Thursday, March 29, 2012

Atera - Matt Lightner's season and place cooking

"Razor Clam"
As sad as I was to see Compose close last year, I have to admit much of the sting was taken out of the news when I learned that Matt Lightner was to move from Portland to NYC to open Atera in the same Tribeca space, only a few blocks from our apartment. Lightner's résumé includes a stage at Noma in Denmark and time as a sous chef at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, as well as being named one of Food & Wine's 2010 Best New Chefs, plus a couple Beard nominations for Rising Star Chef. But most recently he took Portland by storm as the chef at Castagna, for which he received the award and nominations, and I had read rave reviews from reputable sources about his work there, though I was not able to sample it the one time I was there.

Lightner is billed as a forager, known for using local and seasonal wild plants extensively. Foraging is perhaps the most exciting vanguard of the last few years in the world of cooking, but as I learned at my meal at Atera last week, describing Lightner only as a forager to my mind focuses too narrowly on that (admittedly superlative) aspect of his cooking and overlooks his not unsubstantial other skills. I didn't realize until my dinner, but Lightner is quite skilled in modernist cuisine, but not to the extent that he might eclipse the integrity of the ingredients or let it become a distraction. Here is one claim regarding modernist cuisine that Atera is "easily the best place in the city to experience the genre, and there is a good argument to make that it is only a matter of time until in becomes the best in the country."

But back to the foraging. Lightner enlisted to supply Atera Evan Strusinski, a forager from Maine who has supplied other NYC kitchens such as Gramercy Tavern, Torrisi, Del Posto, and the Momofukus. In addition to Mr. Strusinski, he also works with forager Kate Galassi; check out a short video of her and Chef Lightner discussing his philosophy on a visit to explore the bounty of Well Sweep Farm in New Jersey.

Given that my dinner there was on only the second night of official opening to the public, I would normally be loathe to post a review, but in this particular instance there were so few kinks and the service was so smooth that I hardly think it a disservice to do so.

I've seen the menu billed many places as 10 courses, but we got 13 named courses on the printed menu, not counting the bread, as well as 8 amuses, or "snacks". On top of that we were asked if we wanted to add an additional optional savory course, and we were enjoying everything up to that point so much our yes could not have been decided more quickly. I believe this additional course was the glazed sweetbread with wild onion, as that is the one not printed on the menus we received. As an added pleasant touch, the beverage pairings were also included in the envelope containing the our menus. As a side note, I've seen it reported as 12-seat bar, but I think there were 13. See here or here for better pictures of the of the space and the wall of herbs.
1st Course: "Yogurt" - Beet, Freeze Dried Fruit, Herbs
As the details of some of the dishes are best discovered first hand and not described beforehand by me, I'll keep my comments brief or omit them entirely for many dishes, for instance this one from the fourth course:
4th Course
To begin the meal, my dining companion and I each ordered a cocktail. They have a full bar, but were featuring three cocktails for the night and we chose to sample two of them. I had a variation on a Jack Rose cocktail topped off with an apple cider, and I sampled my friend's blanco tequila cocktail with three grapefruit components: grapefruit oleo saccharum, (clarified?) juice, and (I think) bitters. The glasses got the liquid nitrogen treatment, and both drinks were top notch (the tequila was our favorite).

Contra a report by Grub Street, Eamon Rockey informed me that unfortunately they are not in fact adding a downstairs bar. However they will in the future consider the possibility of other ways to make their excellent cocktails available as the restaurant evolves. This would be a welcome development, judging from the drinks tonight and my fond memories of Compose's cocktail program.

After (actually while still) enjoying our cocktails we left ourselves in the very capable hands of Alex LaPratt and opted for the beverage pairings. The meal started out strong with a series of "snacks" perfectly accompanied with a beer. I very much enjoy the small amuses before a meal, as they are often playful, packed with flavor, and more interesting than larger courses. Of course the extra variety of tastes and textures also endears them to me. The starting bites offered to us at Atera were as good as any I've had.

