New York rising-star chef Matthew Lightner has fun with foraging
BY JACQUELINE DETWILER
NEW YORK CITY — "It’s never like, ‘Let’s do a rock; you must eat a rock,’" says Matthew Lightner, executive chef at Atera in New York City. "You look at the shape of a food, and it looks like something. You think, If I went a little bit further, maybe it could look like a rock. And you find something that’s going to allow it to happen. Like, Wow. That’s clever."
"Clever" is a good word for the kind of food Lightner has been making lately, as a member of the Oregon-Scandinavian new guard that’s revolutionizing haute cuisine. But where most of his contemporaries like to provoke the establishment—those hagiographers of French cookery—by crafting giddily colorful dishes from foraged hyperlocal produce, Lightner adds an element of wit. For his 8-month-old restaurant, Atera, he finds things like sea peas and wild violet blossoms on foraging trips to Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Then, using blast chillers, rotary evaporators and something called a Gastrovac, he weaves them into dishes that look like items you might have found yourself, had you come with him.
Once inside the restaurant—an 18-seat, open-kitchen black box with a living-plant wall—diners sit down to a 22-course tasting menu that begins with a spate of snacks presented on custom-made serving dishes. A piece of lichen "bark" appears on a bed of river rocks, a fake egg made out of real egg aioli is hidden in a wooden basket of hay, a fully edible razor clam (the shell is made of a painted baguette) rests on a hunk of slate as if it washed up there itself. The entrées, like a meaty blackened beet served with smoked trout roe in crustacean sauce, are all equally tasty and, more important, equally evocative of something you’d find in a drawer at a natural history museum.
For these feats, Lightner, who honed his forager’s chops at the esteemed Noma in Copenhagen and Mugaritz in Spain, has been heaped with compliments. Though Atera is only Lightner’s second project as executive chef, food journalists are already following him like paparazzi chasing an Olsen twin. In 2010, he was on Restaurant Hospitality‘s 10 Chefs to Watch list and was named one of the Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine. Twice he has been nominated as a Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation. He is fully expected, it seems, to lead the seasonal-cooking-as-art revolution in New York City. And he has the food philosophy to go with it.
"I think this is the question we all have to ask: Is it for the experience, or is it just about eating?" says Lightner, as a sous-chef surrounded by little clouds of nitrogen transforms a tray of ice shards into a delicate rose. "You’re doing things that have been done for years and years. So you want to give someone more than just a plate of good beef."
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You can’t throw an artfully curled orange peel in Manhattan these days without hitting three or four classic cocktail bars— which makes the media frenzy over the first U.S. outpost of The Experimental Cocktail Club even more of a coup. Like the 5-year-old Paris bar, the Lower East Side newcomer serves incredibly complex riffs on American standards. Bartender Nicolas de Soto showed us how to make one inspired by the 2011 French silent film The Artist.
* 1 1/2 oz. Calvados brandy
* 1/2 oz. verjus
* 1/2 oz. pear and apple cider shrub (a.k.a. drinking vinegar)
* 1/2 oz. Didier Meuzard Ratafia de Bourgogne
* 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
* 2 dashes absinthe
* Star anise, for garnish
Shake the first six ingredients together and pour into a chilled champagne glass. Top with champagne and garnish with star anise.
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New York has always been a pizza town. As long as anyone can remember, the eat-it-while-you-walk slice has ruled as a cheap, tasty source of sustenance. Recently, though, things have begun to change. Like a fancy condo in a formerly downtrodden neighborhood, the humble pizza has gone upscale. People talk about pizzaiolos as if they’re rock stars. Food critics scrutinize sauce-to-cheese ratios.
Examples of the form can be found in the unlikeliest places. Roberta’s, in an industrial stretch of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, serves an excellent wood-fired pie (small enough to be eaten solo) topped with homemade mozzarella. Artichoke Basille’s boasts three Manhattan locations, block-long lines and a signature pizza that comes loaded with cheese, alfredo sauce and artichokes. Paulie Gee’s pizza in Greenpoint adorns its pies with hot honey, pickled grapes and bacon marmalade.
Paul Giannone (a.k.a. Paulie Gee) typifies the new generation of New York pizza artisans. Trim, chatty and wearing thick-framed eyeglasses, the former "computer geek" became so obsessed with pizza 15 years ago that he purchased a pizza oven from Naples, which he had no idea how to use, and installed it in his New Jersey home. He opened his eatery in 2010 and has been wowing the pie cognoscenti ever since.
"I see my restaurant as a variation of a true Napoli restaurant," says Giannone, 59. "I thought of putting this place in New Jersey, but I wanted to impress my fellow pizza enthusiasts." —MICHAEL KAPLAN
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If you love to eat at the movies but aren’t into massive tubs of popcorn and boxes of candy the size of Dostoyevsky novels, there’s always the dine-in theater. There, you can sit at a table and eat massive tubs of fries and burgers the size of Dostoyevsky novels. Alternatively, you could visit Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema, a year-old Williamsburg theater-restaurant that presents feature films alongside dishes like smoked-salmon deviled eggs, stuffed piquillo peppers and fish tacos with slaw and chipotle mayo.
The refined fare and full bar would be enough to make Nitehawk a draw, but owner and executive director Matthew Viragh, chef Russell Dougherty and bar manager Jen Marshall also create signature dishes and drinks to accompany each new release. They may play off anything from an actor’s name (Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and Gosling’s Ginger Beer formed a cocktail called "The Driver" to honor Ryan Gosling’s performance in Drive) to a film’s locale (Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love inspired baccalà fritto alla Romana, fried salted cod with imported Grana Padano cheese).
Each movie requires about two new dishes and a specialty cocktail—and with three theaters, that keeps the kitchen staff moving at a breakneck pace. Not that they mind. "There’s nothing more rewarding than adding your own creative expression to the filmmaker’s vision," says Viragh. —MATTHEW WEXLER
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While the abundance of fresh fruit during harvest season spurs some people to make pies, Steven DeAngelo only has eyes for gin. The money market broker turned microdistiller started the Brooklyn company Greenhook Ginsmiths last February to sell his American-style dry gin. But after discovering beach plums—tiny, sweet-tart stone fruits indigenous to the Northeast—he seized on the chance to incorporate a fruit as native to New York as he is. (In fact, one of the places DeAngelo lived while growing up in and around the city was near a clutch of beach plum bushes, but he says he "didn’t realize their significance until recently.")
The result is beach plum gin liqueur, a sloe gin-inspired spirit made by macerating Long Island-grown beach plums in Greenhook’s original recipe (flavored with juniper, coriander and elderflower, among other things), then mixing it with turbinado sugar. The ruby-colored, fruit-forward liquor adds blush and sweetness to a classic G&T. Or, drink it as DeAngelo does: splashed with prosecco in a deliciously amped-up version of the Bellini. —LEAH KOENIG