Imagine a forest. It’s lush and damp and every inch of it is alive. Even the earth and rocks are covered with moss and living organisms. It’s serene, peaceful, and untainted by human interference. Nice, isn’t it? Now imagine paying someone $250 to shove it all in your mouth. Sound like something you’d be into? If you find yourself at Atera, it had better.
To some extent, Atera was an inevitability. Restaurants like Brooklyn Fare and Momofuku Ko are constantly booked solid with people clamoring for the chance to drop big money on a one-of-a-kind tasting menu experience. At the same time, the culinary scene in New York has become increasingly obsessed with all things from Portland, including the practice of “foraging”, or as we like to call it, “picking up things from the ground.” Someone was bound to put these two things together, and it just so happened that Chef Matt Lightner was the perfect man for the job. Lightner has spent time at two of the worlds greatest restaurants, Noma and Mugaritz, but more importantly, he comes to New York via Portland, where he’s been digging around in the woods and winning national awards for the last few years. That’s a pretty impressive resume, and it’s exactly the combination of training that qualifies you to open up an expensive concept restaurant based on eating from the forest. It’s also a nice combination to get the food media going gorillas before your doors even open.
What we found from Atera is that, no matter how appealing eating a forest might sound to you, it’s not quite worth the hefty price tag. This is an incredibly interesting restaurant, and Chef Lightner is very talented. The service is incredible, the drinks are good, and it’s a really nice room. But the meal here is simply too hit and miss. For that much money, we need every bite to be an out of the park home run, and there are some singles and doubles on this menu that had us wishing we could order a la carte. Maybe this place will find its sweet spot as some time goes on. But for now, save the big bucks for Brooklyn Fare, or better yet Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Who needs a forest when you’ve got a farm?
As any self respecting $150 tasting should, Atera starts you off with a bunch of little things before the actual courses. Most of them are excellent. There is a fried jerusalem artichoke with strained buttermilk and herbs tucked inside. It’s earthy and awesome. There’s a lobster “roll” made with savory meringue that’s a little bit strange but very good. A savory granola coated in black sesame is the same color as the slate that it’s served on, and is something I want to buy by the box and eat at my desk. Peanut shaped foie gras bites and pickled quail eggs are served together with a malt cracker on the side. That one got mixed reviews. And, in keeping with the springtime law of New York City restaurants, there was a ramp on the menu. It had been fried with pine nut butter and some wild rice, and it was incredible. Such was the beginning of our Atera adventure. Now for the actual menu.
A goat’s milk yogurt is topped with what appears to be a slice of beet, but is “beet ice.” This was light, and the textures were interesting. We’re in.
Maybe it was too much ice back to back, but we weren’t really feeling this. Ribbons of fresh diver scallop sit between what look like little icebergs of frozen stuff. The scallop is incredibly fresh and delicious, but the cold stuff was distracting.
This Long Island fluke was nice to start, but barbecued onion and fennel seed make it even better.
We were asked to guess what this one was, and guess what. We f*ckin’ nailed it. Basically, dried squid is combined with cured pork fat and a squid broth, and the end result will blow your mind. It’s tasty and really interesting.
This thing is incredible. It’s a “dried” beet that’s basically been cooked for 48 hours, and the result is something that looks more like a piece of coal than it does a root vegetable. This black hunk of beet coal is then placed atop some fish roe and a crustacean sauce that is absolutely out of this world. If every dish at Atera was this good, we’d drop a 9.0 on it.
We wanted to like this. We really did. But you know what is not fun to eat? Beef tendon. And that’s what comes with this skate. We’re adventurous as they come, but beef tendon tastes exactly like you think it would. Like tendon. No thanks.
This piece of squab (hiding here under some pear skin), however, was very good. So was the pear skin.
Delicious flavors (lamb, root beer, hickory nuts), but this thing was way too fatty, and coming from us, that should mean something.
Not to take away from the inventive and impressive things on the rest of this menu…but this sourdough roll has been in my dreams ever since this meal. It might be the single greatest piece of bread that has ever existed.
Soft Shell Crab
We were lucky enough to hit the first soft shells of the season while we were at Atera, but somehow this fried guy in brown butter was a let down. We found it to be lacking in flavor and frankly, boring.
“Rock” is a dessert that looks like, you guessed it, a rock. It’s actually some kind of hardened brownie shell with a bergamot sorbet inside. To us, it looked more like an old lime than a rock, but it doesn’t matter. It’s delicious.
Parsley Root Split
This parsley root “split” with banana ice cream and meringue is dessert heaven.
We’ll be honest and tell you that we have no idea what any of this really was, other than that on the plate appeared to be an edible oak leaf, some wintergreen “snow” and bourbon cake. That’s all you really need to know anyway. It was really good.