The cluttered table used to tell you everything. The weight of the tablecloth, the number of forks, the glasses from a certain manufacturer—all clues to how good, how expensive, and how lengthy your dinner would be. But at the modern chef’s counter, there is nothing. You’re expected to trust the kitchen at Atera, where a tasting of 25 or so courses ($150) will begin shortly after you shuffle into your leather bar seat and find a place to put your feet. Some bites will be wonderful, others strange.
For a few hours, servers move as gracefully as cats, and cooks pinch away furiously with tweezers in the open kitchen, but the real focus at Atera is on what’s before you right now, at this very moment. So look: Here is an airy white macaron filled with black, shining sturgeon caviar. Deeply flavored raw-milk ice cream melts into a gorgeous lump of candied tomato. A twisted fairy tale of colorful vegetables, berries, and bitter, hairy little roots hide silky slices of duck heart. The tender sweetbread has a barbecue-flavored coating so powerfully sticky that it slows down time, lengthening its gentle flavors, hushing conversation. Dinner at Atera does not require your full attention, but it does reward it.
Chef Matthew Lightner came to New York from Portland, Oregon, where he ran Castagna, and he spent time cooking at Mugaritz and Noma in Europe—modern fine-dining restaurants defined strongly by their sense of place. Atera is in Tribeca, where the construction on Worth Street means you might walk through a forest of orange-and-white plastic to get to the unmarked entrance, and the restaurant’s frosted windows will let in the blue and white lights of the city, the flashing reds of a passing ambulance.
“This is a razor clam,” your server will say with a little smile, though the long, elegant shell is in fact made of airy bread, painted with squid ink. “Eat the whole thing.” Then he disappears, leaving you to nibble at the brittle, flavorless hull and discover the chilled cream inside it, tasting of the sea. Dig into what looks like this peach’s pit, and you’ll find it’s winsome ice cream made from a toffee of sunflower seeds, in disguise. These nearly Victorian trompe l’oeils are fun, though they don’t always succeed. For example, when wrinkly truffles meant to evoke walnuts are presented on a bed of moss, they can resemble the freshly dropped turds of some woodland creature.
Not every plate at Atera is stand-alone delicious. A simple hanky of cured swordfish belly delivered with its unexpectedly fatty texture and delicate smoke, but two blood pudding crisps filled with jam lacked flavor, as if they were the missing textural component of another dish. Later, a ramen of squid noodles with a dissolving flavor packet came in a Marmite-like broth that was too heavily salted. It jarred. A little ice cream sandwich ended the desserts on an unpleasantly salty note.
A clever and intuitive waitstaff guides you through the meal and usually resists the urge to show off complexity of technique or provenance of ingredient. Service has a rhythm to it, without slipping into monotony. A dozen guests move at their own pace: A small group of cooks from England has reached dessert, while a Japanese couple taking out their in-laws settles in for their hake. Everyone tries to tune out the guy who won’t stop comparing things to his previous visits, and to his meals at other chef counters in the city—but what is it with that guy always talking so much louder than everyone else?
Cooking is nature plus science, not a war between the two. Lightner’s work at Atera shows a deep understanding of this, and a respect for the culinary movements that have come before him. Then it pushes forward. A meal there reminds us that right now is the most exciting time to be alive in this freakishly beautiful world.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.