Flavors–Simple and Luxurious–That Truly Sing
Chef’s counter experiences, as I have quickly learned this past month, can range from Flynn McGarry freak shows to truly meaningful journeys into a kitchen’s culinary process with friendly, kindred strangers. At more intimate sushi omakase dinners, there’s a certain rhythm and rather striking, hypnotic beauty to the movements of the chef and sounds of scraping wasabi. Even at restaurants I love like Blanca, there always seemed to be a trade off between the staff’s warmth and the ability to cater to each guests’ basic service and allow the cooks to work undisturbed and efficiently.
Atera succeeded–and instantly became my favorite NYC restaurant–by not just presenting striking, imaginative food that challenged how I viewed ingredients I love. It delivered a complete and endlessly convivial experience, a multifaceted and engaging sensory performance where everyone from the manager to the sommelier to the cooks bobbed their heads to the music. Dishes did not merely sing due to excellence in execution, but the sights, sounds, and smells that bring them to your table. Most of all, the enthusiasm of a chef with a vision and a staff who taste and contribute to the food and draw on their own enthusiasm and emotional connection to the cuisine in a way only grandma usually can.
Though I didn’t know it upon dining at the restaurant, chef Ronny Emborg–formerly of elBulli and a position as private chef for the Queen of Denmark–developed his own concept of the “sensory kitchen,” which he describes on his personal website as “a cooking style where the dining guest must use both eyes, ear, nose and taste during the meal, not to mention the camera when guests are trying to capture the true essence of perfection on a plate.” It’s a bold philosophy, considering Emborg arrived to replace fellow Nordic chef Matthew Lightner, who left at the end of March. Nonetheless, the Dane has made the restaurant his own and, for $235 (service–importantly–included), put out a menu that truly does knock at the doors of NYC’s culinary big boys.
Given how much Atera’s kitchen is geared towards being a stage rather than a backdrop, I had just the view to see Emborg prepare my first dish and take the short walk over to present it to me. He held a pillow of five herbs and flowers, which included nasturtium, bronze fennel, and mint, and a small butter dish of shrimp emulsion. The instructions were simple: enjoy the what’s on the pillow, using as much of the emulsion as you prefer. Though I have no aversion to eating lone flowers and herbs–they’ve been a mainstay of fine dining the past couple years–I approached the dish as a bit of a novelty merely meant to show off the kitchen’s garden. Instead, I got an invaluable crash course in what these flowers and herbs truly tasted like. The shrimp emulsion wasn’t overly sweet, but instead big and buttery–almost nutty–in a way that made each individual leaf truly sing. The dish delighted me set the tone for Emborg’s menu, one with a reverence for natural flavors presented in surprising and often captivating ways.
Take the next, undoubtedly more luxurious course for example: a pairing of royal Siberian caviar with IPA foam and pistachio butter. Certainly not playing it safe as far as caviar service goes, the nut butter had a surprising amount of sweetness that offset the beer foam’s bitterness and–against all reason–primed the palate for the salty sea flavor of the silky sturgeon grains. Just as much, the texture of the butter and the foam allowed for the beads to roll around the tongue in what was, overall, a testament to how readily a caviar course can move beyond mere crème fraîche and chives.
In what I can only assume is Emborg’s signature dish (if not, I’m not sure how I’d handle never tasting this again), an expression of truffle flavor on par with Alinea’s “black truffle explosion” with a far simpler methodology. The plate, cheekily titled “Waffle with Cheddar, Mushroom” on the menu, is in reality a delicate, flaky waffle cracker topped with a cream of aged cheddar cheese and four perfectly circular slices of Burgundy truffle. Humble but indescribably elegant, the dish expressed more pure truffle flavor with those four thin slices than entire portions of black truffle risotto I’ve ordered as supplements at restaurants like Grace.
Cleansing the palate after such a transformative truffle experience, a rectangle of young cantaloupe with lemon herbs and a sprinkling of mustard seeds. A deceptively simple but crisp and refreshing bite, the melon’s juice naturally yielded to the hints of citrus while the mustard injected just a touch of spice and mouthfeel that kept the dish grounded on the savory end of the menu.
The next offering showed off the chef’s Danish sensibilities while retaining a bit of fun, American spirit. Emborg first brought a ceramic dish of venison tartare topped with shining golden whitefish roe to the table. Then, with only the faintest hint of a smile (the chef is good natured but zealous) he presented a pillow of four potato chips–each attractive enough for the label of a Lays bag. Using the provided wooden spoon, I filled each fried potato to capacity with the caviar and venison combination and popped it in my mouth. The tartare was as smooth and subtly gamey, the roe a bit crispy, and the chip, as only a two Michelin star potato chip could be, nicely crunchy and superbly salted. As it turned out, upon tasting the spread on its own, the chips–more than being just a novelty–provided the singular burst of salt in the dish that brought the other two ingredients together in fatty, crunchy harmony.
After an almost nonstop flow of great to excellent dishes, a small bowl of Dungeness crab with tomato broth, rose hip, and pansy under a thin disc of butter teased more than it satisfied. The shellfish offered a bit of sweetness while the tomato dominated flavor wise, bringing a tang to the dish that, overall, tasted fine but didn’t measure up to the previous offerings.
