Tag Archives: Manhattan

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?

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The Occurrence at Freeman Alley

1 Feb

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This is a story of a city girl and a country boy joining forces in a downtown Manhattan alley.  OK, that came out wrong—let me explain.  In the beginning of this school year, my friend, Austin, approached me about cooking a dinner for Bloomer Creek winery to celebrate their recent addition of a new plot of land to their greater vineyard.  I had gotten to know Debra Birmingham, one of the owners of the winery (and wife of the winemaker, Kim Engle) and artist at the Ithaca farmers’ market during my time at Cornell.  Therefore, I was obviously enticed by the thought of cooking toward the Bloomer Creek wines (which I have thoroughly enjoyed while in Ithaca).

To get the planning started, we took a short trip up to the Bloomer Creek winery one chilly Sunday in October to taste their wines and talk ideas with Debra and Kim.  After basically mudding through an enchanted forest to get there (damn you, GPS, who did not know the easier route), we arrived at the winery.  Before going inside, I could tell the property was beautiful; even though the day seemed gloomy, the area’s extensive green, weathered and healthy vines, and view of the lake had me excited.  Once we entered Debra and Kim’s winery (and home), I was blown away.

This place was not ordinary, and it only took a few questions on my end before I learned that Debra and Kim built the house with their bare hands, painted every wall, and distressed and finished every floorboard themselves.  It was incredible.  After taking it all in, we went over to a central island to taste some wine.  While we tasted from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon to distilled grape spirits, we learned how they began the winery, Kim’s philosophy on winemaking, and their take on their wines in the context of New York as well as the world.  Each wine had unique beauty, and as we noted various flavors and aromas, colors and textures, we began thinking food.

Before heading home, we saw the cellar where the magic happens.  Vats and carboys of fermenting wine took up much of the cellar, while old oak barrels housed aging wines.  Kim and Debra explained that they prefer using older oak barrels for their wines so that the grapes can be more readily expressed than they could under a veil of heavy oak flavor.  Even more interestingly, they allow their wines to begin fermentation naturally rather than inoculating with a yeast starter like many other winemakers do.  Even though the fermentation begins more slowly, they said, the wines’ flavors benefit, and this proprietary yeast strain makes their wines more notable.

When we talked about a location for the dinner, Debra and Kim suggested we either have a sit-down dinner in the Bowery section of Manhattan, at their artist friend, Jimmy Wright’s place, or have a cocktail party at the winery.  Although the cocktail party sounded fun, we unanimously agreed an off-site in Manhattan would be a fun adventure.  Besides—with a smaller crowd for dinner, we could control the wine pairing experience better and focus on creating a winning menu to show off these great wines.

Once we got on the road, Austin and I began talking food.  Between the car ride home and a stop at Chipotle for a quick dinner, we had already come up with much of the menu.  First and foremost, we chose our wine progression based on seasonal ingredients we wanted to use.  Then, it was all menu talk.  After drafting a five-course tasting menu, we sent it to Debra for feedback.

She gave the menu the thumbs-up, so we began to plan the dinner for mid-November.  Unfortunately, as the date came closer, Hurricane Sandy hit the city.  Although Jimmy’s place was not damaged by the hurricane, the city was a watery, powerless mess still, and we decided it was clearly best to wait.  After a few back-and-forth emails, we set the date for January 27th, the weekend after classes began again for Cornell.

On January 25th, a Friday, Austin and I drove out of Ithaca for my New Jersey hometown at the crack of dawn.  Neither of us really knew whey we had to leave so early, but we felt we could get more done without a rush if we arrived early Friday.  That day, we shopped for most of our ingredients, finalized our menu, and created a game plan.  We would drive into Manhattan the next day to set up at Jimmy’s and begin prep.

