Sunday, April 1, 2012


Jealous yet? You should be. Somehow, in the furor of the restaurant's opening, I managed to snag what will be one of the Most Difficult Reservations to Score in New York, right alongside Brooklyn Fare, Masa, Momofuku Ko, and Per Se. All of these restaurants have one thing in common: size. When the maitre'd at Atera takes you into the dining room, with its slate kitchen backsplash and lofted wooden window boxes filled with mosses and poured concrete bar that surrounds the kitchen in an unpredictable square, you will notice every detail. That's the point. Unlike Momofuku Ko, the stools you sit on at Atera have comfortable leather backs; unlike the rock-and-roll spirit of Ko, you won't feel threatened that a chef will have a meltdown at any given moment and start yelling as you eat. That sort of thing just doesn't happen at Atera, where Portland-imported chef Matthew Lightner ("Hi, I'm Matt," he says to each guest, hands outstretched) creates a playful-yet-serious dining experience for his guests. "It's okay to get a little messy," he tells me as one of my snacks--I'll get to that later--explodes before me. How refreshing to see a kitchen without even a tinge of the New York angst to which I have become accustomed.

The snacks? They come in waves, reminiscent of the ones I once ate on a darkened patio overlooking the sea in Roses, Spain. Crispy sunchoke skins with an unctuous, creamy filling; carrot fruit leather with an exploding orange filling; foie gras "peanuts"; quail eggs that turn instantly to mayonnaise in the mouth; crackers that look like home shingles; tiny lobster rolls on toasted meringue; a razor clam in an edible shell; dried lichen; and, finally, the season's star, fried ramps. There is an earthiness to everything presented us and a lack of pretension in the absence of such things as caviar or oysters or gelee. Through a haze of focus, the kitchen never forgets to check in on us, a cordiality I won't soon forget.

Next it is on to our actual courses. Many of the dishes follow a trajectory of complimentary temperatures and textures. We eat yogurt with a disc of frozen beet and freeze-dried fruit and edible flowers. Diver scallops, raw and in ribbons, arrive squeezed between planks of cold sorbet and light buttermilk meringue. Chopped raw fluke in a sea of plummy, sticky barbecue sauce, is garnished with more flowers.

A bread course--the first of two--comes on a wooden board with a perfect miniature stick of butter at its side. The bread is a salt-crusted rye and the butter alone is worth remembering. I would never have expected to leave a meal remembering squid, after a traumatic incident with the mollusk years back in Croatia, but it is impossible not to like Atera's take on it: chewy, translucent pieces of it rise high above a tube made to resemble the body of the animal. In truth, that body is made from lardo, which melts into the actual squid and is softened by the sweet and saline squid broth adorning the plate.

Then, more bread, this time a pork fat basted dinner roll with a very thin slice of pork chop that nearly disappears into the rock on which it is served. From there, we take a turn towards sweet for a moment. A slow-cooked puck of sweet potato with brown butter makes me hate every other version of the vegetable that exists in the world. A charred beet root, more closely resembling a rescued piece of charcoal from a Weber grill, bathes in trout roe and an uni emulsion. For the not-so-intrepid fish eater, this dish may be a hard one to swallow.

A thin and sweet helping of skate danced with seaweed and nasturtium leaves and fried beef tendon in a chicken bouillon, kind of like an inspired take on pho. It was a little on the large side for so late in the meal, and so I left a little uneaten so that I could continue onward to my squab, aged and the gamiest that I have ever tasted (even more so than the duck press at Daniel) and decorated with sweet and savory pear crisps. Our last savory course--so sad!--is a compressed rectangular lamb collar with root beer foam and chicory leaves. It reminds me of Texas barbecue in the best possible way.

And then we are on to dessert. First, a bergamot sorbet in a cookie dough shell made to look like a rock (it's very convincing). Next, a parsley root "split," with candied pieces of the root and meringue and banana ice cream. It hits all the high notes of dessert: sweet but not cloying; textured; chewy and smooth at the same time. My favorite dessert is next to last, a composition called charcoal. Our server comes with goat cheese ice cream and a brick of black cake that he cracks in front of us, releasing a magnificent cold smoke. The cake is a type of meringue, I think, and the ice cream has the funk endemic to all good cheese. It is just right to set us in the mood for the sweetest of our desserts, a candied oak leaf with wintergreen and brown butter. Finally, a box of moss is slipped before us, housing a single truffle made to look like a black walnut. Inside, we find our last surprise: decadent caramel.

Get there if you can.

77 Worth Street
New York, NY 10013

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