An Early Taste of Contra, Now Open in the LES

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Brassica, ricotta, ham; a first course at Contra on a recent night
Last year around this time, a slew of writers popped off about the tyranny of the tasting menu, a mainstay of our fine dining tradition in the last decades. The format was tired, the majority of the fooderati concluded, and while it works okay for some really top-notch places, the proliferation of prix fixe across the country was unsavory.

Those twisted knickers didn't stop Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske from implementing set courses at Contra (138 Orchard Street, 212-446-4633), a Lower East Side restaurant that opened last week: Like the neo-bistros of Paris, the spot plans to serve a seasonal $55 five-course tasting menu each night, and while you might be privy to a sixth course supplement from time to time, you'll never be able to order a la carte.

Thus far, it seems that's no problem for the neighbors and industry members that have been snapping up tables in the long narrow space--after all, Contra's two young chefs have amassed an impressive collective resume that includes Jean-Georges, Ignacio Mattos' kitchen at Isa, Paris's Chateaubriand, and Noma.

One nice thing about the tasting menu here is that it hastens the decision-making process: Our waiter asked if we'd like to add the halibut supplement (we did), took our drink order (we opted for the funky cider), and got dinner underway immediately. All the better since Contra's menu serves as a playbill of what to expect, and it reads as just a vague list of ingredients.

Highlights from our meal included that halibut supplement for its rich broth and a dessert that played beets, yogurt, and chocolate against each other, though who knows if you'll be able to get either again any time soon since the lineup changes nightly. Beyond the food, the meal was well-paced and balanced so that when we left just 90 minutes after we arrived, we didn't feel like we'd been part of an oppressive six-course meal. The reasonable $55 price point for this type of meal also guards against disappointment if you don't love every single dish on the list.

As a final observation, Stone and von Hauske have been vocal about creating a New York-rooted restaurant, but it was unclear from our meal, at least, exactly how that's going to play out. Dishes certainly come from this city's fine dining playbook, but we didn't see much obvious divergence from that fairly international standard. While the tasting menu gave us a chance to sample a bit of Contra's repertoire, we suspect it'll take several meals here to really grasp what the pair is trying to accomplish. Beyond a neo-bistro format, that is.

If you can't get a res, by the way, the bar seems like a good bet for now--that the restaurant has just a beer and wine liquor license means that there aren't many people clamoring to post up for hours with cocktails.

Hit the next page for a few photos.



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