When I think of a Michelin star restaurant, I think of a restaurant at an elevated level of food, service, and decor. Never would I have imagined that two Michelin star Atera in TriBeCa in New York would serve its dinner to heavy loud rock music! I couldn’t find much background information about the rstaurant, but learnt last night that it had opened in 2012. What went wrong with the previous chef is unclear, but the owner Jodi Richard closed down the restaurant for a year, hired 32-year old Chef Ronny Emborg, appointed a new staff complement, and started the restaurant from scratch. Chef Ronny is from Denmark, but had worked in Spain, at World’s 50 Best Restaurants Mugaritz and El Bulli (once the world’s number one restaurant before it closed down)! The restaurant reopened last year.
The restaurant is housed in a non-descript building in popular Tribeca, a little like Woodstock in Cape Town, and had one of the staff not stood at the door I would have walked right past it, a good first touch. I was led through a tiny hallway into the eighteen-seater restaurant, 12 of us seated around a counter top facing the tiny kitchen, and one separate table. I felt lucky to sit closest to the open kitchen, separated from it only by a number of herbs such as lemon balm, golden lemon thyme, thyme, spearmint, English mint, and lemon verbena, the mints going into their Tea Pairing menu.
I noted two flower boxes hanging high up against the Windows, also planted with herbs. I loved the huge vase with St Joseph’s lilies in the bathroom, and its scent as one entered.
Walls are wood-cladded, but I could not get an answer as to which wood it is made of. A beautiful glasses and drinks cupboard is built into a corner. The counter is a grey concrete one, and fridges and storage cupboards are built in underneath the counter tops. I loved the vases with homely flowers, such as anemones, dotted around the counter, each with a matching white candle holder, made by hand by Danish ceramist Ditte Fischer. No cutlery (by Sambonet) or glassware is on the counter, brought to one as required per course. We sat on high bar chairs. I was shown the handbag hook under the counter, received a white serviette, and a black one for my cellphone to rest on!
A cold cloth towel was brought, to wipe my hands.
Nick Duble showed me the brown leather cover winelist, and I was happy to see three South African wines: Botanical Chenin Blanc 2013 ($78), Ken Forrester The Gypsy ($162), and Crystallum Paradisum ($102).
Matthew Abbick appears to be the manager in charge, and he had confirmed the reservation. It had stated clearly that we be punctual for the dinner, at 18h00, and it was clear why, as a second seating of eighteen guests is accommodated from 21h30. Given the eighteen course menu, all guests need to eat each course at roughly the same time. I arrived first, so received most dishes first. Matthew was very stiff and formal, a bit dismissive, and had a weird sense of humor. I asked for a spoon to finish one of the sauces in a bowl, and he gestured I should just lift the bowl and drink it like that! I told him that I am too German to do that, so he brought a spoon, almost as if he was doing me a favour. He made no attempt to connect with his guests, or to find out more about them, or if all was to their satisfaction.
The five chefs were very young, Chef Ronny himself only being 32 years. I asked young Yelena how young she is, but she refused to tell me, perhaps taking exception to the question. She seemed the leader of the young chefs, very confident in what she was doing.
But the most interesting person of all was Mick Stein, described as the DJ/Doorman, who compiled the playlist. I asked him which bands were his favorite, and he said The Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones are his best, and did I have a favorite I’d like to hear! I had heard The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’ earlier this week, and asked if he could do – yes he did, and I will associate Atera with this song forever! Mick changes his playlist daily. We became music mates, a clever association with a special song and restaurant!
I was rattled that there was no menu, and that I would only receive it at the end of the meal. A felt very lost without it, especially as I am struggling to understand the American English and fast explanation when explaining the dishes. Chef Ronny promised to take me downstairs after the service, and talk through each dish with me. He wanted me to enjoy his meal and not stress about writing, but it had the opposite effect on me. Luckily I wrote down everything I could hear as each of the 18 courses was presented.
Chef Ronny brought a refreshing introductory drink of lime and juniper oil, a non-alcoholic gin one could say, served in a beautiful delicate glass.
The second high-level dish was presented by Yelena, and was a wafer on which had been placed a slice of six-month aged Cabot cheddar cheese, topped with slices of black truffle!
As if truffle was not special enough, the third dish contained foie gras, corn, in a lemon verbena broth which was served in a Ditte Fischer cup, and we sipped from it. I observed the young chefs plating, cooking items for the dishes, staying busy all the time. Chef Ronny said that he speaks softly to his staff, and that there is no shouting at all.
The fourth course was a very simple one, two black ‘olives’ Chef Ronny told me, which had been coated with Napa Valley olive oil, and had been accompanied by a needle-like utensil, to enable one to pick it up. When I bit into it and tasted grape it was a big surprise!
