Contra Culture: With Every Sunrise, a Chance for Greatness
It would be too easy to dismiss the creative forces behind Contra as doe-eyed optimists, its chefs as young punks. But that's the risk Jeremiah Stone, 23, and Fabian von Hauske, 29, took in early October when they opened their narrow Orchard Street restaurant, a sleek nod to the neo-bistros of Paris. Like those restaurants, Contra charges a moderate prix fixe entrance fee ($55 for five courses) for a relaxed atmosphere and a sense of adventure in the kitchen.
Both chefs, along with veteran sommelier Linda Milagros Violago, have résumés that span some of the world's best restaurants in Europe and the United States (Le Chateaubriand in Paris, Sweden's Fäviken, and Mugaritz in Spain), and the organic relationship that formed among the three has resulted in a symbiosis that's palpable in a restaurant that has only seen a single change of season. Service is smooth, the staff knowledgeable and engaging.
Violago pauses to huddle with customers, devising personalized pairings from a wine list that champions younger and natural producers rather than favoring Old-World heavyweights or decreeing specific combinations. She also switches out two by-the-glass wines each night to complement the dynamic menu.
In a time when ingredient sourcing has overtaken opulence as a major factor in determining a restaurant's value ("local" is the new "luxury"), Contra's earnest approach to the greenmarket ethos is part of what makes Stone and von Hauske's food worth considering. I wasn't expecting paper-thin slices of butternut squash to come pickled, but the normally hearty gourd tasted surprisingly of apricots, the faint salinity from brining supporting smoked cashew milk, thin flaps of guanciale, and grassy chrysanthemum greens. For a late fall/winter dish with seasonally appropriate ingredients, the execution evoked summer; within apparent discord, harmony.
Confined by budget, upscale ingredients are seldom present, but the result of the team's improvised efforts can be just as electrifying without them. Stone's thin, bare chicken breast sits in a pool of herb sauce as verdant as Oz's Emerald City. Charred shallot stems provide an inviting bitterness that heightens the herbs and bolsters a thin but potent poultry gravy. What's most impressive about this straightforward approach is the bird itself: judiciously seasoned, crisp-skinned, and succulent.
As part of a Thanksgiving-inspired meal that transformed traditional side dishes into individual plated courses, Stone's take on a loaded baked potato, featuring maple-roasted Japanese yam topped with shards of crisp pig's ear and pickled cipollini onions, felt like a progressive synthesis of our national feast. Then the backbone of the meal arrived: two planks of poached turkey that, in their extreme pinkness and softness, resembled firm toro sashimi. Although the main event delivered little of the comforting satisfaction of a traditional holiday plate, it was undeniably engaging.
On our initial visit, the monkfish exhibited supple tenderness. Post-holiday, our fortunes reversed. A second course of pollock — the Atlantic Ocean's Fredo Corleone — was ideally flaky (there really is some next-level fish cookery taking place here) but lacked seasoning, ultimately succumbing to likewise timid accoutrements of sliced raw carrots and a thin, faintly sweet carrot sauce. Despite the slight misfire, the much-maligned fish was conceptually elevated, but concepts don't add flavor to food.
As it stands now, the two nightly desserts include a quenelle of ice cream or sorbet followed by a more intricately plated finale. Best of all might be von Hauske's pairing of pitch-perfect vanilla ice cream with dainty squiggles of gjetost — a fudgy, caramelized Norwegian goat and cow's milk cheese. There was also a toasted oat mousse crowned with a ring of vivid oxidized apple granita. Oxidation gives the apple a somewhat mealy texture, which we're taught is anathema in most cases, but next to the airy mousse it provided a welcome contrasting texture. Here, somehow, the kitchen's trash becomes the diner's pleasure. I ate compost, and I loved it.
When the market partially dictates your menu, ingredients are bound to make repeat appearances. This is true of both the savory and sweet courses, and it only adds to Contra's charm. With each tweak, diners are treated to a display of the creative process. My last taste of Contra was the toasted oat mousse, but something was different; the color and flavor of the granita was brighter and less gritty. "Green apples," replied the server. He didn't ask how I liked them, but he'll get his answer soon enough.
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