“Delicious!” said my partner, Adam, as a plate was set in front of him. The he realized he hadn’t tasted the dish yet. “I mean it looks delicious!” He paused, reconsidering. It resembled a lump of coal. “Actually, it doesn’t look very delicious, does it?”
“Merry Christmas!” I said.
We were at Atera, the new restaurant at 77 Worth. It’s the space where Compose was for eight months; the chef is now Matthew Lightner, who came from Castagna in Portland, Ore., and the price to dine at Atera is $150 per person. You may recall that, in a fit of pique over having to keep shelling out for expensive meals, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to solicit donations for a review. In exchange for a poem about Atera, an amusing photo, a signed menu, or even an advertisement in this post, fourteen people donated a total of $325.
Once the $300 minimum was reached on Kickstarter, I called to make a reservation. [I wrote a long paragraph about my struggles to land a reservation before concluding that it was like listening to someone recall a frustrating flight. All you need to know is that you may be on the phone more than once with the lovely reservationist, and the 17-seat restaurant locks diners in with a deposit that turns nonrefundable 24 hours before the meal.]
I walked right by Atera, and if anyone should know where the door is, it’s probably me. For whatever reason, the sign that lists the businesses in 77 Worth doesn’t mention the restaurant. As you enter, you’re greeted by a host standing in front of a door for the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. The restaurant is to the left. It’s a little awkward, and not the kind of entrance you expect from a very expensive restaurant, but it’s much smoother than when it was Compose.
The interior has been remodeled, organizing the basically square-shaped room better; most diners sit at a deep U-shaped bar facing an open kitchen. The bar is much larger than Compose’s was, and a bit of intimacy was sacrificed. There’s also a lone table off to the side. Walls are wood-paneled; the staff is besuited. I felt like I was dining in Bruce Wayne’s kitchen, if Gotham were in the Pacific Northwest.
Adam and I settled in at the base of the U, and I announced that I’d be having the wine pairing, while Adam was ordering drinks à la carte. The “snacks” began arriving. A fried slice of sunchoke filled with something creamy and edible flowers. A lobster roll on meringue instead of bread. “A very special quail egg.” Foie gras molded into the shape of peanuts. A cracker of some sort coated in black sesame butter. Fried ramps. A miniature baguette hollowed out and colored to look like a razor clam shell, fill with clammy deliciousness. Explanations were not always provided: Sometimes we were just told we were having a lichen chip, or duck, or a razor clam and “you can eat the whole thing.” I’m stubborn, so I often refused to ask, but what’s the point of pulling wizardly tricks if the victim doesn’t know?
Anyway, those were just the snacks. We still had at least eight courses, plus desserts. Plural.
The food was dazzling, fascinating, astoundingly complex, and gorgeous. If you don’t believe chefs are artists—and scientists—you will after dining at Atera. When Adam and I were recently in Charleston, a restaurateur described another restaurant as serving “tweezer food,” and this was tweezer food par excellence. No, it was test tube food (often literally—plates were sauced in front of us via a test tube); I wouldn’t be surprised if Lightner has a particle accelerator downstairs. The “very special quail egg” was actually “whipped-egg aïoli bound with xanthan gum and brined in vinegar,” or so we learned later from the New York Magazine review. (Or so Adam did, and relayed it to me; I won’t read the review till I’m done writing this.) The level of effort in each dish was impressive and exhausting to ponder. A roll had been brushed with pork kidney fat. A sauce of “barbequed onion” was made from hundreds of onions that had been cooked till black and then pressed. Butter was made in-house, naturally, from cream and washed-rind cheese. (More of that, please.) I began to wonder if the $150 price was high enough.
Many of the dishes were delicious by any standard: the dried beet (the lump of coal I mentioned at the top), the lamb, the squab with dried pear peel, the whey-poached halibut, the mystery dish (we were made to guess), all the desserts. Others were less memorable. Or maybe fatigue had set in. As the courses come and go, the dazzle-me bar gets perilously high. The first time you’re served something that looks like a rock, you’re amazed. The second time? Eh. Although the sugar cookie resembling an oak leaf took my breath away.
I felt like we were watching fireworks—amazing fireworks, but still, all you could really do was marvel over them, oohing and aahing at the magic. At Corton, for comparison’s sake, the experience is about you; you’re a participant. At Atera, you’re more of a spectator. Adam and I barely talked about anything else, in part because the atmosphere is so hushed and starchy. The chefs are splendid to watch, moving quickly, deliberately, silently. (When a waiter dropped something, everyone in the kitchen staff turned to look.) Overall, it’s a somewhat clinical vibe: I don’t recall the sizzle of food cooking—is it old-fashioned of me to expect that from an open kitchen?—or the aroma of anything, except when someone, presumably outside on the street, was smoking pot.
The food comes so relentlessly that any conversational rhythm gets broken by the explanation about how the scallops were torn apart membrane by membrane and soaked in leftover botanicals from a small-batch gin producer in Brooklyn, or whatever. It’s not that I don’t care, or don’t find it interesting—I do! I want to read a book about it!—but I also want to have a good time. Atera is a lot of things—a bravura pushing of the limits of what cooking can be, a must for anyone who considers himself a foodie (even if he wouldn’t touch that word with a 10-foot fork)—but it’s not what I would call fun. Three caveats to that point: 1) I’ve never been to Brooklyn Fare or Momofuku Ko, and this may simply be how fine dining is these days. 2) My experience was possibly hampered by having to scribble notes, write bad poems, and take photos. 3) It doesn’t mean you won’t think it worthwhile; you should just know what you’re getting into.
The wine pairings varied widely—and included sake and (separately) sorrel juice—and were uniformly wonderful. I had a hard time drinking fast enough, though: At one point five glasses were lined up in front of me. Mid-meal, I got up to stretch my legs, disappointed to discover that the tired classic-rock music was much more audible in the restroom. Having to listen to “Stairway to Heaven,” “Break on Through,” “California Dreamin’,” and so on in the dining room was bad enough, but I had the terrible luck of visiting the restroom during “American Pie.” No matter what you surround them with, some things will always be unpalatable.
Atera is at 77 Worth (between Church and Broadway), 212-226-1444, ateranyc.com.
The snacks (drift your cursor over the image to read my description; they’re not listed on the menu you’re handed at the end of the meal):
Thank you again to the folks who sponsored this review on Kickstarter: Zak Profera, Kellee Joost, Adina, Christopher Shinn, Dan Kohn, Kiran Vairale-Mumtaz, Rohin Hattiangadi, Marlin Cohen, Michael Gerstner, Felipe Donnelly, Mandi Nadel, Shaunna Prissert, Woodrow’s, and CP.
Recent New Kid on the Block/First Impressions articles:
• HomBom Toys
• Matt Bernson
• Kaffe 1668
• Potbelly Sandwich Shop
• The Ludlow Shop
• Hale Organic Salon