Some of New York City's top chefs are scaling down to serve adventurous fare in more intimate settings. Michael Kaplan explores the trend of micro dining and why your reservation just got a little harder to get.
These days, when New York City foodies brag about recent meals, they’re usually playing up close proximity to chefs in action, views of dishes being meticulously constructed, and tasting menus that pushed them beyond their boundaries. Forget about starched linen and stuffy protocol, inside Gotham’s hottest restaurants — places where you wait six weeks for a reservation and feel lucky to get one — it’s all about special experiences complimenting intimate spaces. Expect a couple dozen small dishes, exotic ingredients (the giant, saltwater clam known as geoduck reigns as a luxe standard), and food that is best prepared for crowds of fewer than 30.
Atera, discreetly located in a stretch of Manhattan that falls somewhere between TriBeCa and the financial district, is a perfect case in point. Walk in and you are escorted downstairs to a subterranean cocktail room where the bartender improvises and customizes to create terrific drinks that fit just about any taste profile. Then he shakes, in the aggressive “hard shake” mode that he picked up from elite Japanese drink mixers, to create a libation of your dreams.
Upstairs, in an austere dining room, 20-some-odd courses gracefully unfold. Most diners tuck in at a 14-seat bar, which affords a bird’s-eye view into the kitchen. What emerges are stunning plates — all specially designed for the restaurant — containing small portions of food that range from the intense (black caviar accompanied by whips of black olives and smoked cream, resulting in a memorable umami bomb) to the minimalistic (an all-white, artfully stacked pile of thinly sliced razor clams, garlic, and almonds, which blend together shockingly well) to the signposting geoduck (served here with a strip of lardo on a mini baguette).
Atera’s chef/co-owner Matthew Lightner creates an ebb and flow of flavor profiles that keep your taste buds guessing. “It’s like walking into an art gallery and wanting to see aesthetic diversity,” he says. “We provide that, with a lot of moving parts and little margin for error. It’s the sort of thing that you can’t do for 200 people.”
It’s also the sort of thing that a chef would be hard-pressed to do in a conventional restaurant space. That’s why micro tasting eateries tend to be tucked into small, unexpected environments. Sometimes they are restaurants within restaurants, as is the case with the Japanese spot inside lower Manhattan’s Brushstroke. Chef/owner David Bouley, known for being extremely persnickety about ingredients and details, has his ultimate sushi bar via Ichimura at Brushstroke: a 10-seat nook that is adored for its pressed sushi (a technique that removes water from the fish and amplifies flavor) made by chef Eiji Ichimura, who’s been known to have geoduck sashimi on the menu.
Meanwhile, across the Williamsburg Bridge in the rejuvenating neighborhood of Bushwick, a rougher-hewn restaurant called Roberta’s is justifiably lauded for brilliant pizzas and home-baked breads. Next door, though, in what feels like a cool-kids clubhouse for elite foodies, with a tuna head mounted on the wall and a turntable along with a great collection of vinyl, Blanca operates as a snug hideaway.
It’s also a perfect spot for chef/co-owner Carlo Mirarchi to get jiggy with high-end ingredients. Sometimes they are not tampered with at all (raw beef with macadamia nut milk and lime) and other times they’re artfully altered. The savory items (which might include a pasta dish topped with shaved geoduck) on his 21- to 24-course tasting menu usually finish up with 85-day-aged Wagyu beef, cooked rare and tasting alluringly rich. In a statement about Blanca, which also sums up the micro tasting experience as a whole, Mirarchi told The New York Times, “The whole point is to grab this opportunity and make the most of it.”
Groundbreaking chef David Chang draws raves for his pork-intensive dishes and out-of-this-world ramen. But those who are lucky enough to snag a place setting at the 12-seat chef’s table inside Momofuku Ko, located in the East Village, tend to gush about Chang’s frozen, shaved foie gras. It’s served in savory strips over lychee and pine-nut brittle. The textures of crunchy brittle and silky foie gras are so transcendent that this is one of two dishes that regularly remain on Momofuku Ko’s ever-changing tasting menu (the other is a soft-cooked, smoked egg, split open and stuffed with caviar, on a bed of onion soubise with fingerling potato chips).
If Momofuku Ko is one of the toughest reservations to get in Manhattan (and it is), then Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is known for being nearly impossible on the other side of the East River. It’s situated behind a gourmet grocery store in the cozy Boerum Hill neighborhood and continuously booked. Eighteen diners sit at a stainless steel, u-shaped counter and watch chef Cesar Ramirez show how he earned three Michelin stars by putting together dishes such as oyster smoked under glass, sweet uni with black truffles, and all manner of perfectly adorned sashimi. If you’re the kind of person who loves to photograph what you eat, be sure to bring a sense of restraint: Picture taking is verboten here.
While Brooklyn Fare is definitely Japanese influenced, the deep dive in Japanese micro tasting is best undertaken at the recently opened Sushi Nakazawa. It’s as close as you can get to dining at one of Tokyo’s elite omakase-only sushi bars without hopping on a plane and flying to the Far East. This is for good reason. The West Village restaurant’s namesake is Daisuke Nakazawa, a chef featured in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which focused on one of Tokyo’s most driven sushi masters.
Brought to New York by Alessandro Borgognone, whose other restaurant, improbably, is an Italian joint in the Bronx, Chef Nakazawa follows in his mentor’s footsteps. Mind-blowing dishes often include pickled and aged Spanish mackerel, bluefin tuna served three different ways, quickly flamed geoduck, and salmon smoked with hay — all bearing remarkably different textures and flavors.
Borgognone is rightfully thrilled with the way things have worked out. Though he’s heavily focused on Nakazawa and the intricacies of importing 50 percent of his fish from Japan, the restaurateur has clearly been bitten by the micro dining bug. “If I worked on a new project, it would have to be small. That’s the way to control quality and consistency and to offer adventurous ingredients,” he says. The success of Nakazawa, Borgognone adds, “has inspired me to want to eventually do something small and Italian.”
77 Worth St.,
30 Hudson St.,
163 First Ave.,
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare
200 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn,
23 Commerce St.,