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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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