As I walked from possibly the greatest meal of my life, I stopped at the exit to chat to the head chef on the night. As chance would have it, a fellow Australian and all round good bloke.
There was no doubt that I’d been pinged as a blogger quite early into my meal at New York’s 2* Atera; I mean, the dining room was essentially a dozen or so seats at a wrap around bar overlooking the kitchen. I was definitely ‘up close and personal’ with the team of chefs, who each took turns delivering and explaining each of the exquisite courses that came; one, after the other, after the other.
Like a non stop kaleidoscope of beautifully presented New Nordic style food.
My meal kicked off with a bang; with little preamble in the tasting menu only restaurant. Moments after being seated, one of the teams of chefs stepped forward with a cocktail glass half filled with a lime granita; whipping out a foam dispenser, he quickly topped the icy concoction with a warm juniper flavoured foam. I needed to dig in quickly as the warmth of the foam quickly melted the granita; it was such a refreshing way to start a meal, the hot and cold enhancing the sweet and sharp. Like an ice block on a summer’s day.
In what would prove to be the pace of the evening, my glass was whisked away and moments later replaced; this time with a traditional Danish pancake puff, called an Æbleskiver, and was filled with warm crab that was lightly spiced. Accompanying the Æbleskiver was a beet and vinegar dish, used for dipping but fabulous on its own. The brightly contrasting dip was vividly beautiful, working wonderfully with the earthy puff pancake and leaving me wanting more.
While others were around me were getting a black olive small bite, my preference against olive (noted at time of booking) was well taken into consideration. Instead I was given a Pear and Yuzu roll, the delicate bite topped with mustard seeds and a sprig of garnish for colour. The pear was incredibly thinly sliced and rolled up to form a perfect circle, the yuzu flavour imparting a hint of citrus to the earthy flavour; a sharp hit from the mustard seeds enlivening the flavours as well as hanging at the back of my palate.
Picking up pace, which I hardly thought possible, and there was magically a small amuse bouche sized bite in front of me. King Trumpet mushrooms, again sliced thinly and paired with cheddar cheese were placed between a waffle, giving a crispy little cheese and mushroom sandwich. Only the crunchy texture and earthy umami hit was unlike any sandwich I’ve had before. The flavour lingering for some time at the back of my throat, only to be replaced with the next hit of tasty tasty food.
There was something special about the imperfectly presented Golden Osteria Caviar, instead of a perfect quenelle, the ‘glob’ of caviar was plated to be devoured. The beautiful quenelle was left for the green asparagus sorbet, the vibrant green of the sorbet bright against the little black spheres of heaven. Finishing the dish was a dollop of IPA sour cream, which when mixed with its accompanying ingredients left me nearly speechless. The salty caviar was so well balanced against the slightly astringent sorbet, the subtle asparagus flavour enhance against the sour cream. It was a complete home run (using the baseball vernacular while in the US).
Unbelievably, the creativity and flavours presented continued to build; fresh langoustines poached in lemon were at the base of the next dish, but hidden under ‘rolls’ of apple that were topped with shaved frozen Hudson Valley foie gras. A sauce was poured at the table and the stunning dish was complete. Oh my, the sharpness of the apple, the creamy sweetness of the foie gras that was slowly melting and the freshness of the poached langoustines, all dancing together in perfect harmony. It was visually stunning, but more so, was simply wonderful to eat and completely and utterly a masterpiece.
The light pink of the expertly poached Norwegian salmon was hidden under thin slices of daikon; the predominant colour of the dish being white, only broken by the addition of brightly coloured salmon roe; a buttery horseradish beurre blanc poured at the table completing another scrumptious plate of food. That butter sauce, when combined with the expertly cooked salmon, the saltiness of the roe and the texture from the daikon slices left an indelible impression on me.
I though that my tastebuds could not really deal with much more of the deliciousness; surely there had to be a low point coming? Even if it was just to ensure the last few dishes were elevated even higher?
There was a moment, just a tiny moment where I thought that a dip in quality was coming. A large and expertly caramelised Maine diver scallop was sliced and placed on a plate; cauliflower puree mixed with celery and brussel sprout leaves was bridged on the plate by a tarragon sauce. On it’s own, I found the celery just a little firm and jarring on my palate; however, when I mixed with the sauce that had just a hint of ginger, along with the scallop, the clarity of the dish presented itself. The whole was greater than the component pieces and I edged closer to a perfect meal.
