Note: This is a review under chef Matthew Lightner, who left the restaurant in March 2015. His replacement is Danish chef Ronny Emborg.
The concept was always a tough sell: a foraged modernist $120 prix fixe-only tasting menu served around a 12-seat dining counter, served by a chef with impeccable credentials but no record of success.
Despite favorable reviews in other outlets, The Times could not be bothered to review it, sending Julia Moskin for a Dining Brief, no doubt while Sam Sifton snored his way through three visits to La Petite Maison.
Richard didn’t give up. She lured Matthew Lightner to New York, chef of the acclaimed Portland restaurant Castagna, closed for a renovation that stretched to nearly six months, and re-opened as Atera.
It had to have been a risk for Lightner: this city sometimes chews up and spits out chefs imported from elsewhere. Just ask Miguel Sanchez Romera.
The basic idea didn’t change much: a foraged modernist prix-fixe-only tasting menu served around a 12-seat dining counter, with the price now amped to $150 per person. This time the rave reviews and two Michelin stars followed promptly.
So did the price hikes. Atera is now $195 per person, a 30 percent increase in 20 months — actually not that bad, compared to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare: $85 to $255 in about four years, a 200 percent increase. Still, Atera’s entry price is now higher than three out of the five NYT four-star restaurants, and it’s tied with a fourth, Eleven Madison Park. Only Per Se costs more.
Atera and Brooklyn Fare are the only two New York restaurants that charge the full price of the food, plus service and tax, at the time of booking. (You pay for alcohol on the day of the meal.) I can understand the restaurant’s perspective, to an extent: with only 12 seats, a few no-shows can really wreak havoc with the bottom line.
Lightner told Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton that “we work with people who can’t make it or need to switch,” although I’m not aware of anyone who has tested how flexible they really are. My anecdotal experience, when making the reservation (5½ weeks in advance), is that Atera seems to be filling up most nights. They could probably allow refunds within (say) a one- or two-week interval, without losing much business.
The online booking system (on their website) is simple to use, but most of the seatings are either at 6:00 or 9:30, neither of which is the time most people want to eat; we settled for the former. A 12-person reservations-only lounge is available downstairs, with priority given to restaurant guests, but we didn’t try it. I can’t imagine settling in for cocktails before or after a meal this heavy.
They’re efficient. They texted me a reminder on the morning of the reservation (as if I might forget the $418 I paid in advance), then texted me again to ask about any dietary restrictions. While we were there, another party seemed to be served vegetarian versions of some dishes; aside from that, there are no choices.
The printed menu, handed out at the end of the meal, changes daily. (Click on the image, left, for a larger picture.) There are 17 courses listed, but counting amuses we were served more like 27 separate courses — some just a bite or two, but still, 27 things that have to be prepped, prepared and plated. No two courses used the same servingware.
Yes, there are things like edible flowers and foraged herbs you’ve never heard of, some of them served on plates resembling rocks. But most of it is real food you’d recognize, in witty and unexpected combinations prepared with great skill.
Over a three-hour meal of 27 courses, with something like 31 separate items, you’re not going to love everything. The procession can seem relentless. But you’ll love an awful lot of it. This must be one of the top handful of meals served in New York City today.
Descriptions of the food are given below, with my light comments. I photographed every course except the first two (see slideshow), as I was at first unsure whether photos were allowed. (Two similar restaurants, Momofuku Ko and Brooklyn Fare, don’t allow photos; the latter doesn’t even allow note-taking.) Turns out, the staff not only allow photos, but even help out, as long as the flash is off.
1. Beer macaroon, crème fraîche, and caviar; served in a glass jar (no photo).
2. Flax seed and coriander cookie dusted with pine nut butter (no photo).
3. Pickled beet, beeswax glaze, edible flowers
4. Amaranth toast with smoked trout roe. Wendy’s favorite dish.
5. “Lobster rolls” in a light deep-fried batter. Melted in the mouth.
6. Beef tendon with uni fish sauce. Like potato chips.
7. Pickled quail egg with a bit of salt; and a pig’s blood cracker with chicken liver pâté and huckleberry jam.
8. Bone marrow, served in an edible trough.
9. Swordfish lardo, salt cured and hot smoked. I wasn’t so fond of this—it was awfully greasy, but Wendy liked it.
All the dishes above were eaten with the hands. At this point, hot washcloths were delivered, then placemats and silverware. The printed menu commences at this point.