On Saturday, I was excited as I backed my Dad’s old Toyota into Freeman Alley, a small alley off Rivington, where the fabled apartment we would work in, was located.  As of this day, I had not seen the space, even though Austin had, so I was running on blind faith.  After all, this was a sketchy door going into an industrial looking building in an alley.  But you never know these days…  After we got buzzed in, we carried our coolers of ingredients up his couple flights of stairs to the main space.

If I wasn’t speechless from lugging coolers upstairs and being out of shape, I would have been rendered so by the sight of the living space.  When I say this place was cool, I mean it was the sickest looking apartment I had ever laid eyes on.  The apartment had everything—exposed brick, random decorations collected over the years, beautiful art, a nice kitchen with two four-burner ranges and ovens, and a lovely man living there.

Jimmy was a rare bird, for sure.  One way to explain how cool he is is to start by noting that he and his late partner renovated the apartment years ago, converting it from a near meth-lab type building to the crazy-awesome studio/apartment that it currently is.  I could also describe him by noting that over a day at his apartment, we heard music from opera to Snoop Dog to jazz to skaa-like stuff.  And he painted his bathroom like a jungle.  And he has some witty-ass humor.  Yes, the dude is awesome.

After we unloaded and organized our stuff, we parked the car and set out in search of Asian herbs and duck breast.  Being close to Chinatown certainly helped; after striking out on duck meat at Whole Foods, we knew where to look.  In a Chinese fish and meat market, we found a pile of birds in the back cooler, most of them chickens.  Fortunately, we found three ducks priced at ten dollars each.  This was great!  We would find out later that the suckers still had heads and feet on and were very possibly frozen with the guts still in, but because we did not need the carcasses, we were in the clear (and the duck passed the taste-test).  We should have known when we saw an oddly small center-cut loin that was most likely from someone’s wire-haired Schnauzer that we were probably not getting a fully fabricated bird situation.  But hey, c’est la vie, right?

Back at the house, we busted out most of our prep for the next day and planned out the table set-up with Debra, Kim, and Jimmy.  After that, Austin and I returned to New Jersey to get some sleep, print some menus, and go over final details.

The day of the party, we only had to finish some prep work, organize, and set up the space for the dinner.  Despite using my family’s old-ass computer and printer for the menus, we came up with something our artist friends deemed nice.  Once we got started with the dinner, it went by in a flash.

When guests arrived, we had cheese and aperitif wine for them.  Debra poured Bloomer Creek’s delicately balanced Riesling and Pinot Noir while we took a break in our cooking schedule to meet and befriend the guests.  Debra insisted that we not rush the dinner or spend too much time cleaning in case we miss out on the company, and her advice did not fall on deaf ears.  Everyone was really great to talk to—we talked to people in the food and wine business, the art business, and a girl close in age to us who gave me advice on where to travel in Hungary.  Cocktail hour was fun, and we cheers’d to finally making the dinner happen.

Course by course, we sent out the food, actually taking the time to eat each course with the guests—another of Debra’s kind requests.  No one was in a hurry, and even though we took time to eat, the whole dinner didn’t drag.

Our first course was a carrot salad with cashews, sheeps’ milk yogurt, oregano, and maple-lime vinaigrette.  We paired it with the Bloomer Creek Block 97 Chardonnay from 2010.  Here, the subtle oak on the wine went beautifully with the smoky, nutty cashews; the maple rounded out the pairing, adding some sweetness where the wine was dry.  Oregano added minty, herbal freshness, and the yogurt brought a tart note to the dish that echoed the Chardonnay’s clean acidity.

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The second course was a black cardamom and vanilla-spiced crispy pork rillette with mizuna salad and challah croutons.  This paired with their Tanzen Dame 2nd Harvest Riesling from 2011.  We designed this course after Debra told us she likes this wine with paté.  Since the Riesling had some spice notes to it, we wanted to bring that home with the spices in the pork.  The vanilla in the dish accented the stone fruit in the wine.  Since the wine had a little sweetness, we dressed the mizuna salad in a high-acid vinaigrette so that the overall pairing wouldn’t end up too cloying or one-note.  Overall, the pairing seemed a success.  And, of course, deliciously butter-laden challah croutons never ruin the party.

