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Atera is a Four Star Restaurant for 2014

Near the end of my 20-course, $459 meal for one at Atera, a bearded staffer in an expensive suit began the “Gong Fu” process of preparing Phoenix oolong tea, a complicated series of steps that involved tempering the cups, awakening the aroma of the leaves with hot water (not for drinking!), swirling the tea pot in a circular motion (for even distribution — can I drink it now?), and generously allowing me to consume the prized second, third and fourth infusions, whose precious liquor smelled like lychee and tasted like grass. The ceremony was preceded by a brief dialogue on how the flavor of the brew would’ve been different had the Chinese product been harvested at a different altitude, and just in case there was any confusion, the gentleman overseeing the rituals handed me his business card, on which was printed a single, Portlandia-esque title: “Tea Curator.” You’ve got to be kidding me.

Alas, the tea curator does not kid. It’s a story worth recounting not just because it was absolutely mental (and highlight of my evening), but because it’s a kick-ass luxury that highlights how the Atera experience is dramatically different than the slightly leaner (and markedly cheaper) affair of 2012, the Tribeca venue’s inaugural year.

New York sour

The room it still the same: thirteen seats at a chef’s counter surrounding the open kitchen. The menu format is virtually identical: 20 or so courses the size of passed wedding hors d’oeuvres. The chefs still wield tweezers and eye-droppers with the precision of paleontologists unearthing dinosaur fossils. And yet the food has evolved so much from the early days that one might conclude that there’s a new chef at the helm here. There is not. Matthew Lightner, who picked up two Michelin stars and the accolades of virtually every critic in town when Atera opened two and a half years ago, is still the sarge in charge. And the slightly sad news is that his creations have shed a bit of their childlike whimsy as his restaurant has grown up.

Atera King Crab

King crab with cream, rhubarb juice, coconut oil

Nearly all of the Lightner’s brilliant "hocus pocus" dishes have vanished. Gone is the sable-covered sorbet that’s painted to look like a rock. Banished is the foie gras shaped to resemble a peanut. No more are there vaguely fishy cookies served as appetizers. Instead of fish egg macarons, there’s just plain jane caviar. (The good news: That caviar, 10 grams of Bulgarian golden osetra, exhibits soft, subtle maritime flavors and a short finish and is flanked by tapenade and "burnt cream" to evoke the salty-sweet essence of the ocean.)

The old style of "trompe bouche," where food looked like one thing but tasted like another — has given way to a compelling, ultra-refined naturalism.

Change is risky. Even the most ambitious culinary establishments, the ones that overhaul half their menu every month or so, tend to stay the course with their larger approach to cuisine. But rest assured that Atera, despite its tectonic shifts, has grown into one of New York’s most rewarding bastions of fine dining. The old style of "trompe bouche," where food looked like one thing but tasted like another — has given way to a compelling, ultra-refined naturalism.

The old Atera would’ve served you razor clams with the "edible shells" — really air baguettes in disguise. Now, we pick at tiny stacks of surf clam, spring garlic, turnips, and leeks, a bevy of aromatic vegetables that recall clean sea breeze. Lightner once served chicken noodle soup, where the "pasta" was made from squid. Now he offers cool mushroom consomme, the shallow broth lending its woodsy tones to a few slices of charcoal-warmed fluke, pink artichoke petals, and rose vinegar. Instead of a high-end riff on a nostalgic classic (Campbell’s), we get an esoteric ode to the colors pink, white, and black, like a flower sitting on the forest floor.

Now here’s your terrine of the year: a grassy lamb tartare turned mildly sour and musky with a dab of porky njuda and tempered with the creaminess of raw shrimp. Rockin.

Just keep in mind it’s not the best deal in town. Dinner, once $150, is now $195, or $245 with the caviar supplement. Tack on a wine pairing and you’re at $1,018 for two after tax and tip. Care for Champagne? The only listed offering by the glass is $45.

Clockwise from top left: Milk Punch and Camillo cocktails; Grapes with leaves; Sunchoke bar snacks; Trout roe with corn puree

Of course, with more money, comes more amenities. A lounge downstairs now accommodates guests who arrive early (or those who want to linger after the second seating arrives). That separate space offers bite-size treats like fish-sauced beef jerky with the texture of prunes, tiny pig’s blood tarts with tomato jam (two degrees of red, one rich, one sour), and a burger that easily ranks among the city’s best. Lightner blends aged short rib, loin, and round, tosses in some marrow and tendon, and arrives at a soft terrine-like creation where every bite tastes like the greasy, griddled exterior of a Shake Shack burger. Wicked.

Back upstairs, Lightner places trout roe atop a parfait of corn puree, egg yolk jam, and sesame praline arranged in such a way as to mimic a sunflower blossom. He drapes carrot puree over sea urchin as a short essay in orange, with the root acting as the cool, reserved foil to the achingly sweet uni. Call it "surf and earth." And for a bit of turf, Lightner pairs Mangalitsa pork — aged for three weeks — with a fat slice of abalone and grills them both to identical textures, letting the diner bask in two degrees of funk, one swine, the other shellfish.

Mangalitsa pork loin, aged three-weeks, with grilled abalone

Dessert happens fast — raspberry sorbet with licorice here, chocolate mignardises there. This is when that the tea curator shows up, ready to peddle $13 worth of matcha, whisked tableside into a sweet, foamy, seaweed-y bliss — following a brief lecture of the nature of the product.

Atera is epically more mature than it used to be. While the 8-year-old inside me misses the Willy Wonka-like wonders of the opening menu, the adult I am says it’s okay to grow up sometimes.

Photos: Nick Solares


77 Worth Street, Manhattan, NY 10013 (212) 226-1444 Visit Website
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