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|
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?)
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|
|Foie Gras Peanuts|
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|
|2nd Course: "Diver Scallops" - Citrus Ice, Gin Botanicals|
|3rd Course: "Fluke" - BBQ'd Onion, herbs|
|4th Course being sauced|
|5th Course: "Sweet Potato" - Brown Butter solids|
|6th Course: "Beet Ember" - trout roe, black bread, crustacean emulsion|
|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|
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|
|11th Course: "Rock"|
|12th Course: "Charcoal"|
|13th Course: Parsley Root Split|
|14th Course: "Oak" - wintergreen snow, brown butter cake|
|Interior of Walnut Truffle|
|Menu and Beverage Pairings|