During the olden days of what used to be called “haute cuisine,” the path to fame and fortune for ambitious young cooks led through the grand kitchens of Paris, and from there to large, spangled dining rooms in San Francisco or New York. In the age of what this magazine recently (and hilariously) described as the great “artisanal delirium,” however, all of that has changed. Instead of grandiose dining rooms, high-minded chefs now open small, out-of-the-way “tasting rooms.” Tablecloths, menus, and even cutlery are out; discreet, mini-size dining counters are in. Precociously talented chefs still take inspiration from the superstars of Europe (in the age of artisanal delirium, that superstar is the master forager René Redzepi, of Restaurant Noma in Copenhagen), but these days, the comforting rhythm of the à la carte menu has been replaced by a blizzard of seasonally attuned tasting “bites,” which take an entire evening to consume.
Or so it occurred to me as I sipped my carefully crafted (and undeniably delicious) rhubarb-tinged Shandy Shrubb cocktail at Atera, the polished, ambitious new tasting atelier that opened with little fanfare (but much hysterical Internet buzz) several weeks ago in Tribeca. Like the city’s other tiny, hyperfashionable tasting rooms (Momofuku Ko, Brooklyn Fare), this one is anonymously located on the ground floor of a nondescript commercial building. The frosted windows shield the dimly lit room from the outside world, and in the evenings, the entrance of the eye-and-ear clinic next door is hidden behind thick green curtains. One entire wall is covered with an arrangement of potted plants designed to look like foliage in a wild forest, and diners nibble at their omakase dinners at a slate-colored bar, which is made from polished concrete and built around the gleaming open kitchen, like the bridge of a ship.
Atera’s executive chef, Matthew Lightner, comes to New York from the foraging capital of the USA, Portland, Oregon, where he won accolades as a best new chef at a restaurant called Castagna. Like other chefs of his generation, he apprenticed at Noma, and worked under Andoni Aduriz, a master of spare, haute-locavore cooking, at the famous Spanish restaurant Mugaritz. In preparation for Atera’s grand opening, Lightner and his cooks took foraging trips up to the piney forests of Maine. The dishes on his entertaining, deceptively sophisticated, 22-course menu ($150) have elemental names like “Crunchy,” “Rock,” and “Beet Ember.” Several of them are designed (in the tradition of Ferran Adrià’s famous tasting menu at El Bulli) to be eaten without any implements at all, and many are served, like found objects, on slabs of wood, piles of stone, or carefully manicured beds of hay.
“I feel like I’m in the forest, eating tree bark,” said the chatty gastronome next to me as we examined the first “Snack” portion of our dinner, which included a curiously invigorating, wood-chip-like substance made out of dehydrated sunchoke skin (the barklike Crunchy), and a finger-size lobster roll squeezed between two russet-colored meringues touched with yeast (Sticky). There was a pickled quail egg after that, which turned out not to be a quail egg at all (it’s a whipped-egg aïoli bound with xanthan gum and brined in vinegar), and a frozen “peanut” made with foie gras and served on a flat, gray rock. (“The chef picked the rock out of a riverbed in Maine,” our server whispered.) None of these precious haute-forager creations were quite as ingenious, however, as Lightner’s uncannily realistic faux razor clam, although it would have worked better if the shell (made of dry bread painted with squid ink) hadn’t tasted a little too much like dusty clay.
Like lots of artsy, cutting-edge cooks, however, Lightner isn’t necessarily concerned with making his food delicious in the standard, accessible ways. He wants to stimulate, to educate, and to entertain, and in terms of range, technique, and quirky inventiveness, he does as good a job of this as any chef in New York since the glory days of the great molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne. After the Snack portion of our meal was cleared away, the waiters brought frizzled bits of soft-shell crab floating in a rich, smoky substance called “brown-butter bouillon” (“This looks like it’s just washed up on the beach,” said the chatty gastronome), and a serving of gin-cured diver scallops set between dissolving little slats of juniper-flavored meringue. These were followed by Beet Ember (it’s blackened with hay ash and garnished with smoked trout roe), and a pigeon breast that the kitchen ages for 21 days, to the outermost edge of gaminess, and dresses with a single, vividly fresh wild onion.
I also enjoyed slivers of slippery, weirdly tender pastrami duck heart during my visits to Atera, rosy strips of lamb drizzled with cedar oil, and a marshmallow-soft sweetbread, which Lightner covers with a savory, strangely addictive hazelnut-toffee sauce. Unlike at other snooty, neo-omakase joints around town, these dishes are impeccably served by a cast of knowledgeable haute-cuisine veterans (ask the French Laundry alum Alex LaPratt to choose your wines). The desserts include a moss-tinged Rock filled with bergamot sorbet, and melting chunks of smoky chocolate Charcoal frozen in liquid nitrogen. You can sample a Parsley Root Split (in which chewy chunks of sugar-cured parsley root are substituted for bananas), although save room for the petits fours, the best of which is a single “walnut,” made out of dark chocolate and caramel and served, in high forager style, on a bed of fresh moss.