June 5, 2012
Owner Jodi Richard opened Compose in this downtown space in December 2010. We enjoyed it, but many critics did not; the chef left and it closed last July. Richard then recruited acclaimed chef Matt Lightner from Castagna in Portland, Oregon. They added a new kitchen downstairs and opened up the cooking space in front of the thirteen-diner counter. The restaurant reopened as Atera on March 20, 2012. Linda and I went for dinner on April 25, 2012.
A large staff prepares Atera‘s elaborate meals in the space in front of diners, creating real culinary theater. They seem well rehearsed with little supervision needed. The chef is facing us below; in the foreground is his Chilean sous chef Victoria Blamey; they met when both were working at famed Mugaritz in Spain. They, and other staff, serve dishes directly across the counter, describing their ingredients, cooking techniques etc.
Downstairs there is a preparatory kitchen, a test kitchen, a big pantry and a hydroponic herb garden.
We ordered a half-bottle of Champagne to start.
There is no menu. One eats what is delivered, starting with elaborate “snacks” and then small dishes in a logical progression. We did not take the offered beverage pairings. Not knowing what cuisine was coming, we followed the advice of the genial and efficient General Manager, Eamon Rockey, by ordering a bottle of white Burgundy and a half-bottle of red Rioja.
They were very nice wines and were as appropriate as anything for the varied, not entirely wine-friendly, cuisine.
The first snack was a crisp Jerusalem artichoke roll filled with strained buttermilk and topped with wildflowers and herbs.
The fried sunchoke skin was slightly sweet; the buttermilk was tart; it woke up the palate.
A frozen granola wafer topped with a black sesame icing.
A lobster roll, chopped lobster meat inside a yeast meringue sandwich.
This was excellent.
A pickled quail egg, a black malt flatbread and a “peanut” made with foie gras.
The “quail egg” seemed to be made of pickle-flavored mayonnaise. The “peanut” was very good. A second flatbread was brought and left on its rock with us to nibble on during the rest of the snacks.
Duck stock had been reduced to a gelatenous glaze and formed into a “tuile”. It was served with herbs and pickled onions. Very good.
A ramp, deep-fried with crushed pine nuts.
The preparation nicely brought out the seasonal garlicky flavor of the wild ramps. Excellent.
Now the snacks were over and the main courses started. Each was described to us in detail by the genial servers, but it was impossible to remember everything. I have used the titles on the list given to us with our bill and filled in the other ingredients and techniques as best I could along with some of our impressions.
shad roe, rhubarb, licorice
The flavors of the shad roe and the rhubarb, in principle good seasonal ingredients, were not distinct and so this lovely dish seemed merely pleasant to me.
citrus, gin botanicals
The scallops underneath were lightly cured with a juniper-flavored gin mash. The small, pale yellow citrus flavored wafers were frozen. The bigger white ones were a buttermilk meringue. The temperature, texture and flavor contrasts created a very interesting dish.
barbequed onion, coriander, fennel seed
The delicate fluke underneath had been scraped into shreds. The garnishes were mild and enhancing.
Bread was now served starting with a slice of sourdough rye. The butter is made in house from a mixture of cream and cheese; it is delicious.
cured lardo, squid broth
This dish was served without identification and we were asked to guess the ingredients. I guessed veal glaze for the sauce and bewilderment for the rest. It turned out to be a pork and squid glaze, pork lardo and dried squid.
trout roe, crustacean sauce
The beet had been dried and heavily charred. Inside it had a rich, lovely flavor which dominated the good, but subtle, garnishes. Excellent.
Soft Shell Crab
brown butter, amaranth
The crab claws were crispy; the body meat was cooked with the amaranth. The brown butter and its dregs, which decorated the plate, brought out the crab flavor and made the dish quite rich.
North Coast Halibut
Here the chunk of fresh halibut was allowed to stand on its own with the fairly mild young garlic and other garnishes providing contrasting bites.
caramelized ramps, pear vinegar
The squab had been aged fifteen days for a richer flavor. It was enhanced by the sauce, which seemed to include a pigeon stock glaze and pear vinegar. The chips were dried pear skin.
sprouted wheatberries, leek
This piece of rich grilled fatty lamb collar was introduced to us as the chef’s answer to all the popular pork belly dishes now served in New York restaurants. In this I think it succeeded and was a successful finishing crescendo for the savory courses.
Parsley Root Split
banana ice cream, meringue
Candied parsley root was served with banana ice cream, marshmallows, meringues and milk yuba.
The dark cube of cake had been soaked in good bourbon and was delicious. Underneath was “wintergreen snow.” The oak leaf cracker and baked grissini added good crunch.
Black walnut bonbons.
A walnut-shaped chocolate shell was filled with a caramel/walnut cream. Very good.
The meal always held our interest; most of the dishes were very good or excellent. The ambiance helped a lot in this: watching the chefs at work on our meal; interacting with the servers as they delivered and described the dishes; discussing among ourselves the unusual combinations and ingredients; tasting how the wine varied alongside each course; watching the meal progress among our fellow diners who were ahead or behind us in the menu; admiring the varied and interesting plates, slates, rocks etc used for serving; enjoying the decorative flowers and herbs on many dishes; etc. The pace was usually quite rapid and the dishes just a few bites, which helped. I never felt satiated, although Linda slowed down toward the end.
It will be interesting to watch how Atera evolves under its talented chef.