I guess it’s appropriate for the weekend before Halloween to include a little bit of wild tendencies, lol. Today is Wild Foods Day, but we’re not talking about foods that like to go clubbing all night and need extra-special hangover cures in the morning. I mean foods that are found in the wild, plants that aren’t selectively bred, cultivated, and processed to death before they hit our dinner plates. Foraged foods like herbs, wild vegetables, and mushrooms, that, because of their very nature of being wild, have almost vanished from our culinary worlds since they’re not on the shelves at Whole Foods. And while it may be an option to forage for wild foods in some rural, wooded region of the country, no one would consider finding real, raw, wild plants to eat in the concrete world of New York City…right?
Well, there are some people in New York who want to prove you wrong, on both accounts. The organic, locavore food phenomenon is also making people aware and interested in foraging, searching for their own plants and mushrooms right in their own backyards. I’ve found one restaurant in New York that’s really making a name for itself in the culinary world by highlighting all the great food you can find, literally, sitting on the ground. And if you thought that New York City was an urban wasteland devoid of natural life…there’s an eccentric fellow who, for almost thirty years, has been showing New Yorkers like you and me just how much life there can be on a concrete island. I found this day extremely interesting to research, and I hope it gets you inspired to go out and try some wild foods for yourself!
When you think about the food you get at an upscale, expensive restaurant with a three-figure price tag on their tasting menu, you assume that the ingredients came from exotic lands or local, organic farms, purchased in season and cooked at the height of their flavor. Or, you don’t think about the ingredients at all. But did you ever consider that those ingredients came from the local parkland or the nearest swampy marsh? Matthew Lightner, the head chef at the new restaurant Atera, is helping his patrons think exactly that, and reconsider being more informed about where the food on their plates comes from. He’s experimenting with a 23-course “snack” tasting menu that is nothing like any other tasting menu in the entire city. For $150, you can try over twenty different tapas and dishes he’s made using ingredients that he’s foraged from around the New York metropolitan area. Mushrooms, wildflowers, and even tree bark are collected by his own hand to be used in his all-foraged tasting menu, which, while it’s gotten mixed reviews on taste, definitely earns its stripes by getting everyone talking. His ambitions have already earned Atera a Michelin star, and this James Beard Rising Chef has no intention to stop foraging for his high-end dinners any time soon. The dinner is quite pricey at $150 a pop, but the experience is an enlightening one, showing the diner just how much can be done with foraged materials and a little expertise in the kitchen.
77 Worth St (between Broadway & Church St)
“Seasonal cooking has often meant a narrow devotion to simplicity. Mr. Lightner is chasing another path, a cuisine that uses this-week-only ingredients together with technical sleight of hand to summon up moments of genuine beauty. It doesn’t all come together yet, but it comes close enough that a night at Atera is now one of the most fascinating experiences you can have in a New York City restaurant.”–The New York Times
“He and other chefs say the recent growth spurt in foraged-food is caused by a confluence of events: the rise of locavorism and the growing networks between farmers, foragers and restaurateurs; chefs concocting inventive new recipes with the strange ingredients; and the use of wild foods at restaurants such as the hugely influential Noma, voted the best in the world the past two years by Restaurant Magazine. “There’s a level of fatigue in New York. We are the land of ‘Oh, that’s so five minutes ago,’ ” says Gabrielle Langholtz, editor of Edible Manhattan magazine. “And these foods are a new frontier for chefs.” There’s also a bit of one-upmanship, she says. “There’s just something cool about having an ingredient no one else has.””–The New York Post
“Like lots of artsy, cutting-edge cooks, however, Lightner isn’t necessarily concerned with making his food delicious in the standard, accessible ways. He wants to stimulate, to educate, and to entertain, and in terms of range, technique, and quirky inventiveness, he does as good a job of this as any chef in New York since the glory days of the great molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne. After the Snack portion of our meal was cleared away, the waiters brought frizzled bits of soft-shell crab floating in a rich, smoky substance called “brown-butter bouillon” (“This looks like it’s just washed up on the beach,” said the chatty gastronome), and a serving of gin-cured diver scallops set between dissolving little slats of juniper-flavored meringue. These were followed by Beet Ember (it’s blackened with hay ash and garnished with smoked trout roe), and a pigeon breast that the kitchen ages for 21 days, to the outermost edge of gaminess, and dresses with a single, vividly fresh wild onion.”–New York Magazine
