someone’s in the kitchen with asperger’s

After three and a half hours of picking and poking – not to mention parsing and photographing – the 20-odd meticulously composed plates that comprised our extravagantly theatrical meal at Atera, my friends and I were asked if we wouldn’t mind repairing to the lounge for a digestif and some treats. Another party, it seems, had booked our seats for the second dinner seating of the evening. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone turning up at 10pm for a meal of such Brobdingnagian proportions, it’s even more difficult to refuse the personal request of the chef, Matthew Lightner, the latest critics’ darling staking a claim on our little island by way of Portland, Oregon. (cf. Andy Ricker, Pok Pok NY, et. al.) His menu-free $150 nod to the sublime, the ridiculous, and the foraged is not only one of the hottest tables in New York right now it’s also one of the smallest, hosting just 17 diners at a time – most of them seated Teppanyaki-style around a poured concrete bar. (It’s a look evocative of a very particular mindset: sort of Soho by way of Stockholm and Shinjuku, i.e. unconsciously self-conscious or, some might say, pretentious.) To stubbornly stake one’s claim to a seat seemed unsportsmanlike, tantamount to not giving up your seat on the subway for an old lady, so the four of us gladly took chef Lightner up on his request and followed the host out of the restaurant, past the Water4Dogs canine rehab center, and into an elevator which soon descended and opened to reveal a slick, leather clad bolthole with us as the only occupants. The chef arrived soon after with ice cream sandwiches and a crate of truffles cleverly masquerading as tartufi. As a henchman appeared by his side, pouring from a bottle of Nocino, an Italian walnut liqueur, and expounding on “the beach of life,” I was suddenly overcome with the sneaking suspicion that we were under observation. (Was it because I took notes throughout dinner? Or because one of my companions happened to be a West Coast food critic? When my photographer friend suddenly pulled out the Canon EOS-1DX and start snapping was it obvious? More to the point, why were we the only guests in the underground bat lair?) Freed from the intense intimacy of the restaurant we thought we’d be able to relax and speak at leisure about the imaginative cocktails (spot on, and with proper ice, too) the exquisitely presented food (imaginative, yes; though thoughtful to a fault) and the vast effort undertaken to find, let alone create, every forkful just consumed (equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Hercules, there’s a case to made for Asperger’s Syndrome in the kitchen) but that was well-nigh impossible with a man in black studiously at attention nearby. Waiter or warden I wondered? We could leave if we wanted, right? Comfortably uncomfortable, we called it a night. With alcohol and tip it came to a cool $300 per person. Together we quickly chatted outside on the sidewalk, grateful for an unobserved breath of fresh air. Consensus was quickly reached: the yumminess factor was noticeably absent from tonight’s extravaganza. Formally exquisite, cerebrally engaging, Atera is nevertheless like so many Nordic films – emotionally stunted. Still, if money were as easily foraged as oxalis articulata, I’d be back on my perch for a second show – in disguise, of course – quicker than you can say green almonds, yuba, fringed rue, cucumber, & fresh almond milk with a side of rock lichen crackers.

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