The moment the four-star, accolade-laden reviews started rolling in for Atera–not all of them from people who had actually been to the restaurant, naturally–I called for a reservation. And then freed up every Saturday for a month in case the waitlist paid off and my boyfriend and I could get a spot. It was being compared to Momofuku Ko, our favourite restaurant in NYC, and Brooklyn Fare, our favourite restaurant in NYC to hate on. The chef, Matthew Lightner, trained at the #1 restaurant in the world and the #3 restaurant in the world, was named Best New Chef and Rising Star and everything else in Portland, and has brought his foraging-centric cuisine to NYC, where foraging is kind of foreign.
Luckily, this isn’t just nuts and berries but molecularly gastronomical concoctions made to look like nuts and berries. And also rocks. And moss. And it tastes just as natural as it looks.
beer and goat cheese French macaron
This whipped frozen macaron started airy and sweet and melted within seconds, leaving a cheesy finish.
flax seed cookie
Crisp, with a note of coriander and pine nuts to add texture.
sunchoke skin with buttermilk filling
Sunchoke skin rolled into a crunchy/chewy vessel for bright herbs and sour buttermilk cream.
This meringue “bun” was made with yeast to add bread flavor and filled with some of the sweetest lobster meat.
horseradish parfait with halibut and mustard
Frozen but dissolved immediately, leaving behind nothing but pure horseradish flavor. The halibut was strangely lacking for both of us, but there’s a reason this is called a horseradish parfait and not a halibut one.
foie gras peanuts
Sweet, salty, creamy, and just a little funky.
Not actually an egg but a thin skin holding a dollop of aioli. It was like eating a spoonful of garlicky mayonnaise, and I’m quite sure I couldn’t have eaten more than one.
The burnt bottom of this cracker helped to cut through the richness of the foie and aioli. The charred flavor was verging on unpleasant, which is how I like all of my food.
Slices of clam with a thick edible shell of bread. Plenty of ocean flavor packed into just a few slivers of shellfish.
Yes, lichen. As in algae. Really taking that foraging thing seriously. The dominant flavor was fennel, and a sort of rock salt formation covered the skin. A malt vinegar and herb emulsion dotted the underside like moss on a rock.
the first of many drink pairings, a beer
yogurt, shad roe, rhubarb, licorice
Another truly foresty dish, this combined the cool temperatures of spring with the florals of summer. The licorice-dusted disc broke to reveal a savory yogurt center surrounded by the ring of flowers. Artful and inspired with a perfect Austrian mead pairing that really accentuated all of the right flavors.
mead: Die Hochland, “Lime Blossom”, Austria
diver scallops, yuzu, gin botanicals, pickled white strawberries
Strips of creamy scallop, the packing peanut texture of freeze-dry, juicy but sour pickled strawberries, a burst of citrus in the crevasse on either end. The meat was so mild it’s hard for me to imagine even my scallop-hating friends–yes, these people exist–resisting.
sake: Kamoizumi, Komekome, “Happy Bride”, Hiroshima, NV
peeky-toe crab, tapioca, toasted shrimp, angelica gelee
Gelee studded with chewy tapioca, topped with sweet shredded crab and crisp, vegetal red snap peas.
chenin blanc: Francois Chidaine, “Clos Habert”, Montlouis, Demi-Sec, 2008
Salted rye bread with a distinct coffee flavor and a doughnut-like roll basted in mangalitsa pork fat, served with house-made butter made from creme fraiche and Winnimere cheese rind.
This bowl arrived with curlicues of noodles on one side and a packet full of herbs and spices in a thin gelatinous skin on the other. A server poured a test tube of mild but lovely chicken broth on top, disintegrating the packet so the noodles could be seasoned. I loved the powerful cilantro, but even better was the onion, which tasted just like French onion soup. We knew the noodles were too chewy to be pasta, but we couldn’t decide if they were tofu or squid. The smallest hint of ocean flavor confirmed the squid for us, and our server cemented it when she delivered the next dish. We were wondering, though; if we hadn’t asked, would she have told us? Did anyone without our vast food knowledge and achingly discerning palates (j/k) notice?