10. “Peach, corn, and rose” — fresh peaches, roasted corn, Arctic rose.
11. Bigeye tuna salad with pickled ramp relish and calendula.
12. Razor clam with almond and garlic.
13. Sea urchin with carrot and nasturtium. Wendy’s second-favorite dish.
14. Diver scallop on a bed of fermented sour cabbage leaf with hazelnut butter; eaten with chopsticks.
15. Peekytoe crab ravioli in a toasted grain dashi with lobster consommé.
16. Stuffed morels, mushroom gravy, wood sorrel, malt powder. Almost like a mushroom steak.
17. Sepia (cuttlefish) cut like angel hair pasta with roasted chicken bouillon. A bit insipid.
The bread service came at that point, a slice of salted rye bread with cheese-infused butter, churned in-house. This was intense, unlike any butter I’ve ever tasted. This must be what it used to be like on a farm. After we finished the rye bread, there was a warm sourdough roll based in pork fat.
18. Fava beans (roasted and split, then charred on the grill), emerald ice lettuce, seaweed, and walnut consommé. I just loved this dish.
19. Fourchu lobster (Nova Scotia) dusted with corn powder and lobster butter. Decadent.
20. Roasted Four Story Hill Farms breast of squab with spicy ragout of tomato, squab heart, and squab liver. Great flavor: wonderful.
21. Wagyu sirloin with spruce, aged 120 days in house. Very funky, but Wendy found it sour; also the piece we were served was a bit too fatty.
22. Juiced rhubarb with sheep’s milk carraway yogurt and frilled dianthus.
23. “Cracked eggs”: goat’s milk ice cream in a candy shell with egg yolk. Dessert of the year.
24. “Milk and crackers”; sort of like a strawberry shortcake. I want him to bake our wedding cake.
25. Toasted walnut sundae with celery root and lemon balm.
26. Bourbon cask ice cream sandwiches with almond, vanilla, and oak. Not much bourbon flavor that I could detect.
27. “Black walnuts and pretzels”.
The service is as good as any four-star restaurant. There are four servers, plus several others working behind the scenes—certainly an ample server–guest ratio for a 12-seat establishment. Four cooks are visible in the open kitchen, but I have no idea how many are prepping downstairs. A server mentioned that prep begins at 9:00am.
The servers do not overwhelm you with lengthy descriptions, but if you ask, their knowledge of the ingredients and preparation is practically encyclopedic. The sound track plays soft rock from the 1960s and ’70s. The seating, on soft captains’ chairs arranged in a horseshoe, is comfortable.
The wine list runs to 88 pages. A Burgundy for $17,250 was the most expensive bottle, but there is plenty in the $50–70 range, and also ten pages of half-bottles. The wine pairing ($115) would have been 14 pours, according to the sommelier—certainly not a bad deal for that amount of wine, but it was more than we cared to drink. We ordered an excellent Burgundy off the lower end of the list, and were perfectly satisfied, and later an after-dinner liqueur. The cocktails are impressive too, but it’s not easy to keep them straight, as there is no printed menu, and you’re dependent on the server’s (lengthy) oral descriptions of them.
As much as I loved Atera, it’s hard not to be sad for what is disappearing. At Daniel, Jean Georges and Le Bernardin, you could visit two or three times a week for months, and not get bored, assuming you liked their style of cuisine to begin with. They all offer a dozen or more choices for each course, with menus changing at least seasonally, if not more often. These places can be—actually are—every-day restaurants for some extremely wealthy people.
Currently, a majority of the city’s Michelin two- and three-star restaurants have the same format as Atera: a long tasting menu with no choices, or very few. It’s not just dinner; it’s an event not meant to be repeated anytime soon. They don’t change the menu often enough to justify returning every week, even if you could afford it.
Atera won’t be for everyone: the length of the meal, the dining counter atmosphere, the price, and the requirement to pre-pay, are all deterrents. But in the “dinner as event” genre, it is one of the city’s best.
Atera (77 Worth Street east of Church Street, Tribeca)
Food: American modernist foraged cuisine
Ambiance: A quiet, comfortable dining counter facing an open kitchen