5 Courses of Youthful Rebellion at Contra in LES

Naming your restaurant Contra suggests that your culinary viewpoint will be one of youthful rebellion. Which makes sense, considering the two chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske are young guns in their 20s with stints at Noma and Isa who are trying to make it on their own. There’s been some backlash against the two relatively inexperienced chefs who dared to have the audacity to execute an ambitious 5-course $55 tasting menu so early in their careers. However, I’m glad that these two lived up to the spirit of the Contra name and defied the critics by going their own way. The cooking was well executed, the flavors were well-balanced, and the price point was pretty reasonable as far as 5-course NYC tasting menus go.

With such renegade origins, it shouldn’t surprise you that the restaurant is located downtown in the LES and caters to a young and trendy crowd. The space is simple, modern and inviting, setting a tone for a more casual and accessible tasting menu experience. I was also relieved to see that the rebellious spirit didn’t translate into small, uncomfortable stools or communal benches, which tends to be an unfortunate byproduct of f* the establishment restaurateurs. Plenty of elbow space here.

The tasting menu kicked off with a plate of the amazing roll of hot, crusty rye bread and chicken fat butter. It tastes as good at it sounds–decadent, smooth butter melting into the soft, chewy pores of delicious bread.

contra - house bread and chicken fat butter
house rye bread with a side of chicken fat butter

First course – peas, greens avocado. This was one of my favorite dishes–it was fresh, simple and reassuring. It had all the elements of a well-executed pea puree soup, even though the fresh peas were crisp and intact. The inherent sweetness of the peas and the counterbalance of the smooth and savory avocado puree resulted in a winning combination.  

contra - peas, greens avocado
course 1: peas, greens avocado

Second course – marinated squid supplement. The marinated pan-fried squid dish was a special supplement to the main tasting menu. I liked the char on the squid and thought the sweetness and acidity of the grapes provided some nice accents. It wasn’t one of the best squid dishes I’ve ever had, but it was pretty solid overall.

contra - squid
course 2: pan-fried squid tasting menu supplement

Third course – bass, cauliflower, zucchini. Bass is a pretty mild and inoffensive fish that has wide appeal. Unfortunately the way it was prepared at Contra was pretty unremarkable. It was definitely cooked well, but nothing about the dish really stood out. It was so unmemorable that I even forgot to take a picture!

Fourth course: pork, corn, dandelion. Things picked up with the pork dish. The cut of meat used was perfect–lean but fatty enough as to avoid compromising that extremely satisfying sensation of eating pork. The corn puree brought some nice texture and mealiness to the dish. All in all, a solid rendition of a familiar classic.

contra - pork, corn, dandelion
course 4: pork, corn, dandelion

Fifth course: peach, chamomile, herbs. This was the first, and my favorite, of the two dessert courses. I have a weakness for tea-infused desserts in general (I never met an Earl Grey or green tea ice cream that I didn’t like), and not surprisingly the hints of chamomile and herbs in the custard really won me over.

contra - peach, chamomile, herbs
course 5: peach, chamomile, herbs

Sixth course: beets, hazelnut, yogurt. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this last course. It was pleasant, but the overall execution lacked cohesion. I felt like someone had served me a dollop of Pinkberry yogurt, a scoop of peanut butter, and a handful of Terra beet chips. The haphazard pairing of seemingly detached ingredients was something the dish really couldn’t overcome.

contra - beets, hazelnut, yogurt v2
course 6: beets, hazelnut, yogurt

Overall, the contrary culinary point of view that drove the execution at Contra was a successful one. While not every dish was a home run, each one was prepared with precision and a high level of skill, a testament to the pedigrees of the top chefs running the kitchen. The few flaws that I did detect were due to flavor combinations that weren’t particularly symbiotic but they were never offensive or thoughtless. It’s undeniable that the youthful spirit at Contra is one rooted in talent, but at the same time, I think with more maturity and experience, those kinks in half-baked flavors should work themselves out. I’m definitely looking forward to another visit to see how things have evolved since my fortuitous initial encounter. 

138 Orchard St. (between Rivington and Delancey)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 466-4633

Estela, the Don Draper of Restaurants

Stumbling upon a chance dinner at newly opened restaurant Estela was a little like falling into the arms of Don Draper. The unmarked doorway and dark, chic surroundings were mysterious and intriguing, much like the tall, dark and handsome stranger himself. Engaging with Estela through its food further perpetuated the mystery, as the flavors revealed little about its culinary origins. Blood sausage croquettes pointed to Spanish, yet Virginia ham was undeniably American. And there were times when I even tasted some Asian flavors. There was a familiar, comforting aspect about the food, as if you’ve had this dish before in another setting, but you can’t quite remember where and when. My takeaway was that Estela has no definitive roots and has instead embraced the culinary influences of the multiple cultures it has come into contact with. This absence of a definitive past shouldn’t matter, because, like Don’s work, the food speaks for itself.

