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.
This whipped frozen macaron started airy and sweet and melted within seconds, leaving a cheesy finish.
Crisp, with a note of coriander and pine nuts to add texture.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
My boyfriend’s family has lived in places like Iran and Idaho and Ohio but thankfully settled in California, giving me an excuse to visit once a year for sunning, beaching, and stuffing my face with his mom’s fine Persian cuisine. This year, we happened to pass some signs advertising the Orange County Fair on one of our many drives between his parents’ house and In-N-Out and decided to go one night.
We rode the skyride, just like my sister and I used to with our mom as kids at the Ohio State Fair, until the year she happened to accidentally kick off her flip-flop while we were still up in the air halfway across the park:
We watched the giant ferris wheel light up bright white in beautiful patterns:
and met up with one of Kamran’s old friends:
but most importantly, we ate.
The stands we tried were out of fried butter, so we just ate fried everything-else:
This one seemed like a bit of a stretch, but Kamran’s friends promised we’d like it, and it ended up being my favourite treat of the night. Not only do I now understand why people like churros so much–these were crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and coated with sugar–but I also gained new appreciation for sweet and spicy combinations. It wasn’t just sweet and spicy for sweet and spicy’s sake, though; the flavors of the jalapeno and the Baby Ruth actually complimented each other.
The thing about coating foods you already like in batter and frying them is that you always gain the flavor of batter but lose some of the flavor of the original food. So while I liked the warmth of the Oreo and the addition of the batter texture and flavor, I missed being able to pick out the delicate flavor of the cream.
We somehow missed that this was a jelly donut, so biting into it and having the raspberry filling ooze out the sides was a pleasant surprise. The donut’s sweetness was entirely balanced by the savory flavors of the chicken, though of course the donut didn’t have quite the structural integrity of a normal roll. This is the closest I’ve gotten to a Luther Burger and only further fuels my desire to have one.
I love a jalapeno popper, and this didn’t disappoint. With the addition of the bacon, I didn’t even miss the usual batter.
I’m not sure how I expected it to be made, but I imagine the deep-fried Kool-Aid having a cold, slushy center. Instead, these were like donut holes sprinkled with a packet of cherry Kool-Aid mix. They were enjoyably packed with sour flavor, but I missed the refreshing aspect I was expecting from Kool-Aid.
And now I can’t wait to go back next year to try even more!
Everyone knows I’m only dating my boyfriend for the Persian cotton candy his family sends us, and similarly, my friend Roy had the good sense to find a girl who’d bring back candy for him from Japan. He first shared a green tea KitKat with me, which was nice and grass-tasting and not at all weird, partly because it was so mildly-flavored that it was almost like eating white chocolate. Then, he brought in what he claimed was a wasabi KitKat.
I was pretty excited about the play between sweet and spicy, but biting into it, we didn’t notice any difference between it and the green tea bar. We decided it must just be a different wrapper. But then, literally milliseconds apart, we both sat upright with a little jolt as the wasabi hit us. And then it disappeared again, like a spark. It didn’t have quite the same satisfaction level as a regular chocolate bar, but it sure was a neat novelty.
Other wouldn’t-last-a-day-in-the-U.S. KitKat flavors include soy sauce, yellow sweet potato, purple sweet potato, cheesecake, and annin dofu, a gelatinous almond dessert.
Evidently finally seeing my review of our first dinner at wd~50 made my boyfriend crave some foams and powders, so before we left for Christmas vacation in our respective home states, we made a reservation to return. The only time we could get on Saturday night, even with a few weeks notice, was 6 p.m. Which means that despite the terrible economy, New Yorkers are still lining up to pay $200 each for dinner.
We were oddly seated in the same exact table as last time, which happens to have a straight view into the kitchen, where we saw chef/owner Wylie Dufresne talking to Chef de Cuisine Jon Bignelli (who we recently saw on an episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network) all night. We started off with a couple of their inventive cocktails to give me the courage to eat the many fish courses (CAVIAR?!) that were coming our way, and then we ate:
All of these things on their own–meh. All of these things together in one bite–harmony.
That’s right–the second dish was ice cream. Perfectly flavored and made to look like a tiny everything bagel. The salmon had the consistency of a Brillo pad, but I didn’t find that to be entirely unpleasurable. The crunchy cream cheese shard really excited me but was sadly entirely lacking in flavor. Next time, I’m asking for a warm cream cheese drizzle over my bagel.
We just loved the way the passion fruit spilled out like an egg yolk. This was so rich it was almost hard to eat, which is exactly how I like my food. The passion fruit overpowered everything else, which was good for someone like me who isn’t completely sold on organ meats but probably bad for a foie gras connoisseur.
I somehow expected the egg cube to be cold, but the firm outside shell held a warm, almost custard-like eggy inside. Egg and avocado, it turns out, are wonderful bedmates.
