dash of sweet and savory. I tried to eat the "roll" in two bites so I would have more time to think about what I was experiencing, but that proved challenging. Throughout the evening I tasted dust, embers and moss, noodles made out of squid, and a fake peanut made of fois gras. When I asked the servers what exactly I was eating they were enigmatic, both uncertain of the exact details and somewhat masking the magic of their boss.
Throughout the meal it seemed palpable that Matthew Lightner, the chef and mastermind behind Atera, wanted to confront me with the unusual. To get me to hold something in my hand and wonder what was on it and in it. And, maybe more importantly, what was behind it. There was meat on the menu, but not that much and I feel strongly that his use of vegetables is outstanding. I don't think a single person can eat here and not take a moment to consider the time, ingredients and effort involved. Even the dishware for each course was fanciful. It was like I was looking at a painting on the wall of the MOMA, and then expected to eat it. Alas, I was one of those snap-happy people and I couldn't resist taking a picture of every bite (almost). You can see all of the photos on Flickr.
The meal was a bit too long and by the end, even though I was still not finished, I had pretty much had my fill. Both my eyes and my stomach needed a break. Somehow we stumbled through the remaining desserts, all interesting in their own rights but, since they came at the end they somehow lost their steam. If you haven't read the latest piece in Vanity Fair about tasting menus, you should. I won't stop eating meals like this, I just might keep them to an annual occurrence. I'm sure my bank account will thank me.
The last tidbit I have for you is that Grant Achatz was eating at Atera on the same night. He seemed more focused on his date then the food. I hope he paused long enough to enjoy his fellow chef's artistry.
Below: Fluke crudo, warm barbecue onion and miscellaneous things from plants and trees. Note the wood spoon and spoon rest and the interesting clay plate.
Towards the late part of the meal I stopped Lightner to compliment him on the meal and I asked to see his tattoos. He was a gentleman and thanked me before pushing up his sleeve to show off his pig.