“Matthew Lightner has trained in some of the world’s best kitchens, including Noma and Mugaritz. Just this spring, this young chef made his New York debut with Atera. Atera ain’t your average restaurant. It’s got a chef and a full-time forager. And an entire wall of the tiny Tribeca dining room is entirely dedicated to a vertical herb garden. How cool is that? So expect to find fistfuls of herbs, roots, and grasses on the menu. There’s a $150 set tasting menu with a dizzying procession of herbaceous plates to contemplate at this unique, Tribeca spot.”–Restaurant Girl
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“The forager tasting menu here is by far the most creative I have ever seen or tasted. Many of the plates surprised me with its textures, ingredients, tastes, and visual appearances. It’s almost reminiscent of Noma (or the pictures I’ve seen since I haven’t been there yet). Taste-wise, this place easily places in my top 5 of all time. Chef Matt Lightner’s resume is very impressive (Le Auberge, Castagna, Mugaritz, Noma) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Michelin showers a few stars here. This is probably the best restaurant in NYC right now.”–Buo Z.
“That being said, the presentation was more inventive, the food very forager with everything playful in presentation and taking on the earthy theme (served on rocks, looked like rocks etc.), but the taste lived up to all the hype. Even the bread and butter was worthy of a course. I was stuffed and hoping to only want a taste of the desserts but they were some of the best i’ve ever had and completely cleared my plate for all 5 courses of them. Ice cream sandwiches and decomposed strawberry shortcake being the standouts.”–Nicole S.
But one of the most interesting things I found while researching this national food holiday wasn’t a restaurant at all. It’s some older guy who digs around in the New York City dirt…for the past 30 years. You may have heard of Steve Brill before, but perhaps you haven’t: he’s been an urban forager since 1981 who takes naturalists and curiosity-seekers on walking tours around the many parks of New York City and the metropolitan area, indicating–and demonstrating!–the many edible vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms that can be found even in ultra-urban New York. He achieved notoriety when he was arrested for “criminal mischief” for his foraging back in 1986, but the charges were dropped, and Brill’s been happily munching along on his tours ever since. He’s written field guides and vegan cookbooks on the subject, and even has an app for identifying the most common edible plants found in public parks (yes, I downloaded it, and yes, it is awesome!) His most popular tour is, of course, Central Park, but he also ventures out to Inwood Hill Park, Prospect Park, Marine Park in Brooklyn, and Forest Park in Queens–as well as a ton of other parks in Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. On these tours, Brill teaches you how to identify an edible plant, the best and safest way to extract it, and delicious ways to enjoy your quarry both in the field and in the kitchen. I’m actually so excited to find out about this guy, that I want to order up a tour for myself come next spring!
Steve Brill, the Wildman
“If you ever get stranded in Central Park, a tour with Wildman Steve Brill might help you survive. I’ve seen him in the park, raggedy beard, shorts, hiking boots, and pith helmet, leading groups of eager-eyed followers while instructing them on what flora and fauna they can forage—breaking off a stick of some edible tree and gnawing on it as an example. Brill’s Central Park tours occur twice monthly and are not only hilarious, they are educational. If you’re lucky, maybe he’ll regale you with his tale of his arrest by a park ranger for eating a dandelion.”–The New York Times
“Brill attributes his energy to a strict vegan diet filled with wild foods he’s been collecting from all over the city’s parks since 1982.“I was biking in Queens, and there were Greek women in the park picking grape leaves,” say the Mamaroneck resident and father of one. “I took some and stuffed them. Then I started reading books on the subject and doing experiments.” The result was a 1994 book titled “Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places,” plus the current app “Wild Edibles with Wildman Steve Brill.” Today he knows more about foraging in the Big Apple than anyone, works with schools, nature centers and libraries to educate people about how to find free, edible treats and takes keen urban foragers on tours of the city’s parks. This is his edible New York.”–The New York Post
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!