“Summer in a dish,” Christian Thornton says of the Seared George’s Bank Scallops and Summer Heirloom Tomatoes dish he and his team prepare, a variation of the seared scallop dish on the menu at Atria on Main street, Edgartown. The restaurant’s chef and owner says this dish is all about simplicity, “You want to let the tomatoes speak for themselves. It sounds corny, but it’s about paying homage to what it is,” chef Thornton explains. That means using the highest quality, freshest ingredients, which the Island has in abundance — especially in the summer, he adds.
All of the seafood on Atria’s menu comes from Vineyard waters or nearby George’s Bank, both of which, Chef Thornton says, “in my opinion, have the best in the world. Why would you go any further?” Almost all of Atria’s produce — bok choy, arugula, greens, pea sprouts, tomatoes, corn, peaches, blueberries, and more — is from Island farms: Bluebird, North Tabor, Morning Glory. “And we used to get cases and cases of tomatoes from Thimble Farm,” he notes, before Atria started sourcing predominantly Bluebird Farm. “A few years back we had this young woman from Florida come up to waitress for the summer,” Mr. Thornton says. It was Krishana Collins, who now runs Bluebird Farm. “When she was starting Bluebird, I told her ‘We’ll buy everything you bring through the door.’ ” Now, he says, everyone’s going to Ms. Collins, “we’re really lucky to have her as our go-to person.”
The menu reflects the abundance of the season and preparation of dishes is about enhancing natural flavors, not altering or burying them. For example, Mr. Thornton says, the scallops are just salted, peppered and seared in olive oil. And the whole dish can be prepared in 10 minutes, then layered over the heirlooms. You can drizzle an aged balsamic and olive oil — Atria uses their own basil-steeped olive oil and tops the dish with Island lobster and cucumber relish (the recipe is provided below). If you want to try the recipe chef Thornton’s provided below, he says the Green Zebra and Brandywine heirloom tomatoes from Bluebird farm are perfect, but adds you can use any great summer tomato — “as long as they’re local, and vine-ripened, preferably from a garden.”
If simplicity is the hallmark of the way food in Atria’s kitchen is approached, teamwork, Mr. Thornton believes, is the hallmark of how a dish gets from garden to plate to one of the linen-clothed tables in Atria’s dining room. Starting, he says, with his teaming up with right-hand man, chef Aaron Zeender, who has been there since Atria opened its doors almost nine years ago.
“Aaron was just a couple of months out of the Navy,” Mr. Thornton remembers, when they met at a dinner party in Washington, D.C. Mr. Zeender had been a cook in the Navy; Mr. Thornton was running a restaurant for Nora Pouillon, who has the distinction of having the first certified organic restaurant in the United States.
“Nora got that certification when I was working for her,” back in the late 1990s, he says, an experience that punctuated his belief in fresh, local ingredients as integral to fine dining. At the same time, Mr. Thornton made his first trip to the Island — with his girlfriend Greer Boyle (now, his wife) whose family had a summer home here. “We noticed how you couldn’t get a seat in any restaurant, and thought, maybe foolishly, wow, this would be a great place to open a restaurant.”
The property, at that time called Water, happened to be for sale. The couple formed a partnership, and made a business plan for Atria, that would have Ms. Boyle running front-of-the-house and Mr. Tornton, the kitchen. The deal went through, and Mr. Thornton invited Aaron Zeender to come on board.
“He invited me up for one summer,” Mr. Zeender laughs. Almost nine years later, the duo has a tete-a-tete exchange that comes with long acquaintance; one that has obviously been fruitful, as Atria continues to flourish. “We have similar ideas about food,” Mr. Thornton says. “We’re always creating,” Mr. Zeender adds, “It took us three or four years to really dial it in, to where the menu found a home. And still, we’re always evaluating.”
“We’re constantly evolving,” Mr. Thornton says. “Constantly evolving,” Mr. Zeender echoes. If Atria has a philosophy, Mr. Thornton notes, it’s that, as a restaurateur “you have to embrace what’s around you, and listen to your guests.” As far as recipes, they can change on a whim, partly because of the fresh herbs and produce available any given day — for example, chef Zeender tops the scallop and tomato dish with tendrils of purple and green baby basil just delivered from Bluebird — and partly because once they’ve earned their stripes in the kitchen, Mr. Thornton says, he welcomes any of his team’s ideas. “We kind of work under this umbrella of Atria, we don’t really emphasis titles. The talent in this kitchen is great: they love the Vineyard and come back every summer. They’re all chefs in their own right.”