Monday, April 9, 2012

ATERA in Wonderland

Finally, I get the chef to follow ME.  Okay, not actually, but if you were using Location Services, it might look that way.  Matt Lightner made his way from the heralded Castagna in Portland, Oregon, across country to helm Atera, in the old Compose space in TriBeCa.  The management and the rest of the team remains in place, but the renovation has transformed the small space into what feels like a living cave, floored and countered with deep, gray slate and a large wall of live plants and herbs growing out of pockets from a suspended planter.   Dim lights flank the periphery like mining lanterns, and there a palpable calmness amongst the clink of glasses and the bustle of the open kitchen.  But Atera is in no way like any other rustic-casual locavore joints that are currently proliferating.  What is being done here is more El Bulli than Hundred Acres.    The menu, which is a multi-course prix-fixe, embraces obscure seasonal ingredients, weedy herbs and kelp, often mimicking their very forms.  Going one step futher than farm-to-table, this is found-to-table: a forager's wonderland.  But for all the leaves and lichens, this is no rabbit food.  I'm sure the meats are pedigreed, but there are no menus that brag of it.  Here, you are at the whim of the chef.  Here, this is a very good thing.

Lightner brings Portland's down-to-earth sensibility by way of the molecular gastronomy of Spain and forager-chic of Copenhagen.  The plating often looks more like dollhouse front yards (and the boulders removed from them) than plates and bowls, but when traditional settings do present themselves, they of are rough, sandy earthernware or smooth wooden planks- tactilely pleasing.  We began with a smattering of snacks, which well set the scene for what Lightner and Co. is here to do.  A thick furl of roasted sunchoke coddled a cool dollop of creamy, thickened buttermilk crowned with leafy microgreens.  The root was cooked down to crunch, like a huge, earthy Frito without the salt and fry.  It may have been a bit sturdy to the tooth, but with a chew or two softened swiftly and found a perfect partner in its milky filling.  Black sesame and flax joined forces, too, in  small, coated biscuit, sweet and nutty- perhaps even a bit too candy-like to begin such a extensive meal, but none the less delicious for it.

Two shiny ovoids nested in a box of grassy straw: hard-boiled pickled eggs with a yolk so unctuous I've not yet determined whether it was the actual yolk or some Jekyll-esque concoction inoculated into the white.  Fois gras meticulously molded masqueraded as a small peanut, with all the salty decadence of liver and a hint of nuttiness in form and flavor.  What looked like an incinerated piece of cardboard was an ashy cracker-like lefse bread, which introduced Lightner's infatuation with flame.  For all the dampness of his hometown, or perhaps because of it, several dishes feature elements of fire- from ash, to char, or just the resemblance of embers.   Just as witty were entirely edible "razor clams", which did comprise the mollusks themselves, but the shell was a crisp wafer and the shellfish sliced and smoked before being tucked back inside (note: removing the top half of the shell provides a better proportion of ingredients).  

My favorite of the precursors, however, was indubitably the lobster "roll".  This fat little hero sandwiched fine shreds of the sweetest, firmest lobster meat smothered in a wildly fresh mayonnaise between two, whimsical unsweetened meringues.  The richness and lightness inverse to the original, and were these to have presented themselves while my companion was distracted, I would have remorselessly coveted them both.  Simultaneously sumptuous and featherlight, this was a creation for the annals.

Moving beyond the "snacks", the first actual course was a beautiful, palate-cleansing saladette featured a frozen disc of concentrated beet atop a thick bed of yogurt, strewn with dainty petals and curling tendrils, with crisp cubes of dehydrated fruit.  While the execution was novel, the beet/yogurt pairing was more traditional, and served as a delicious pause of familiarity before proceeding with the adventure ahead.

From garden to sea, the next dish we tried in two different versions:  my sushi-averse bacon-fat seared scallop sat plump aside a stack of icy shards of citrus and crisp gin-scented meringues.  It was, quite frankly, the Platonic ideal of a scallop.  It melted on my tongue as the bacon fat did to cook it, and all of that heady richness was cut by the frozen wafers of Meyer lemon and grapefruit.   And as good as it was, I dread to admit that my partner's course (a fluke tartare with coriander and fennel spiced barbecued onions) was equally, if not more, magnificent.  If all raw fish tasted like this, of spice and caramelized onions, I'd be a quick convert.   Decorated with tiny allium blossoms, it was a exquisitely beautiful as it tasted.

Back to the garden, a leek melted beyond recognition into a pool of wheatgrass was nuzzled with cream, like a vichyssoise with no need for the likes of potatoes or bowls.  Garnished with sprigs of clover and thin discs of crisp pear... or wait, were THOSE the potatoes?  Were it so, a hearty bread appropriately followed, a dense and chewy rye, light in flavor but with a superlative crumb, served with butter  impregnated with the ripe tang of cheese and flecked with shimmering crystals of salt.  A delicious duo that I wish I could have appropriated more room for in the quickly diminishing capacity of my stomach.  