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The third course was duck with masa dumplings, squash puree, raspberry-red pepper salsa, and chevre crema.  We paired this with the Cabernet Franc from 2007.  Because we detected a lot of earthy notes and some bell-pepper notes in the Cab Franc originally, Austin wanted to give a nod to his home (Arizona) with some Southwestern flavors.  Hence, the masa dumplings and salsa.  The pairing was really nice here, because the raspberry in the salsa brought up some of the red fruit in the wine a notch and the peppers in the salsa spoke to the capsicum notes the wine already showcased.  The masa and the duck both brought some warmer flavors and umami to the dish, creating a pairing that had it all.

ImageThe fourth course was braised beef tongue with celeriac puree, sour cherry gastrique, and Vietnamese herb salad.  This went with the Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007.  This course was a funny one.  From the outset, I wanted to do braised beef tongue.  As frequent readers of Getinmebelly know, I am an off-cuts girl.  It took minor convincing on my end to get Austin on board with this, and Debra was a little unsure.  But because we went through with a risk, we did reap a high reward—none left a scrap of tongue on the plate.

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Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the heavier wines in the world.  Kim and Debra’s Cab is slightly less oaky than some, allowing the woodsy, fruity qualities from the grape to shine through.  For the pairing, we did a take on steak and potatoes.  Our steak was obviously the tongue, here, and the mashed potatoes were really celeriac puree.  To pick up the acidity, we added the sour cherry gastrique, and to add intrigue, we added the Vietnamese herbs (mint, cilantro, culantro, basil).  The celeriac met some of the woodsier flavors in the wine where a potato might have left them hanging, and the herbs came through for the subtle eucalyptus notes we found in the wine.

The last course was a clementine-saffron sherbet with whipped almond gazpacho, tonic gelée, and smoked paprika gingersnap crunch.  We served this with the Bloomer Creek grape brandy.  This course was a fun one.  We took some very Spanish flavors (saffron, pimentón, white gazpacho), and used them in a dessert.  It hit home for me, having spent time in Galicia, where some meals are finished with the house Orujo, a distilled grape spirit.  No, we did not put garlic in the gazpacho for the dessert, but a little lemon zest and a touch of sugar transformed it into a delicious dessert “soup.”

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Since we charged it in an isi canister, it was really more fluffy than soup, but let’s not get away from the bigger picture.  The spice and crunch from the cookie with the creaminess and acidity of the gazpacho, the bright, saffron-infused sherbet, and the subtly bitter tonic gelée was a pretty dynamic bomb of flavor.  And with the beautiful grape brandy?  It was the shit.  And I’m not bragging—it’s just one of those things when flavor nostalgia hits home.

By sitting down and eating with the guests (something cooks do not do often), we got to see both sides of the story—the cooking and the guest experience.  As Aly, one of the guests, pointed out, the English language does not have a word for good food, good people, and a good place.  Well hopefully, we can make one soon; it seems a few foreign countries already beat us to it.

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When the dinner was over, I think Austin and I both felt mixed senses of relief and loss—even though we were both glad the dinner went off without a hitch, it was our baby.  Since October, we had been planning, tweaking plans, re-engineering the menu…and now it was all over!  I take comfort in knowing that not only did the dinner go well, but that we met some really great people in the process and had a great time collaborating with Debra and Kim.  I know I don’t usually get all sappy here on Getinmebelly, but I am certainly grateful to have a great friend/fellow cook in Austin and that Debra and Kim took that leap of faith having us cater the dinner.  I think it was a master collaboration of Ithaca, Manhattan, food, wine, art, and friends.  May the Barrow Vineyard property we celebrated bring more great wine and great times to Bloomer Creek.