It was bread course time, with two very different versions placed in front of me. There was the Atera take on a pretzel, the most famous of New York breads; cream cheese squeezed into a crisp cigar to give the essence of pretzel. With the pretzel was a much more traditional slice of crispy whole wheat batard; although there was nothing normal about the hand churned cream cheese and butter spread (room temperature, of course). With a slightly lemon/lime flavour, it was super with the soft bread.
Textures of white asparagus surrounded a quail egg yolk with a lemon thyme oil, made with asparagus ash and herbs. Just prior to the dish making its way to my greedy hands, the chef used a blowtorch to add some warmth to the dish. Of all the dishes presented, this was the most challenging. The strong astringency from the asparagus really needed the yolk to help balance; the textures from the thick stem and thin slices assaulted my palate. It was sharp, very sharp; but not unpleasant thanks to the sauce and creamy yolk.
Looking quite traditional, the next dish consisted of two strips of expertly cooked lamb, sourced from upstate New York. The lamb was bathed in a mushroom bouillon that had a couple of snap peas and a quenelle of celeriac and black truffle puree. Poured at the table from a clear glass teapot, the bouillon had an intense flavour that was lovely against the sweet and tender lamb. The oh-my moment came when you mixed in that celeriac and truffle puree; the earthy umami hit was so well balanced with the lamb that I was again rendered speechless. I little hint of freshness came from the snap peas, and as I finished the dish, I used my finger to wipe the dish clean.
Things had slowed down a little from the early frantic pace, especially as the dishes had grown larger and more substantial. I was grateful, the accumulation of dishes starting to weave their magic on me; unsurprisingly I was starting to feel full!
Not so full that I didn’t completely devour my next course; the aged duck, again from upstate New York, had been aged on premises for five days. The medium rare duck was wonderfully prepared, the fat rendered expertly, although the soft skin was a little surprising to me: usually you would have crispy skin, which is probably my preference. Covering the duck were thinly sliced beets that had been poached in butter and poured at the table was a super sticky jus, there were also notes of juniper in the sauce. If not for a touch more salt and crispy skin, this would have been an incredible dish!
The savoury components of the tasting menu were over and dessert started to grace the table. I simply adored the textures and flavours from the strawberries, rhubarb and camomile, the latter being an ice cream, smooth and creamy. There were thin slices of candied strawberries mixed with fresh, adding texture; the addition of rhubarb ensured there was an incredible balance of textures, flavours and temperature. I have to say I’m partial to ‘strawberries and cream’, so this first dessert was a total winner for me!
There was a wonderful story associated with the last formal dessert. The team had been at a local distillery and had come across an empty bourbon barrel that had a wonderful aroma. Taking the barrel, then filling it with cream to infuse the flavour, the team created a bourbon ice cream that was the corner-piece of the dessert. Heart of Palm was used as a wrapper for an ‘ice cream sandwich’; honeycomb, cream and diced meringue helped complete the dessert. I thought I wouldn’t like the hit of bourbon, but it turns out that when the alcohol is removed, bourbon has a wonderfull chocolaty flavour. It was a completely triumphant dish, with a totally entertaining story to go along with it.
Nearing the end of the meal, a plethora of small sweets were delivered; not quite petite four, but not quite full desserts either. The most amazing of the four final sweets was a white chocolate ganache with a black current gel covering and a black current ‘flower’! Looking amazing in it’s little bowl, it was the most intensely flavoured sweet I can remember having. I loved it. Rounding out the meal was a lovely little popcorn and peanut butter cup that reminded of a trip to the movies; a garlic flavoured madeleine that was light as a pillow; and lastly a miso and chocolate caramel, so chewed and so tasty!
While I was one of the first to arrive for my 5:30pm sitting, every one of the tables at Atera had filled up; given the nature of the tasting menu, it was interesting to watch the chefs eventually even out the courses so that we were all getting our plates in quick sequence; it was quite mesmerising actually.
What was most impressive (if not a little disappointing on a personal level) was the fact that Executive Chef Ronny Emborg was back at his native Denmark. The kitchen was such a well oiled machine, that everything just ran so effortlessly. I’ve been to restaurants before when the main guy has not been in the kitchen and the meal has suffered as a consequence. Not so here.
As the meal ended, the couples sitting either side of me could hold back their questions no longer; and I was hit with a barrage of questions about what I was doing and why I was taking so many photos 🙂 So of course my cover was blown.
Which was how I came to be chatting to that great Aussie chef at the end of the meal as I was leaving;
unfortunately, for the life of me, I can’t remember his name!
** Thanks to a reader that had all the details
His name is James Moore aka Jimmy. A great chef and friend. Very proud. I’ll be dining there in August . Looking forward to it. Beautiful blog. I’ll be following your travels