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 toÂ theÂ 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 BrobdingnagianÂ proportions, it’s even more difficult to refuseÂ the personal request of the chef, Matthew Lightner, the latest critics’ darling staking a claim on ourÂ littleÂ island by way of Portland, Oregon. (cf. Andy Ricker, Pok Pok NY, et. al.) His menu-free $150Â nod to the sublime, the ridiculous, and the foraged is not only one ofÂ theÂ 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-styleÂ aroundÂ a poured concrete bar. (It’s a look evocative of a very particular mindset: sort ofÂ Soho by way ofÂ Stockholm and Shinjuku, i.e.Â unconsciouslyÂ self-consciousÂ or, some might say,Â 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, soÂ 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 elevatorÂ whichÂ soon descended andÂ 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 cleverlyÂ masqueradingÂ as tartufi. As a henchman appeared by his side,Â pouring from a bottle of Nocino, anÂ Italian walnut liqueur,Â and expounding on “the beach of life,” I was suddenlyÂ overcome with the sneaking suspicion that we were under observation. (Was it because I took notesÂ throughoutÂ 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 atÂ leisureÂ about the imaginative cocktails (spot on, and with proper ice, too) the exquisitely presented food (imaginative, yes; though thoughtful to a fault) and the vastÂ 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 attentionÂ 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 wasÂ noticeably absent from tonight’s extravaganza. Formally exquisite, cerebrallyÂ engaging, Atera is nevertheless like so many Nordic films -Â 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 -Â quicker than you can say green almonds, yuba, fringed rue, cucumber, & fresh almond milk with a side of rock lichen crackers.