Tag Archives: Atera

Atera-fying Epiphany

4 Jun

Great restaurants strive to not only deliver excellent meals to guests but also to change the way the guests see food altogether.  The goal of the restaurant is to wow the guest and keep them coming back for more.  Last weekend, I dined at Atera in Manhattan on my birthday, and unfortunately, the epiphany I had during my meal was not about how food should be or about how excellent the cooking was at such an establishment.  Rather, I was confronted with an existential life crisis of identity.

What have we done?  I asked myself.

Having just turned 21, I grew up appreciating food in a slightly simpler time, when restaurants by Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud were at the top of the food chain, serving very high-end Italian and French food, respectively.  By the time I was in high school, more cutting edge restaurants were on the rise: Momofuku had gained traction, wd~50 was getting a lot of attention, and then Alinea was getting popular.  Chefs were playing with their food like never before, and it was exciting.

During high school and college, I got the opportunity to stage at wd~50 and Momofuku Ssam Bar and learn what their cooking was all about.  I ate at both restaurants multiple times and found that the chefs were spot-on in their creativity and talent and that their teams of cooks did a great job.  I ate at Alinea during a visit to Chicago and had arguably one of the best meals of my life.

In the past couple of years, I have kept up with the popular food scene in a less hands-on way, because I’ve been away at Cornell and I haven’t had as much money to spend on eating out and traveling to Manhattan.  During my time in college, Noma in Denmark rose to the top of the restaurant scene.  Across the ocean from Noma, I could only admire the food from afar through cookbooks, magazines, and online journals; however, I found it incredibly innovative and beautiful.  Its allure lies in its connection with the wild and the way Noma’s chefs translate the flavors and beauty of Denmark’s land onto the plate.

One voice in the back of my head always asks me: “are we playing with our food too much?”  I think a lot of people in the world of food ask themselves the same thing.  What ever happened to channeling nostalgia to create wonderful dishes?  Are the plates some chefs are putting out these days too precious?  Over-done?  Devoid of soul?

Although I found the food at Atera beautiful and in some cases, delicious, I think that was my first real dining experience at a restaurant of its caliber where I felt sure that some chefs lost the meaning behind cooking.  I won’t go over every single course, but I will cover the highlights in addition to courses I felt let me down.

Atera did put out some really solid food that night, even if it wasn’t the majority.  Some of my favorites included the quail egg, the chicken liver mousse on pork blood wafers, beef tendon chicharron with uni fish sauce, the bread course, the uni with roasted sweet potato, the roasted squab, the rhubarb dessert, and the white chocolate dessert.

For the most part, I enjoyed these dishes because they achieved the harmony others didn’t because they were seasoned properly and executed well.  These dishes had a little more soul than did the others, in my opinion.  Although it may sound silly, the bread and butter at Atera might well have been the best thing I ate all night.  One piece of bread was a dense, grainy bread, and the other was a sourdough roll “heavily basted in pork fat.”  The butter was cultured, giving it an intense, cheese-like character that was really unique.

Of course, although I had a good time at Atera, I was fairly disappointed in a number of courses I ate.  Some of the flaws were the food, but some were actually mechanical issues I’ll get into.

First of all, it was a muggy, ninety-degree day in Manhattan.  That meant all the crisps and wafers Atera produced suffered and lost their crunch.  Of course, Atera cannot control the weather, but if the kitchen staff couldn’t find a way to de-humidify or store these items in a drier area, it probably should not have had so many delicate wafers and crisps on the menu during the humid summer days.

Another mechanics issue was that some of the flatware was pretty difficult to use.  I’ll blame the chopstick dysfunction on my own rustiness, but I really did want to ask one of the cooks for their tweezers when I was trying to pick up a slice of scallop with those smooth, polished-wood chopsticks we got for one course.  One real problem, though, was that the fluke crudo, which was topped with a sheet of vinegar ice, was served with an odd little wooden spoon.  The spoon was really difficult to use as a device to crack the vinegar ice, and I actually ended up catapulting the ice onto the table outside the bowl.  Even for scooping up the minced raw fluke, the spoon was kind of clunky.

Most importantly, much of the food I ate was underwhelming.  A “lobster roll” of meringue “rolls” and a tiny bit of lobster salad was too sweet and far less exciting than the lobster roll my friend ate at The John Dory the next morning.  And the waiter chided my friend and me for waiting a few minutes to eat it.  I understand that the meringue might have sogged a bit, but this kind of just illustrates that more and more, we are designing meals around the chefs’ ideals over the customers’.  I realize that sounds silly, coming from a cook, but we are in this business to make the customers enjoy the full experience and feel happy.  Not for the customer to follow orders, necessarily.

"lobster rolls"

“lobster rolls”

A piece of beautifully pickled rutabaga was coated in beeswax…which kind of covered my teeth for a little while there.  Don’t we take the wax off of rutabagas before we cook them on purpose…was this some kind of an ironic joke?

waxy 'bagas

waxy ‘bagas

A painstakingly piled up crudo of razor clam, almond, and garlic lacked acidity and reminded me of an underseasoned almond gazpacho.

razor clam crudo

razor clam crudo

Sepia noodles in chicken bouillon could have been poorly prepared Top Ramen, if I had been blindfolded.  A beautiful cube of halibut, cloaked in a layer of buttermilk whey was cooked perfectly but left me wanting for excitement beyond the flavor of fresh fish with yogurt.

halibut with buttermilk whey

halibut with buttermilk whey

The desserts seemed a little better, but a lot of them tasted very basic.  The cracked egg ice cream, made to look like a cracked egg, was little more than sweet cream or vanilla ice cream surrounding slow-cooked egg yolk, molded in the shape of an egg and coated with a sugar crust.  It looked like a cracked egg, sure.  The technique was outstanding, sure.  But it just tasted like vanilla ice cream with a sugar crunch, in the end of the day.

cracked egg ice cream

cracked egg ice cream

The walnut sundae that followed it was nothing spectacular, although I do love a good walnut sundae.  But I could have gotten a full-sized walnut sundae at an ice cream parlor for the same price, really.  Despite the subtle nuances, it would have brought me equal or greater pleasure.  Not because I’m a fatty who wants more ice cream, but because I would get what I was expecting.

One last thing.  Atera makes beautiful food, but the restaurant is also a poster child for the issue all chefs with a penchant for foraging or a love for esoteric herbage should think about: are those micros and flowers adding flavor or not?  The answer better be yes before the herb or flower goes gratuitously on the plate.  Or else they should be used sparingly—with discipline.  I think I left Atera with a damn bridal shower in my stomach, and many of the petals, et cetera did not add much to the dishes.

Now, I’m not writing all this down because I think Atera is a bad restaurant; on the contrary, I enjoyed going and learned a lot.  However, I won’t be going back.  Because I don’t know what we’re all getting at here, and now I have to go explore the world to find out what I want out of food.  I watched a team of cooks in blue/gray aprons fiendishly plate each course with tweezers for two hours to put out plates that I found over-manipulated and slightly uninspired.  In a way, what I saw could have been a parody of what cooking has become.  I want to believe we haven’t grown into a generation of cooks (and diners, for that matter) so busy talking about amaranth, spirulina, nettles, and sorrel varieties, that we forget what cooking and eating is in the first place.

I voiced my concerns to a friend the other day, and we both hoped we could come out the other side of this one day.  Will we all step back to get the macro view anytime soon?  Will we look back on the early 2000’s penchant for choosing odd ingredients over cooking with soul and laugh?  Or will everyone in the world wax poetic about amaranth by 2023?

What even is food?

Advertisements