First up was a crispy sunchoke, where the skin of the sunchoke was rolled and crisped, then stuffed with herbs and a bit of creamy filling. It resembled a cannoli, but bursted with the earthy flavors of a toothsome sunchoke that had been hammered in the oven, brightened by the herbs and the filling, rather than the sunchoke flesh, supplying creaminess. (I don't recall the filling, goat cheese perhaps?)
Crispy Sunchoke
While I had very few expectations coming into my meal, I probably would have guessed, from items such as a Lightner comment I read saying that it would be "an almost herbal-based cuisine", that there would be many more light and subtle flavors driven mainly by greenery at the restaurant. What I quickly discovered however, that there would be just as many deeply concentrated, bold flavors, ranging from earthy root vegetables (sunchokes, beets, sweet potato), to a surprisingly powerful and rich crustacean emulsion or a duck stock reduced all the way down to a chip. This was a pleasant discovery, and we were just starting our journey through a wide range of experiences in tastes and textures this night would provide for us.

But back to the food. This delicious slab of weathered slate was actually a savory granola covered with sesame butter:
Savory Granola and Sesame Butter
Next up were a trio of "malt flatbread", "pickled quail egg", and "foie gras peanuts":

Foie Gras Peanuts

Malt Flatbread

"Quail Egg"
I loved the "razor clam" (pictured above) that followed, razor clam sliced (and another creamy preparation) with ice lettuce on an air baguette, cleverly painted to resemble a razor clam shell. These few bites reminded me somewhat of a lighter, brinier lobster roll, but that description probably doesn't do it justice. Excellent.

The last two snacks were a puffy lichen cracker and a duck chip. The duck chip was made by reducing duck stock down until all that remained was a thin crispy sheet, and was garnished with herbs and pickled onions whose acidity cut the richness of the chip.

Duck Chip

The chip left a thin but lip smacking remnant of gelatin reminding us of the intense concentration of flavor the reduction produced.

Only now do we arrive at the 1st course: "Yogurt" with Beet ice, freeze dried fruit, and a plethora of herbs (pictured earlier above). In contrast to both the previous duck chip and an upcoming beet dish, this was a light and elegant course more along the lines of what I imagined when Lightner spoke of herbal-based food. Again, this is not a complaint, the wide range of the meal was a virtue I truly enjoyed. The pairing of beet and yogurt is not a novel one, but this preparation certainly was. The flavors were familiar, but the textures were a new twist, and it just all came together with perfect balance. What a way to start the main event. The paired beverage was also spot on with perhaps the most interesting sake I've tried. It was a light straw colored and came across with fresh wine notes in addition to more typical sake flavors.

Sorrel juice, honey
The 1st course seemed hard to follow, but the 2nd did not disappoint. They both could be legitimate signature dishes, if it is even their intention to have signatures on the menu which should change from week to week as the peak seasons for ingredients ebb and flow. These scallops were cured in the gin mash leftover from distilling a local gin, slightly aromatizing them with the spirits botanicals. Atop the scallops were alternating shards of citrus ice and thin meringue. (I believe the ice contained Yuzu and Meyer Lemon, and perhaps grapefruit.) One of my favorite aspects about this dish was that each bite was different depending upon which of the three components hit your tongue and which hit the roof of your mouth; some bites had relatively more subtle gin botanicals, some more citrus-y. The beverage pairing for this course was non-alcoholic, but that didn't stop it from being one of the most excellent (of many) pairings. The drink was fresh Sorrel juice slightly sweetened with wildflower honey.
2nd Course: "Diver Scallops" - Citrus Ice, Gin Botanicals
The 3rd course was a delicate fluke tartare topped with barbecued onion and a veritable garden of herbs and flowers. The onion was deeply caramelized (as you can gather from the picture) and I think stabilized with some neutral gelling agent (tapioca starch was our guess). Among the flavors the herbs and flowers provided were anise and pepper. The dish hit many of the same notes that eel sushi might express.
3rd Course: "Fluke" - BBQ'd Onion, herbs
4th Course being sauced
This dish, as presented (pictured earlier above) and sauced table side as shown to the right, I won't say much about, as they deliberately chose to not describe it in order to allow the diner to guess it's components. I got one, but couldn't place the other main component. The sauce is another example of the powerfully concentrated flavors which I was surprised, very happily, to discover in many of Lightner's dishes. Suffice it to say that this dish is a triumph. (Note the dish is revealed on the menu I included at the end of the post, if you want to remain surprised don't look too closely.)
5th Course: "Sweet Potato" - Brown Butter solids
As I mentioned, this beet dish for the 6th course contrasted with the delicate flavor of the beet and yogurt from the first course. The beet was roasted for something like 18 hours, yielding intense beet flavor yet leaving surprising (to me) moistness and firm yet fork tender texture.  The crustacean emulsion on the side was yet another example of a flavor bomb; had this been in a bowl it would have been a mind (and perhaps palate) blowing soup. The surf and turf flavor combination of intense beet and intense seafood was so surprising to me I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.
6th Course: "Beet Ember" - trout roe, black bread, crustacean emulsion

Salted Rye
The bread here was a hearty rye with salted crust, accompanied by butter layered with fresh herbs. Later we were offered more bread, or the option of trying one of two other breads. We went with the pork roll, a small bun I presume made with lard.

7th Course: "Skate" - beef tendon,hearty greens, chicken bouillon

We opted to add this additional savory course of glazed sweetbread with wild onion. The flavors here were great, as was the lusciously creamy organ; were I to nitpick I might have preferred an additional texture to contrast the the soft sweetbread, but still a very nice dish.
8th (supplemental) Course: Sweetbread, wild onion

9th Course: "Squab" - pear skin chips, tarragon

The 9th course was squab, aged in house for quite a number of days (though I don't recall the precise number). It was beautifully cooked, and the aging lent a marked gaminess to the meat. So much so, in fact, that it was hard for me to relate to. It was unfamilier, pulling even an adventurous eater as myself out of my comfort zone. I did like it, but I had hoped to LOVE it. I'd been wanting to try such exotic fare since reading about similar dishes at Saison in San Fran. (I'm still trying to finagle a Roberta's tasting menu where they have served aged fowl. I've had their aged steak and it is a thing of beauty.) I fully believe my inability to fully appreciate this dish is a personal shortcoming, and the fault lies entirely on me. Now that I've had it and have a frame of reference, I do expect and look forward to loving it next time I have the pleasure to try some.
10th Course: "Lamb Collar" - root beer foam, hickory nuts
I'll leave you to discover "Rock", but it was a pleasant palate cleanser that stuck me as having a somewhat Japanese aesthetic.
11th Course: "Rock"
The "Charcoal" dessert, which arrived in one frozen chuck before being smashed to rubble in front of you, was a frozen cocoa preparation (I want to say meringue again but I don't remember) with a side of smooth as butter (goat's milk's?) ice cream. A grown up Oreo with two fantastic textures.
12th Course: "Charcoal"
Another play on a childhood treat was the "Parsley Root Split" with bananna ice cream, marshmallows, and meringue.
13th Course: Parsley Root Split
Lastly, "Oak" was a light finish; the most memorable part for me was the pure and refreshing "wintergreen snow".
14th Course: "Oak" - wintergreen snow, brown butter cake
Among the petite fours to end the night was this beautiful walnut truffle, with with was poured a dram of Nocino.
Walnut Truffle
Interior of Walnut Truffle
For the curious, here is our menu for the night, including the beverage pairings. Warning, there is at least one dish that you might not want revealed before dining, so click with caution.
Menu and Beverage Pairings
I very much look forward to returning to Atera to see how the menu has evolved for another season. Chef Lightner spoke of yet more delights to come with summer's umami laden bounty and winter's roots. Plus I can only imagine that with time he will become even more familiar with locally foraged items and discover new treasures to shower upon his diners.

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