Contra (1 Michelin star)
Add: 138 Orchard St, New York, NY
Tel: +1 (212) 466 4633
Hours: Tue-Sat 6:00pm-12:00am; closed Sun & Mon
Price: [6-course tasting menu] USD67 (+tax and gratuity)
Visited: November 2016
Will return: Yes
New York as a city is hard to define. Stop ten people on its streets with this question, and you’ll likely receive ten different answers.
New York as a school of cuisine is practically non-existent. The city’s dining scene, though undeniably vigorous, seems to be characterized by an aggregate of global cooking that have yet to evolve into its own style.
Enter Contra, an unassuming restaurant on an equally unassuming block on Orchard Street, helmed by chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske. What the two young chefs lack in terms of resumés, they make up in spades in their deeply personal vision of creating a style of cooking that captures New York’s identity: modern, opinionated, and expressive, with a kind of elegant efficiency and practicality that only New York can pull off.
Amuse-bouche: cookie, crème fraîche, caramelized onion, trout roe
That unique style doesn’t immediately become evident, and insight won’t be found in the menu, which keeps its secrets close to chest, revealing nothing more than the three (sometimes two) main ingredients in each dish. The amuse-bouche, a bite of cookie topped with caramelized onion, crème fraîche, and trout roe, was subtle in flavor, perhaps too much so. But the next dish, a vibrant plate of uni, carrot, and persimmon, drew me into the chefs’ narrative, and I started to appreciate how the chefs explored the layers of texture – the striking crunchiness of toasted hazelnuts, the firmness of heirloom carrots, and the softness of persimmon, bound together by the creamy uni and light walnut emulsion. On the second bite, intricate shades of sweetness came through. This was some wonderful, clever cooking.
Carrot, uni, walnut
The level of originality found at Contra was on full display in what appeared to be a plate of cabbage. Hidden underneath the steamed and charred leaf was a scallop “mousse” whose texture was reminiscent of fish balls in Cantonese and Southeast Asian cuisines, studded with tiny cubes of potato. When joined by a brown butter dashi, the balance of sweetness, acidity and umami was both nuanced and robust.
Scallop, cabbage, brown butter
The ingenuity of Contra’s food sometimes belies the impeccable techniques employed in making them, but the skills shone through in a fillet of olive oil poached halibut, gingerly cooked to tender flakiness. As I moved through the dish, I started wishing for a few more slices of shaved matsutake mushroom to round out the sharp kick of horseradish cream and the saltiness of the fish, or maybe more of the light pickles at the bottom, but it says much about how perfectly cooked the fish was that the dish was still a favorite of the evening. Equally stunning was the pink and succulent Berkshire pork chop, its cook remarkably even. The accompanying husk cherries and fennel sauce added depth and lightness in equal measures, but the pork was the undisputed star of the plate.
Halibut, matsutake, horseradish
Pork, husk cherry, fennel
Before dessert, there is the option of a cheese interruption. A sweet and earthy Flagsheep cheese from Seattle was shaved over coffee mayo, knowing exactly how to get along with the sumac crackers beside it. The plate was meant for two, but I almost finished the plate all by myself. Also worth mentioning is the Vermont butter cream served with their sourdough, all unexpected tanginess and creamy richness. The bread comes at an extra $3, and the cheese $8 – both are well worth getting.
Cheese, coffee, sumac
Sourdough, Vermont butter cream
After the excitement of the savory dishes, desserts felt slightly more run-of-the-mill. Or perhaps that was only because I had adjusted to Contra’s style. Still, it takes a healthy dose of courage and self-assurance to present two desserts so alike in flavor profiles as the ones Contra served that evening. In a seamless and intricate union, miso ice cream brought a subtle depth to the bright acidity of figs. The grape and coconut semifreddo that followed ran much along the same lines, but kicked up a notch in sweetness, acidity, and richness, while the hazelnut cake hidden in the center provided just enough ballast and substance to dispel any thoughts of a gelateria.
Grape, coconut, hazelnut
It speaks to how confident Chef Stone and Chef von Hauske are in their vision that Contra has only ever offered a tasting menu that changes roughly every two weeks since its conception in 2014, long before it has made its name and earned its accolades (the most recent of which is a Michelin star last month). And it is a testament to their insight that the tasting menu is just the right length and pace that its audience can become familiar with Contra’s distinctive New York identity, and leave at the end rendered giddy and speechless by its wonders.
When I arrived at Contra just after six o’clock, the music was already quite loud. As the dining room filled up over the next hour, the noise level became almost raucous.
But then, it wouldn’t be New York if it wasn’t.