Estela - menu
Estela’s menu, subject to revision

The similarities between Don Draper and Estela end there, because the warm service and hospitality at Estela are nothing like Don’s cold, terse temperament. The restaurant is run by head chef Ignacio Mattos, formerly of Isa and Il Buco, and Thomas Carter, a former wine director at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In a recent interview with Eater New York, the partners said that they wanted the restaurant to be a place “where people go to drink good wine and eat good food without having to behave too much,” and they’ve certainly achieved that. Estela was only into its fourth day when I dropped by for dinner, but I was very impressed by the congenial, knowledgeable staff and the smooth and prompt delivery of dishes to our table. I definitely didn’t sense any growing pains here.

The food is served tapas style to encourage sharing of many dishes, with sizes increasing further down the menu. Since Estela is so new, we were completely in the dark as to what to order, which was pretty liberating. We weren’t anchored to expectations of what was good or not and could judge our meal in a more objective way. We decided to order several small plates, including the raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel, the trout with fava, yuzu, and horseradish, and the egg with gigante beans and cured tuna, as well as a larger dish of the pork with carrots, Marcona almonds, and dandelion greens.

This was one of those rare dinner moments where every single dish that came out was truly well-executed. There were no hit-or-miss inconsistencies here. The ingredients used in each dish were minimal but to the point. I did notice that there was a common thread of utilizing citrus flavors to bring some lightness to the food. This recurring yuzu and citrus theme was a good example of the hard-to-place, global flavor profile that is a byproduct of Estela’s itinerant culinary lifestyle. 

For instance, the raw scallops were reminiscent of the sashimi yuzu appetizers that are staples at Japanese restaurants, yet the fennel and red pepper accents threw you for a loop so that the dish couldn’t completely claim Asian origins.

Estela - raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel
raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel

The trout similarly had that Asian quality with its yuzu seasoning, but the fresh and seasonal fava beans and peas seemed very American farmers’ market to me. I thought the wispy ribbons of horseradish were a pretty brilliant and unique way of imparting some spice to a dish.

Estela - trout with fava yuzu and horseradish
trout with fava, yuzu, and horseradish

The egg with gigante beans and cured tuna was my favorite out of the small plates. I loved the warm and savory broth, and the combination of eggs, chunky beans and tuna was a highly satisfying and hearty one. The broth is light, more akin to a dashi soup than a thick stew, so it was perfect for the summer months.

Estela - egg with gigante beans and cured tuna
poached egg with gigante beans and cured tuna

I normally don’t seek out pork at a restaurant, because I find that it usually ends up occupying two extreme ends of the spectrum–dry, tasteless pork chop loins or extremely fatty, heavy belly pieces. The pork at Estela occupies a happy medium between the two. The meat was lovely and tender and rimmed with just a touch of fattiness to provide rich, juicy flavor. The carrots and almonds provided some nutty depth and nice texture, and the slightly bitter dandelion greens kept things from being overly heavy.

Estela - pork with carrots Marcona almonds and dandelion green
pork with carrots, Marcona almonds, and dandelion greens

Desserts can be an afterthought at many places, but that wasn’t the case here. I thought the chocolate sherbet thoughtfully showcased its main ingredient in all sorts of lovely ways. You had a scoop that was decadently rich and fudge-like in nature, and another icy sherbet scoop that was a delightfully cool counter response to that. I loved the crunchiness of the hazelnuts and coffee beans and thought they provided some nice, light accents to a dish that could have been overly dense and rich.

Estela - chocolate sherbet
chocolate sherbet

Estela currently enjoys a somewhat anonymous existence in its unmarked address on E. Houston, but this won’t last for long. It’ll be in your best interest to drop by for a walk-in during its low-key phase before favorable word-of-mouth makes it impossible to score a table. I’m hoping to sneak in another order of the pork as well as the ricotta dumplings and anchovies on my next visit, hopefully before the onslaught of diners crowd me out because they want a piece of Estela’s globetrotting cuisine for themselves.

47 E. Houston St (between Mulberry and Mott)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 219-7693