Why is there caviar in my comfort food?! I didn’t think it necessarily added anything, and the dish sure didn’t need anything. The chicken appeared to be a terrine of dark and white meat, and the buttermilk ricotta was studded with the crispiest chicken skin.
We both loved the way this tasted like it was poached in butter, but we agreed that it need some spice. The carpet of black sesame really made the dish.
The menu simply said “beef and Bearnaise”, so I was looking forward to a hunk of flesh and some sauce to dip it in, but things are never that simple at wd~50. Despite the initial weirdness, this turned out to be the favourite savory dish for both of us.
Dried soybeans should be in every dish. The crunch of them was so perfect with the melt-in-your-mouth lamb.
Yogurt that tastes like the forest? Yes, please! The spruce taste was so delicate–not nauseatingly pine-y, as we were expecting–that we needed to taste the yogurt on its own to catch it. I could’ve definitely gone for more of it, but I’m glad it didn’t slap me in the face.
Chicory is about as bitter as it comes on its own, but spread on top of the mousse-filled chocolate skin, it provided a great balance to all of the sweetness. And the salt on top! To think there was a time before salted chocolate. This was definitely my favourite dessert of the night.
This was delicious, but the Degustation caramelized brioche has ruined me for all other caramelized brioches. Sorry, Wylie.
The idea of milk ice cream is hilarious to us. So, um, you basically mean ice cream without any added flavorings, right? Thought so. It’s too bad that the cookie overpowered the ice cream, because I’d love to see what that tastes like. The classic chocolate packets–like Fruit Roll-Ups made out of chocolate–were actually better than we remembered them, even after I spilled half of the crunchy chocolate crumbs inside all over my lap.
The thing we think is funny about wd~50 is that the plate in front of you is generally full of familiar flavors, yet you know that the food on it went through several transformations involving plenty of chemicals. You have to ask yourself at some point, “Is it worth it?” I can understand why people who aren’t into novelty would make fun of this sort of food–expensive, tiny, laborious–but I just love the sort of deconstructionism of it. Beef consommé and Bearnaise gnocchi look and feel nothing like a steak with Bearnaise sauce, but they taste nearly identical, and you have to appreciate the craft that goes into that.
It kind of bothers me, actually, thinking that someone couldn’t like this meal. Once you get past the fact that nothing you’re eating looks like its original form, you have to admit that everything tastes great, and taste is obviously the most important attribute. When it comes to molecular gastronomy, I guess, an open mind is a prerequisite to an open mouth.
It was more than a year ago that I announced my impending trip to wd~50 on my personal blog and got a load of comments from my mostly-Ohioan readership that mostly talked about how ridiculously small and not-at-all-like-real-food the dish in the picture I posted was. I was skeptical, too, to be honest, but it turned out that the meal was fantastic–really, really fantastic–surprising, playful, and memorable.
It must have overwhelmed me so much, though, that I failed to write about it, and my boyfriend has been bothering me about it ever since. Now that we have a January reservation to try the current tasting menu, I figured I owed it to him to at least post my photos from the evening. Here’s all I can remember from September 13th, 2008:
I started out the night with a peanut butter and jelly cocktail that was more peanut than peanut butter, but the bold flavor really prepared me for what was to come. We ordered one appetizer, two entrees, and the three-course dessert tasting menu, but the waiter brought us the five-course dessert tasting on the house. (Which makes this review entirely biased, naturally.)
Sweetbreads, peanut, beet-pomegranate sauce, pickled sweet potato
Wagyu flat iron, coffee gnocchi, coconut, cipollini, sylvetta
Something foamy and possibly celery-y that I can’t recall
Grapefruit curd, pine nut, meringue, nasturtium ice cream
Jasmine custard, black tea, banana
Toasted coconut cake, carob, smoked cashew, brown butter sorbet
Yuzu ice cream, marcona almond, chocolate packets
The service was great, and the waiter didn’t mind repeating the word nasturtium for me about a hundred times until my boyfriend said he’d explain later. Like everyone else, we were impressed that chef Wylie Dufresne was actually in the kitchen, although my boyfriend happened to be directly in his line of sight and felt a little uncomfortable with the way Wylie was making eyes at him all night.
The decor was dark and simple, which made for a lovely contrast with the bright and complex food being served. Plus, there seemed to be a spotlight pointed directly at each table, which is why you basically never see a bad wd~50 photo.
I understand that looking at the menu alone, the dishes are a little intimidating, and the flavor combinations aren’t immediately complimentary (sweetbreads and beets?!). After my first meal there, though, I’m convinced that Wylie can do no wrong, and I’m excited to eat more ridiculous food (and less ridiculous ones, like the caramel apple) next month when we try the new tasting menu.
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)