a test tube presented before our next dish
dried beet, trout roe, crustacean sauce
It looked like a chunk of stone fallen off the side of a mountain, surrounded by smaller shards, but our knives sank into it just like any old beet. The roe wasn’t just salty but added a real ocean dimension that the crustacean sauce was oddly lacking; it actually tasted just like Parmesan cheese.
riesling: C.H. Berres, “Urziger Wurzgarten”, Auslese, Mosel 1997
north coast halibut, young garlic, whey
One of the simplest and yet most striking dishes I’ve had in a while. The line-caught halibut was poached in whey that draped over it like a warm icing, a cooking method that left it tender and unfussy. The garlic was roasted until sweet and provided the only strong flavor, yet it somehow seemed like a wonderfully complex dish.
furmint: Kiralyudvar, “Sec”, Tokaj, 2009
squab, pheasant-back-mushroom sauce, pear, tarragon
A tart vinegar sauce soaked this sweet, sticky squab and its accompanying pear skins. A lemony herb and the mild bite of the garlic scape rounded out the profile with bright, “green” flavors.
sangiovese: Felsina, Chianti Classico Reserva, “Berardenga”, Tuscany, 2008
mangalitsa pork, wheatberries, lamb’s quarters, ground ivy
Spice-rubbed pork as savory as bacon was topped with chewy sprouted wheatberries in a thick, rich duck egg yolk sauce. The oniony flavor of the leek the perfect compliment.
nerello mascalese: Calabretta, Etna Rosso, Sicily, 2001 Magnum
We opted for a cheese course in place of one dessert and were a little put-off that it didn’t have the same level of creativity as one you might see at Per Se or Momofuku Ko, but we nonetheless enjoyed what we were given, namely the Rupert and the Mountaineer hard cheeses. The supermoist apple bread with chunks of fruit baked right into it was a lovely accompaniment, but with all that space left in the breadbox, we wanted jams and honeys, too.
Bergamot orange sorbet in a shell with the consistency of chocolate but the taste of a popcorn hull on a bed of brown butter crisp. It was super acidic, wildly tart, and as clever as it was delicious.
muscat: Jaillance, “Cuvee Imperial”, Clairette de Die, Rhone Valley, MV
parsley root split, banana ice cream, chiffon, dried milk skin
A study in textures from slick banana ice cream to chewy marshmallow to crisp shards of milk skin. It may have been delicate in presentation, but the banana flavor was bold.
semillon: Chateau Petit Vedrines, Sauternes 2007
“churro”, salsify, white cardamom, cinnamon
This is evidently . . . salsify? We’ve had it roasted and caramelized and used in place of potatoes, but never have I seen it like this. Sure, the churro was uncharacteristically chewy, but I never would’ve guessed it was anything but dough. I may have taken embarrassingly small bites of it to make sure I had enough churro to pick up all of the Nutella, but I may not be sorry about it.
bual: Vinhos Barbeitos, “Boston Bual”, Madeira, NV
bourbon ice cream sandwiches
The perfect amount of booze in a super-melty ice cream that was more icy than creamy. This was so simple but left a big impression on both of us.
As chocolatey as they look.
Actually salty caramels, presented in the most beautiful way.
I’m not sure we said a bad word about this place. Maybe we wanted more substance on the cheese plate, and maybe I could’ve used some spice on the churro, but the overwhelming sense was that Atera was everything everyone said it was and more. Never once did it seem kitchy or schticky. Never once did we question a flavor pairing nor a preparation. Mostly, we compared it to the restaurants it’s being compared to and found that it comes out on top. The one thing Momofuku Ko is lacking in–desserts–Atera had so many of we gave one up for a cheese course. (Oh, yeah, and you can take pictures at Atera, unlike at Ko.) And Atera was basically everything we’d hoped for from Brooklyn Fare: cool music, unstuffy service, comfortable chairs, and an atmosphere worth dressing up for. Maybe the food at Ko and Brooklyn Fare is more assertive, but I loved the subtleties of Chef Lightner’s food, the pear skins and the milk skins and the lichen. Where food like this can often come off as frou-frou, these dishes all tasted like they really had just been plucked from the forest. And at $150 for 22 courses, it’s the kind of place you can return to as often as the menu changes. Not that you can get a reservation.