REVIEW #45

Atera

There is no virtue in being avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde. When auteur chefs undertake to push the boundaries of culinary possibility forward they must be ever mindful of their fundamental responsibility to make the food, well, taste good. At Matthew Lightner’s Atera, a forager-driven 13-seat countertop tasting room in TriBeCa that offers a nightly prix fixe of 20-25 courses, the balance between cerebralism and taste is often miscalculated. In quality of service, the depth, breadth and affordability of the wine list, the technical proficiency and presentation of the dishes, ambiance and atmosphere, Atera is every bit the peer of the restaurants in our top 15. Regrettably, the taste of Atera’s food is simply too unevenly commensurate with these standard bearers.

That is not to say that Atera’s food, which is always interesting, provocative, challenging, playful and beautiful, is not also often delicious. Indeed, a dried beet “ember” blackened with hay ash and garnished with smoked trout roe and a lobster sea urchin emulsion is wondrous to behold and to eat, as is an Atlantic line-caught halibut in poached whey, the chef’s version of “ramen”, which includes confit shallots and a light broth served from a vial with a dissolving spice packet, and a strawberry shortcake with wild strawberries and aerated shortcake. Their rolls, basted in pork fat, are the best we have had in the city and the petit fours, black walnuts and hazlenut truffles, are paralyzingly superb.

Atera means “to go out” in the Basque dialect and many of the dishes incorporate plants and fungi from upstate New York that are sourced by Lightner and full-time forager to the stars, Evan Strusinski. Lightner has described his as “an almost herbal-based cuisine”. The ghost of the patron saint of foragers, René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, is palpably felt in the technique and aesthetics of Lightner’s cooking. Lightner has spent time in both Redzepi’s kitchen and at the modernist temple Mugaritz in Spain.

Lightner revels in contrasts — of flavor, texture, temperature and color. Some are enhancing and some merely jarring. Many of the dishes are gorgeously presented on slate, stone, bark, hay, moss or slabs of wood, although things are rarely as they seem. An edible razor clam’s shell is actually made from baguette dough and painted with squid ink; a pickled “quail egg” is formed from whipped-egg aioli, bound with xantham gum, brined in vinegar and then rolled and coated with milk skin. It is served with a foie gras “peanut” and a black malt rye cracker.

Atera’s dining room features a wrap-around bar in the style of Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare with an open kitchen where the cooks, practically equal in number to the diners, compose the many intricate dishes. But unlike the metallic sleekness of Chef’s Table, Atera evokes the forest primeval, with a “living wall” of aromatic herbs transformed into a vertical garden, dim lighting and a liberal use of stone and wood.

The wine list and service deserve a special mention. Atera serves a 20-year-old white Rioja (the 1992 Lopez de Heredia, “Vina Tondonia” Reserva) by the glass, a rarity in itself, for a mere $20, an unheard of opportunity at this caliber of a restaurant. In addition to affordability, the list showcases a number of interesting, unconventional options: Of the 5 white wines currently offered by the glass, one is from Santorini and the other is from Hungary. Atera’s cellar contains one of the more extensive lists of German and Austrian Riesling in the city and you can genuinely trust the extremely knowledgeable sommelier. We don’t normally mention the tea service of a restaurant, but Atera has a deeply thoughtful collection and it is worth asking questions and trying something new at the end of your meal.

The service is invariably friendly and well informed – anyone can be stopped at any time and asked about any detail, no matter how minute. To the extent Atera is sometimes unsuccessful in its experimental creations, it is not for want of attention to detail and we hope that Lightner continues to refine his nightly changing menu so that Atera can take what we think to be its rightful place on our list.

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INFORMATION

TriBeCa
77 Worth St.
New York (nr. Broadway)
212-226-1444
Tue-Sat, 6:30pm-9:30pm
    Matthew Lightner, Chef
    Victoria Blamey, Sous Chef

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