Emborg reappeared with a dish of razor clam and beet in a sauce of juniper over which he poured a second sauce of horseradish to create a colorful, mesmerizing pattern on the plate. The flavor, as it turned out, was equally vibrant. A garnish of dill intensified the mild sweetness of the clam while the horseradish remained measured enough alongside the juniper to keep the dish refreshing.
Continuing the seafood progression (and offering one of the rare cooked oyster dishes I’ve seen on NYC tasting menus), two seared Island Creek oysters with broccoli, celery, and tarragon beurre blanc. The alluring aroma of the tarragon led to the sauce’s rich, buttery flavor that helped tease out of the sweetness of the warm oysters. The celery, it also must be said, lent an essential freshness to the more decadent components and some crunch to the far chewier mollusks.
Bread service formed a small intermission before the final two seafood dishes, and it was, as always, a welcome one. The slice of whole wheat batard was not only hearty and crusty as expected, but came to the table piping hot, an important distinction given the quality of the two butters that accompanied it. One, a yogurt whipped butter, had a nice, tangy element reminiscent of a good cultured butter but more creamy. The other, however, commanded the larger portion of my always-precious bread supply: a caramelized onion butter with so much sweet and savory goodness that the manager admitted to eating half a pat of it by itself. While the bread itself easily makes it near the top of my list, the butter is far and away the best I’ve tasted in NYC (and yes I ate some by itself too).
Next came, in my opinion, the best dish on the menu and, all in all, one of the best I’ve had the opportunity to taste this year. In a shallow bowl, a halved Maine sea scallop sat in foamy miso brown butter with bitter greens. The presentation and concept might not be revelatory, but the mere intensity of flavor was staggering. The scallop, perfectly buttery, slightly sweet, and with just a touch of crust was absolutely imbued with the nutty, earthy, and slightly spicy miso and brown butter combination. The foam was almost maddeningly savory–sticking to my palate for nearly a minute after–but cut just enough by the bitterness of the garnishes to push right to the brink of intensity. The dish’s beauty truly came from its balance, a rather precarious balance of delicate and dominating flavors but one Emborg showed his mastery of.
The last seafood dish of the evening had a tough act to follow but also managed to really impress. A white fillet of turbot joined Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese (a small-batch, alpine Wisconsin cheese and the most-awarded in American history), chanterelles, and pickled shallot in a mushroom bouillon. The fish was nicely salted with a nice texture and substance that helped it stand up to the array of prominent accompanying flavors on the plate. While the cheese brought rich notes of fruit and olives, it had a closing tang that matched will with the crunchy shallot. Tying everything together, a bit of earth from the mushrooms and a stellar broth that was just a few steps removed from the beauty of the preceding brown butter foam.
The second best dish of the evening took the humble celery root and elevated it to the status of a prized piece of wagyu beef in a manner that even surpassed the brilliance of the vegetable-centric restaurant Semilla in Brooklyn. The celeriac was cooked in aged beef fat until just before tender–retaining a nice, slight crunch–and served in a thick, luscious black truffle sauce. Whatever you take away about the rest of Atera’s menu, Emborg knows his truffles and knows how to honor and showcase their normally nuanced flavor. Funnily enough, while an actual piece of meat might have made the dish too decadent, the celery root’s crunch was just refreshing enough to allow for a seductively concentrated, tongue-sticking sauce.
And then there was foie: the liver, in this case, served with blackcurrant jelly, peanut butter, and sliced cylinders of green apple. Though playful at its very core, the foie gras was expertly unctuous and, with the peanut butter and jelly components having more sauce-like consistencies, texturally played the part of the sticky, oozing element in the nostalgic bite. Further, while the apple pieces were dainty, they brought an essential acidity and crispness to an otherwise gooey dish.
With, surprisingly, no use of beef on the menu (apart from the aforementioned aged fat), a dish of Pennsylvania lamb en croute spelled the end of the savory courses. Served with huckleberry, garlic, and a burnt onion jus, the meat was thick and hearty–slightly sweet from the fruit but an overwhelmingly satisfying way to end the meal thanks to the extra savory backing.
A menu of such extravagant savory creations and creativity merited a more subdued end to proceedings. First, a rectangle of layered sliced peaches with mint, almond, and flavors of rose that was delicate in look and taste, offering just a hint of sweetness and tang with the refreshing herbal notes. Next (and similarly light), a licorice ice cream with blueberry ganache, yogurt mousse, and lemon herbs that ramped up the tang and brightness even more, with the herbal notes being of citrus rather than soothing mint. The last bite, another nod to Emborg’s Danish heritage: flødeboller, a chocolate-covered marshmallow bun that gave me just the familiar, comforting taste of sweet I was looking for to end the night.
Though Atera’s menu did have a couple notes that didn’t sing as sweetly as others, each dish, I must say, was a success in some small way. Others, it goes without saying, shocked me with their brilliance and depth of flavor, teaching a seasoned diner like me the true taste of flowers or truffle or the heights a mere scallop can reach. That Emborg and his team could keep such a great pace and spirit from beginning to end took great food and made it a great experience. Cuisine at this level can often be alienating, but Atera steeps the contemporary in the traditional and draws on the staff’s own enthusiasm for what they serve as the best possible testament to its quality. As I left, half the staff–including Emborg himself–saw me out with souvenirs and smiles, a final show of the infectious conviviality that demands as many repeat visits as I can schedule.
Date Visited: 9/18/15