The service captain at Atera, the two-Michelin star Tribeca tasting counter, kicks off dinner service by pouring from a chilled bottle of bubbly into a Riedel flute. The liquid is brilliantly effervescent, vaguely sweet, and unusually piney - a proper foil for the giant quenelle of golden osetra caviar before you, set atop pistachio ice cream.
You take a bite of the dish — beads of fish roe rolling around on the tongue until they burst into a briny, oily mess, amping up the umami of their frozen base — and then a sip of the drink, which cleanses the palate with its vibrant acidity. It's all perfectly normal, all par for course - except for one little thing: The glass of what appears to be Champagne is entirely alcohol-free.
This drink is called Champine, and it's not sold in stores. In fact, you can only get it here, at Atera, which is also where it's made. The restaurant receives regular shipments of douglas fir boughs; when they arrive, staffers gather for the pine vendage, picking off the needles from the branches, so beverage director Nick Duble can use them for his infusion. The brew simmers over low heat in a giant rondeau, with sugar for sweetness and malic, lactic, and tartaric acids for a tangy, lip-smacking, Riesling-like sharpness — before carbonating, bottling, and labeling the results. It's the first pour of the restaurant's "temperance pairing," a six-drink progression that diners can order if, for whatever reason, they don't want to drink alcohol.
In my years of professional dining, I've felt less wobbly after three martinis than a tasting-menu wine pairing.
Atera, restaurateur Jodi Richard's ongoing experiment of a tasting menu venue in Tribeca, parted ways with its longtime chef Matthew Lightner last spring. Under the direction of Danish chef Ronny Emborg, it's still darn good. In the open kitchen, cooks tweeze silently, as if they're playing a high-stakes game of Operation, occasionally stepping away to join the dapper waiters in bringing lilliputian courses to rest in front of the thirteen diners sitting around the U-shaped counter.
In Lightner's final months at Atera, I awarded the restaurant four stars. At that time, his cooking had evolved from a 25-course trompe l'oeil affair (squid posing as noodles in chicken soup, almond sablé-covered sorbet posing as rocks on a plate of grass) to a shorter, more restrained exhibition of naturalism (charcoal warmed fluke in mushroom consomme with pink artichoke petals). Emborg's approach to cuisine is distinct from Lightner's, but it feels like a logical extension of what his predecessor was up to in his final days — albeit with a Nordic touch or two. The kitchen starts things off with an eel and pork fat-filled aebelskiver, a doughy little cloud of dough to let you know Denmark is in the house, which is shortly followed by a miniature mille-feuille scented with lemon verbena, a one-bite breath mint at the beginning of the meal.
Emborg's cuisine is excellent, but what's most remarkable about Atera under the new regime isn't necessarily the food, but rather the so-called temperance pairing. In fact in a recent meal at the restaurant, I found the alcohol-free options to be the most interesting part of the meal, entirely more intriguing — and far less physiologically taxing — than any proper wine pairing I've had in years.
The case for wine pairings — now frequently called beverage pairings, as they often include sake, beer, and sherry — is straightforward. If a diner trusts the kitchen to lead a no-choice culinary experience, using the best possible ingredients in the best possible way, why not trust a sommelier to apply the same care and curation to the drinks? It's a far better option than burdening yourself with the mental calculus of selecting a new glass or half-bottle after every other course.
The case against pairings, by contrast, is even simpler: There's just too much alcohol. In my years of professional dining, I've generally felt less wobbly after three martinis than after a tasting-menu wine pairing. Chefs are becoming increasingly adept at the balancing act of serving dozens of courses without overwhelming their clientele, but beverage directors still send us home at levels of inebriation and dehydration that make a wine-paired tasting menu feel less like a night at a long opera (a societally acceptable way to spend a Thursday) and more like a school-night bender after a breakup (good luck getting to work on Friday).
Atera's temperance pairing was entirely more intriguing than any proper wine pairing I've had in years.
Experienced navigators of the tasting menu know the smart way around a wine pairing is to have just a few sips of each pour, but that takes discipline — many diners will finish what's put in front of them, and why wouldn't they? If you're putting your full trust in a restaurant to give you a precisely calibrated quantity and progression of food, shouldn't you expect the same of the drinks?
Jonas Andersen, beverage director at Agern, Claus Meyer's new restaurant in Grand Central Station, is aware of this problem. "Even for those who do drink wine, if you're already having twelve courses and it's a bit of a heavy meal, it would be nice to go with a non-alcoholic pairing instead of a wine pairing. That's something we promote." It also saves diners a few bucks. Agern charges $45, service-included for a selection of eight booze-free drinks with its tasting menus, almost half the price of the full wine pairings; Atera, for their part, charges $85, service included, over $100 less than the regular pairings.
