"How are you taking notes when you don't even know what you're eating?" a neighboring diner whispered to me when he caught me scribbling at Atera. And he was almost right: what seemed like a "quail egg" was actually a ball of pickled aioli, and a "peanut" was actually made of foie gras and peanut butter.
The set-up of the intimate 18-seat restaurant encourages this kind of interaction with your neighbors, chef and servers, and allows for engaging guessing games. What is the delicious cracker holding the black truffle spread? Lichen would have been my last guess. But it's not just the creative cuisine that has everyone talking; it's the wunderkind creator, chef Matt Lightner, who rolled into town in March and began amassing raves from local critics, including a fresh two-star nod from the latest Michelin Guide. It helped to have worldly training at icons such as Mugaritz in Spain and Noma in Copenhagen, and nabbing a Food & Wine Best New Chef while at Castagna in Portland, Oregon, before settling in NYC.
Plans to add a bar below Atera signal that NYC's planning to hold onto the nomadic chef for a while. We caught up with Lightner at Bon Appetit's Feast Portland, the very city from where we poached him.
Is there something that you wish you could bring back to New York with you from Portland while you're here?
The farmers and purveyors. I miss how I would send them little text messages and get a phone call back immediately. They're willing to do whatever it takes and those kinds of relationships take a lifetime to build. If I could, I would take all these people back to New York with me. I'm hoping to be able to build those relationships in New York now.
You've cooked all over the world. Have you always had a nomadic spirit?
I grew up in the Midwest and our vacations were always toward the central Midwest states. The very first time I'd ever seen the ocean I was almost 18 years old. The first time I saw it, I knew that I wanted to see more and that I wasn't going to stop until I saw it all and was inspired by every tiny detail. So I ended up becoming very hungry to move and do new things and to become more adventurous. New York is my adventure right now.
How do you feel that New York City has influenced your style so far?
It definitely is a city that keeps you on your toes. It really, really keeps me pushing and thinking and going and moving and really never stopping.
Do you have a dream location you'd like to eventually like to re-locate to one day?
I love that I'm doing what I'm doing in the middle of a city right now, but sometimes I think about seclusion, going to a place that's far away and hard to get to. And maybe using a very specific product that you have one of, that only the guests that come in that night will get, after making that journey. That would be very interesting and a bit more challenging as a chef - and not having so many great markets and purveyors available and having to grow things yourself.
Tell me about the new bar at Atera. What's going to be the approach?
Well, the approach has to be very stylistically similar to the restaurant. The space is going feel a little bit like upstairs at Atera. It's going to be dark. There's going to be wood. There's going to be concrete. There's going to be a lot of natural things. It's going to feel a lot like if you had your own little private getaway room that you could go to in your home.
Will there be a menu of your signature "snacks" like the beer macaron with caviar and crème fraiche?
The menus will eventually come. But we're focusing on drinks first.
Is there a particular cocktail that you're going to debut that you're excited about?
It's trial and error time. But you'll see some of the cocktails that we have from upstairs [such as the 'Clarified Milk Punch' with bourbon, lemon and verbena]. You'll see some overlap with seasonal ingredients in the kitchen and cocktails. I'm looking forward to using fall ingredients. There will be a couple of fun, hot cocktails. We're working on a type of flip, which is a beer cocktail. We want to do it traditionally, which means taking a red-hot rod and poking it into the drink, and that brings a frothiness to the drink. So we're working with someone to build the rod and have hot coals to be able to do that. That's something that takes time to invent.
The Bar Under Atera is slated to open on October 31.
Photo by Brian Zak via The Daily.