So it was, perhaps, good then, that the next dish arrived with a game attached: with no description at all, unlike the minimalist captions given the preceding delicacies.
Here, instead, Veronica Blamey, the enchanting sous chef, enlisted us in a test of blind dining.  A rather innocuous looking scroll of transluscent white, with parchment-stiff wafers aside, in a pool of meaty looking jus.  First bite detected indisputable squid, but the cylindrical sheath below hinted of animal, and the gravy-like broth accentuated it.  Mouthfeel = creamy, smooth, fatty but not too.  I thought perhaps lardo, but no.  It was too delicious, not greasy enough.  This is what I got wrong, because what it was, was, in fact,  purely fatty: a thin slice of lardo rolled and paired with sheets of dehydrated squid, and pork fat squid broth that was so decadently delicious until I found out what it was (note to self:  GET OVER IT).  Atera was forcing me to like things I staunchly denied, and I was falling further and further into the rabbit hole.

 The next course arrived to counter the unholy decadence of its predecessor, and also a revisit to the incineration theme.  This beet, black as pitch, was drizzled with a smooth crustacean-infused cream.  Cutting it open revealed the blood red tuber, amplified in contrast to its charred cloak, but saved from spookiness by a delicate flush of dainty edible flowers.  Like the squid, many dishes are reinventions of surf-and-turf, pairing the treasures from the farm (or in this case,  the earthiest of dirt candy) with the mysteries of the sea. 

As if to tell me he didn't want to test me too rigorously, the next dish was a lesson in simplicity.  A small sweet potato, baked to an ethereal creaminess and dusted with a sandy coat of buttery streusel, somehow elevating this homely root to join the ranks of truffles and fois.  Unbelievably, this might have been my favorite dish of the night: I have never even imagined a mere spud could reach these epic proportions.  At this point, I was beginning to expect to see faeries emerging from the plant wall, complete with firefly lanterns and dragonfly wings.  Nor would it have surprised me.

My favorite fish, skate, swam in a mild broth scattered with green onions, and what I thought was some sort of plankton or kelp.  Tiny sprigs that resembled delicate coral polyps or deep-sea algae floated with the skate that was poached so tender it melted into the rich consomme effortlessly.  But those little filaments had a collagen-like crunch.  Befitting, as it turns out: they were nothing from the sea at all, but tiny little beef tendons.  I was now indisputably out of my element, but totally under its spell.

The two "main" dishes proved to be my least favorite... perhaps in part due to an absolute absence of appetite, but a relentless curiosity (curioser and curioser) nudged me further.  Squab was rare underneath its glazed skin, while devoured by my companion, I but nibbled at the gamey flesh.  Even the pickled wild onion and dried pear skins couldn't strongly enough counter its terroir.  So too I found the lamb collar atrociously fatty, although the ethereal root beer foam married flawlessly with the gorgeous little nugget of meat that I could separate from the fat.  Jack Sprat am I, and my "wife" happily licked the plate clean.

And so terminated the savory courses, but again, not really.  Our first dessert, the "Rock" upheld all contingencies of the dessert category:  a slushy orb of tart sorbet enrobed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with a golden nutty granola.  The earthy, clement colors of moss, ochre and beige certainly belie the flavor.

But the second, a "split" featuring parsley root among its banana ice cream and shards of meringue,  wouldn't quite relinquish its grip on ingredients traditionally savory.  It was hauntingly monochromatic dish whose diaphanous lightness paralleled its appearance, and was difficult to curtail just one more bite... until there were none. But there were, on the other hand, more other bites to be had: this is the ice cream in which his Harrison State Park-foraged wintergreen ended up (, like a late frost in kissed with early spring mint, amongst twigs and leaves sculpted of candied brown butter.   This pairs lovelily with a gentle mint tea from their well-curated collection, although the excellent coffee from next-door RBC is so difficult to deny (pour-over only, no decaf).

And now, at late hour, we had to but revel in two small truffles: and a black acorn filled with a sugary caramel and  a spectacular small, cocoa-dusted orb that oozed salty-sweet caramel.... the kind of chocolate that make eyes roll back in heads in pure ecstasy.   Lightner has earned a Cheshire cat's grin, because those who get it, here, will get it.  Those that don't most hopefully won't bother coming in the first place.  There are only seventeen seats; there is no room for disdain.  What there is, is a humble artistry being performed here, like magic without the pretense and hoopla- a secret of faerie tales we wish we could believe in.  The price of entry, while steep, covers dinner, a show, a night of fancy and a memory that will not quickly erase.

After all, Alice wasn't sure if she was dreaming throughout her journey, either.

Photography:  Nick Solares

1 comment:

  1. Great write up of a truly magical culinary adventure. I concur. -the foodie magician (