Astute readers will recognize a trend here: Atera's Emborg and Agern's Meyer are both Danish. Despite the country's noted tradition of heavy drinking, Danish restaurants have developed a reputation in the fine dining community for actively offering non-alcoholic pairings with with their tasting menus — look at Rene Redzepi's Noma, or Rasmus Kofoed's Geranium. "With Ronny coming from Denmark," Atera's maitre d' Matthew Abbick said, "we had anticipated he wanted to do a non-alcohol or juice pairing, and indeed that's what he wanted to put into play."
If you ask for one, you can get a temperance pairing at most fine-dining establishments; at venues like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, the option is an off-the-menu (albeit excellent) accommodation. But Atera and Agern are two of the very few New York restaurants to actively advertise the experience, which is something we need more of, a clear-headed reprieve from the taxing corporal implications of engaging in haute gastronomy.
Not all of Atera's alcohol-free selections work as well as the Champine, but so be it. The point of this sort of restaurant is to experiment, and some of those experiments will, by their risky nature, fail. Atera reimagines the classic negroni — normally gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari — as a combination of juniper saffron water, raisin nectar, and fake-Campari flavored with quinine bark. They call it the "nogroni." It's a dazzling concept, with great astringency, but it comes off too sweet.
Danish restaurants have developed a reputation for actively offering non-alcoholic pairings with with their tasting menus.
Better was the faux-fizz, celery and apple juices shaken with egg white and finished with a seaweed spritz — to make the froth on top taste a bit like the sea, of course, as the green-and-white cocktail played brilliantly against the gently oceanic flavors of a dish of sable with Brussels sprouts and foam. With the more muscular meat courses — a few bites of guinea fowl hidden under sliced green radishes, followed by a hefty rectangle of grass-fed dry-aged strip — guests are presented with what appears to be a bottle of red Burgundy. A Cotes de Beaune perhaps? Not quite. "Cotes de Beet," the sommelier deadpans.
Roll your eyes all you want at the punning name, or the concept itself, but it's a clever trick. The beverage team juices beets, mixes in black currant, steeps the whole thing in toasted oak barrels for structure, and adds a hint of thyme oil for a savory finish. The bottled result is poured into a wide-mouthed wineglass. It tastes like an earthier, less sugary analogue to cranberry juice. While it doesn't magically open up on the palate like a tannic wine does when it meets rich beef, it's a regal pairing in its own right.
Verisimilitude isn't always a virtue — as evidenced by that pseudo-negroni — so it's reassuring when you learn that Atera's beverage team, instead of trying to mimic a Chateau d'Yquem sauternes by aging squash juice in a cellar carved out under West Broadway, skips a facsimile of a sweet wine and just serves a proper, drinkable dessert. With elegant solemnity, Abbick sprays a compound of milk, almond, and lemon out of an old-fashioned soda siphon: it's an ethereal milkshake, a cloud of a cocktail, paired with a similarly airy version of a dark chocolate cake.
The only shame is that the milkshake isn't offered to the diners who went for the boozier pairing option. Would you rather end a meal with yet another glass of Madeira, or the best milkshake in the world? This is the greater lesson of Atera's temperance offerings: alcohol-free drinks (or, as I occasionally like to call them, drinks) deserve just prominent a place in beverage programs as do beer, wine, and cocktails. If the country's best restaurants can convince us that arcane vegetables and heirloom grains are no less intrinsically luxurious than Wagyu, foie gras, and truffles, those same restaurants can surely reduce the alcohol content in traditional beverage pairings with thoughtful sodas and juices, and perhaps even a beet wine or two.
Would you rather end a meal with yet another glass of Madeira, or the best milkshake in the world?
Eleven Madison Park has started moving in this direction; the restaurant sometimes sends out tomato soda with a tomato course, and it's currently working on a celery soda to pair with a caviar course. But such experiments aren't always embraced by diners. "It's one of those things that could go either way," bar director Leo Robitschek says. "Some people are like, ‘Oh, you're giving me something without booze?' When that happens, we'll obviously follow up with a wine."
Changing minds will take time. Even if the cost of creating a bespoke nonalcoholic beverage can exceed the cost of pouring a glass of Champagne, and even if consumers shell out as much money for cold-pressed juices at corner boutiques as they do for a glas of wine at a restaurant, many fine dining patrons still tend to associate alcohol with value, and mocktails as inferior substitutes.
That's why the mere act of serving tomato soda instead of a sauvignon blanc — or running the virgin pairing option on the menu right next to the wine pairing — is so important. Just as junk food lovers who don't eat meat deserved to see vegetarian burgers go from a fringe culinary fad to an object of mainstream desire, the non-drinkers of the world — pregnant people, designated drivers, individuals for whom sobriety is as vital as oxygen — deserve a beverage experience that beer and wine drinkers will rave about as well. I like to think one day we'll all walk into a restaurant and a savory soda like Champine will be listed right there night to the Dom Perignon, instead of buried on the back page with the Coca-Cola.