3. Foraging Is Now an Urban Obsession.
Haughty Frenchmen used to be darlings of the food world, but in this age of the relentlessly local, Brooklyn-fueled artisanal delirium, more and more of the grand chefs around town seem to find their culinary inspiration while hiking through meadows, foraging for mushrooms, or curing esoteric tubers in hand-tooled pickle sheds. Exhibit A in this earthy trend is the Danish chef Mads Refslund, who comes to Manhattan via Copenhagen, where he was the founding partner, with René Redzepi, of the world-famous hunter-gatherer restaurant Noma. There is no burger available at Refslund’s stylish new downtown brasserie, Acme, and if you ask for oysters (mainly from Long Island and Connecticut, of course), they’re often served with “winter pickles.” Refslund cures his own salmon in-house and has a fondness for scattering esoteric vegetal foams and oils on his righteous Greenmarket recipes the way the Old Guard cooks used to use oil and butter. The specialties of the house are the clean, Scandinavian-style seafood preparations (e.g., the arctic char) and anything from the “Soil” section of the menu, which includes garden beets dressed with buttermilk and sweet cherries in summertime, and knobby sunchokes in the winter, which Refslund and his cooks have been known to toast like marshmallows on little pyres of burning hay.
Despite the departure of the Michelin-acclaimed Zen cooking master Masato Nishihara, members of the picky Japanese vegivore community are still flocking to Kajitsu, in the East Village, where the new Kyoto chef, Ryota Ueshima, continues to turn out an array of edifying Shojin Buddhist specialties made with delicate seasonal ingredients like mountain yams, hand-plucked spring onions, and bits of lotus root. Ground zero for farm-to-table Italian food these days is the wildly popular new West Village restaurant Rosemary’s, where the impressive, much-publicized roof garden produces enough healthful zucchini, dandelion greens, and fresh basil during the temperate months to feed an army of hungry locavores. The best time to visit the barn-size, often crowded room on Greenwich Avenue is during the more peaceable afternoon hours, when former Babbo chef Wade Moises’s menu includes an assortment of toasty panini filled with roasted peppers and strips of eggplant, ricotta and braised lamb shoulder, or summer tomatoes layered with fresh basil and strings of melted housemade mozzarella.
To experience the ultimate in high-minded, haute forager cuisine, I suggest you take a seat with the rest of the bankers and discreet big-money mushroom geeks around the polished, twelve-seat bar every evening at Matthew Lightner’s refined Tribeca tasting room, Atera. The talented Portland, Oregon, chef comes to New York by way of Noma and Mugaritz, among other famous kitchens, and like many of his mentors, he has a knack for making his recipes delicious in all sorts of unexpected ways. The dishes on the ingenious, sophisticated fifteen-course tasting menu have elemental names like Crunchy (dehydrated sunchokes made to look like tree bark) and Beet Ember (a garden beet made to look like a chunk of coal), and many are presented like found objects on pieces of driftwood and piles of stone. Save room for the wines (poured by the Dutch veteran Scott Cameron) and the end-of-meal petits fours, the best of which is a single walnut-shaped chocolate filled with faintly salty caramel and served, in high forager style, on a bed of freshly plucked moss.