There is just something about New York City in the morning hours. As you watch it go from darkness into light, rubbing its eyes. So quiet. Almost shy. It seems obtainable. And it gets me every time I take that flight back to Denver.
New York has a hold on me. It always will. It’s no surprise that it took this trip to motivate this hand to write again after a few month hiatus. Thing is, these past few months have seen moments I have wanted to write about more than any other thus far. Outside of wine, life has taken so many leaps and bounds. For one, I married my best friend. For another, I have seen other dear friends get married, have children, lose loved ones. This year has lived up to its Dragon reputation. Dynamic as a superstorm, it has seemingly been both trying and rewarding for everyone I have talked to… Dynamic as a day in New York.
This weekend was marked by good old fashioned, pre-thanksgiving gluttony. I like to call it training…without the taper. JV and I seriously foodied it out. We went to old favorites like Lupa, Eleven Madison and Il Buco. He took me to his new discovery– Tertulia, an incredible, Andalucian-inspired tapas restaurant that boasted a selective, yet respectful wine list, nodding to all the classics: Lopez de Heredia, Alejandro Fernandez, La Rioja Alta, Vega Sicilia… The greatest of restaurant experiences, however, was Atera.
Some feasts are moveable. Some are moving. Still, some are movements. Yes. I do believe Atera was all of that.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of this Michelinrated gem on 77 Worth. One that had a following, but still not on everyone’s radar. I saw some pictures, read a little on the chefs. Yet, I wondered if it would just be another excessive, stiff-lipped, eat-a-thon, complete with ‘surprises’ and stoic servers that seemed as amused with you and your culinary entertainment as as a cat attending a dog show. To this point, while grateful I have had a handful of opportunities to partake in the fanciful, 15+ course theatrical, never I have I done so to a soundtrack that included Billy Joel and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. While some may feel they need the reassurance of white table cloths and tuxedos to justify the $185 tasting menu, I finally felt accommodated. I sat like a happy fat kid on a soda shop stool, with my elbows on the counter watching dark-rimmed waiters in teeny tiny hipster vests.
Rhubarb infused vinegar beer on the rocks and beer macaroon burgers stuffed with caviar began the epic feast. A dry yeast meringue held cold lobster salad for a curious sensation. The first 7 tastes were without silverware. Our fingers made the first connection to the food. It set the tone, really. As quaint pickled quail eggs were presented on straw hay in a rustic, wooden crate, we were confronting this not-so-new farm to table concept in a most artistic, literal way. All my senses were engaged, a criterion I sometimes forget is so vital to a the success of a lasting food impression.
Some bites were misses, like the Terra-chip textured Lichen cookie (yes, it is what you might think a lichen would taste) and the swordfish belly bologne (tasted like warm, smoked deli turkey dipped in oil with a fishy finish). For 21 courses, however, they hit a pretty unreal average. My favorites if you happen to check it out soon were the Fluke ‘mashed potatoes’ (a finely shaved mound of fluke topped with burnt onion caramelized to the point of gravy with flecks of carrot), the ‘Ramen’ noodles of calamari in a pool of savory broth and finally the celeriac (kind of like celery root?) dressed up like a white truffle then, yes, covered in white truffles.
As I watched a meticulous staff huddle over the plates and use tweezers to stage the recently foraged flora to the strained voice of Bob Dylan, our server began what he called the ‘first of several bread courses’–another lovely song to my ears. Cheese rind butter accompanied handcrafted grains of greatness.
The drink pairings were creative and inclusive of spirits, beer and wine. Many consumers may have found it curious or horrifying that there was only one red wine of nearly a dozen pairings. I, on the other hand, applauded the bold move. This food was delicate, even when decadent at times. Most reds would have strangled the nuances.
Michelin restaurants are named as such for their creativity–their ability to not only articulate where food is today in its finest, most sophisticated form but to also anticipate where it is going. We know that food is reverting to basics: local, farm fresh, pure flavors. We are reveling in salty sweetness. We are daring to eat more than the breast and the belly. Pickling is coming back with a vengeance as vinegar finds its voice. Smoky flavors are still well-loved (by all but me). Blue cheese doesn’t ooze over everything–in fact, we had zilch. Ice cream is utterly awesome. It found a way to take on the majority of the dessert courses to my delight– in one version wearing a hat of twice distilled fernet branca ice sheets. Which brings me to the final observation: booze are back my friends. The last couple years, cocktail culture has been steadily climbing back to relevance. It is now becoming an expectation in fine dining that there be acknowledgment if not encouragement for the diner to partake.
I loved it. Simple as that. It was the most fun way to ever experience ‘haute cuisine’. As though I were sitting up at ma’s counter, watching her and her friends have a ball in the kitchen cooking away to the Pretenders, I got another perspective to the ‘show’ we called the ‘Michelin experience’– I got to go backstage. I was able to see courses I had, the courses to come, and the artist in motion. It was brilliant.
More than that, it kicked up old memories that hadn’t surfaced in years. Sometimes it was the smell of the food that took me to Sunday dinner with the family. Sometimes it was the flavors that had me choked up with nostalgia for my grandma’s baking. Still other times, it was the sound of the Stones taking me back to my old black mini-van I drove in high school, listening to ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ on my way to my local landfill turned ski hill, snowboard boots unlaced as I sped through the original Pabst hops farms, cigarette in hand, fading into my own private rebellion.
Food should be moving. So thank you, Atera.