Sept. 19 (Bloomberg) -- As we approached the three-hour mark of a 20-plus-course meal at Atera, the chef set a rock in front of me and told me to eat it.
I already had consumed lichens, shells, embers, tendons and charcoal, some retrieved by hand from beds of moss, hay and more rocks.
Except for a cheese course, there are virtually no culinary options at Atera, the uber-naturalistic restaurant in lower Manhattan. Allergies are forgiven, squeamishness is not: “Atera does not accommodate aversions,” the chef warns.
Frequently these days, while you choose the restaurant, the chef decides what you eat. So let’s hope you like those lichens as much as I did; they’re seasoned with black truffles and crisped -- earthy luxurious snack food.
The take-it-or-leave $165 tasting menu will cost you, after wine pairings, tax and tip, just under $700 for two. That makes Atera one of New York’s most expensive new restaurants since Per Se debuted in 2004.
If anyone can justify such prices, it’s chef Matthew Lightner, late of Mugaritz in Spain and Castagna in Oregon. His progressive American fare, sometimes resembling geological phenomena, already navigates the border between three and four stars.
Doing much of the serving himself, Lightner tells you to eat the entire razor clam on your plate. Interesting proposition, given that people don’t usually eat shells. But these are made from an aerated baguette that sets off the briny mollusks.
This all unfolds at a gray, C-shaped, 13-seat counter. You settle into in a cushy bar stool and start things off with a macaron.
Wait, isn’t that dessert? Not here. The cookie is made from a beer and buttermilk gel that’s been whipped and dehydrated. In the middle, instead of jam, sits a generous dollop of sturgeon caviar and cream. Eat it as you once devoured an Oreo, which is essentially what this is.
Foie gras peanuts are genius in their silkiness. Who knew you could swallow two of the world’s richest ingredients without a glass of milk to unstick your palate?
Swordfish belly hot smoked like a ham and sprayed with pork fat. As you suck out the salt, the soothing oils of the fish come through.
Cured diver scallops, cut into thin little strands, are served just below room temperature, without any chill to mask the mollusk’s delicate brine and sugar. Pick up the maritime flesh with a tiny slice of juniper meringue. This is your refined riff on chips and dip.
Order the $105 wine pairing or a couple of bottles from a wine list that boasts a deep selection of half bottles starting at $20, as well as Champagne from $68.
Sommelier Scott Cameron pours clean, crisp junmai ginjo sake with the scallops; the rice wine lets the shellfish shine through brilliantly. Smoked tomato ice, slightly watery, gets a dose of sweetness from a generous dollop of sea urchin and a punch of acidity from a sip of Bernard Remy Champagne.
Lamb tartare, whose intoxicating musk is doubly fortified by drippings of three-month-old lamb fat, becomes a springboard for a light, bright Italian rose (San Giovanni, 2010). And barbecued veal sweatbreads (vaguely undersalted) are salvaged by a racy German Riesling (Zilliken-Forstmeister Geltz, 2007, Spatlese).
The waiter places a bowl in front of you and says “ramen,” albeit in a coy voice that lets you know he’s lying. Turns out the barely firm noodles are actually squid in a concentrated poultry broth.
Serving food that looks like one thing and tastes like another is a common trick of modernist cuisine. You don’t really want to eat a rock, so you’re happy that it’s almond sable covering bergamot sorbet.
You probably wouldn’t want to eat “charcoal” either, but it turns out to be a ball of chocolate meringue, still smoking from a dip in liquid nitrogen. The waiter says “dried fruit,” and you see a sorry, deflated sack on your plate. Take a bite. It’s soft. It’s vegetal. It’s complex. What is it? A dehydrated tomato, paired with milk ice cream, an autumnal caprese salad.
Like any long tasting menu, there are misses. If only the “churro” was actually fried dough; the confection is just a chewy strand of salsify. Squab is forgettable. A well-marbled strip steak tastes only of smoke. And a tiny lobster roll (on a meringue bun) bears none of the oceanic essence of those available for $16 in Red Hook.
Lightner’s last course -- more “rocks” -- are just black walnut and hazelnut truffles. Atera, like WD-50, knows its science tricks, but knows its classics too. The four stars will surely come one day.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: $165 tasting, add $105 for wine pairing.
Sound Level: Never loud. Sometimes under 70 decibels.
Date Place: At these prices, probably not the first date.
Inside Tip: Wine pairings are superb.
Special Feature: Great pork fat-basted rolls.
Back on My Own Dime: Maybe once a year.
Atera is at 77 Worth St. Information: 212-226-1444; http://ateranyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.