After truffle and foie gras, there was only one ingredient missing, being caviar! A small wooden spoon was brought to my place setting, and the dish contained Golden Osetra caviar, pistachio ice cream, and fermented beer sorbet. The salty caviar and sweetness in the ice cream were an interesting contrast. This plate was ice cold when touched, adding to its refreshingness, and prevented the ice cream and sorbet from melting!
At this point Matthew brought a brown plastic placemat, which stayed for a number of dishes. A glass teapot with a Bonita (Japanese fish stock) and miso broth arrived first, whereafter a bowl with lightly-salted mackerel from Duxbury in Massachusetts, horseradish, cucumber slices, geranium leaves, and dill oil arrived, and the broth was poured into the bowl. At this dish the ‘matching’ song was George Benson’s ‘Give me the night’, followed by ‘Knockin’ on heaven’s door’.
Another fish course was Sablefish, served with Brussels sprouts, tarragon, and Meyer lemon, our first warm dish. As the evening warmed up, the floor staff warmed to the music, and Matthew and Nick in particular did little dance moves to the music! I complimented the waitress on their DJ, and she told me that the only reason why she works at Atera is because of the music!
The eighth course was lobster, and I mentioned to the chef that it was my third lobster in the week, and that I could start getting used to it. He was interested in receiving the feedback. I also asked if he was serving fava beans, having had it in three restaurants running, and he seemed surprised, as they are not seasonal. The lobster was served with celeriac, yuzu purée, salted green almonds, and pickled chives, decorated with flowers. A lobster Boulogne broth with camomile and brown butter was added, with a heavenly buttery taste.
It was interesting that Chef Ronny chose to serve the bread course midway during the meal. I asked him about it during our meeting after the meal, and he said he wanted to prevent his guests from overeating the bread. The half a slice of sourdough was served warm inside a napkin, and a wooden butter knife and two plates were served with it, both cultured for five days in-house: butter made from yoghurt, herbs, and brocolli tips, and topped with potato flakes; and cream cheese with white pepper, and sunflower seed oil. Mick came to each place setting after the bread course, wiping up the crumbs from the setting.
Yelena brought a dish of poached quail egg, with kohlrabi, sweet onion, remps (wild herbs), and leeks for the 10th dish.
The eleventh dish* was a challenge, covered with a purple ‘cloth’, covering Chanterelle mushrooms, cherry, black currant, and squab, a tiny pigeon. I did not understand how the ‘cloth’ is made, and guess it is a restaurant secret, and is not easily divulged.
28 day dry-aged Beef was served simply with an asparagus spear and parsley, with a bone marrow sauce.
The yogurt, elderflower, and pear dish was an appetite cleanser, ice cold, and the pear had been sliced into the tiniest thinnest ‘discs’, giving part of the dish the yellow appearance. It was served ice cold, and was unbelievably refreshing!
The second last dessert was rhubarb with chocolate ganache and toasted hazelnuts.
Last but not least was a quadruple dessert, each presented individually but served together, with instructions as to the order in which we were to eat them. Unfortunately no descriptions were provided.
First was a minute blueberry tart, cut open into halves and placed in a tiny basket. Then came a miso caramel holding together two chocolate slices. Refreshing was the Meyer lemon flower on ice shavings, which is another signature dish for which I was not allowed to have a description or explanation. Last was a Danish Floddebolle, a sweetie pie, which I had seen for the first time at the Great Northern Deli, and learnt about for the first time last week in Grand Central Station.
The end was quite abrupt, Nick asking if I required anything else, and the bill was promptly presented at 20h45, payment done, and one was expected to leave, giving the restaurant half an hour to set up for the next seating.
I was grateful to be shown the prep kitchen downstairs by Chef Ronny, and then to sit down with him in the staff room and his office, so that he could answer my questions, knowing that he had only half an hour to go before the next seating arrived.
Atera is fascinating, silently led by its Chef Ronny, who struck me as young and vibrant, fresh, and dynamic. It contradicts, playing rock music from the Seventies and Eighties, yet serves contemporary food that no doubt will make the restaurant a World’s 50 Best Restaurant! It was a delight to not see fava beans in a dish at Atera! Not serving coffee with frothed milk is a disappointment, but did not spoil the evening for me. William’s aloofness and mocking personality was off-putting. I will be watching this restaurant and its future with interest.
*POSTSCRIPT 14/7: I checked my notes again, intrigued about the dish with the squab and ‘cloth covering’, which appears made with red black currant and sugar, a paste made of it, and then is dried.
Exchange rate: $1 = R14.22
Atera, 77 Worth Street, TriBeCa, New York. Tel +1 212 226 1444. www.ateranyc.com Twitter:@ateranyc Instagram: @ateranyc Tuesday – Saturday 18h00 and 21h30 seatings. 18 course Tasting Menu costs $235, $195 for the wine pairing, $395 for a reserve wine pairing, $85 for temperance pairing, and $85 for tea pairing.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.whalecottage.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@WhaleCottage Facebook: click here Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein