Friday, August 29, 2014


I think I was lucky not having read Pete Wells NY Times review before visiting Contra.  Really, not knowing a thing about it at all.   I was invited last minute, by a group of trusted chefs and related fooderati, and at any rate, I hadn't any time to do any research to find out about this enigmatic little nook at which I would dine.   Suffice it to say that I went in without any expectations, and consequently, enjoyed myself exponentially more than all of my dining companions.  Contra (which, according to the hostess, means "against" in Spanish.  As it does in Italian, French, Portuguese, English... so kinda, uh... yeah.  Duh.)  wants to be a groundbreaking argument against convention, but instead comes across as pretty normal dining experience, only that there is a set menu which changes nightly, so no choices to be had.  Contra has a website, that is either dysfunctional or just inoperative, but regardless, you'll not glean a lot of information about the place from it but the address and phone number.   Similarly, you'll enter into a shadowy room once you get there, then be seated at an imposing, glossy wooden table with a simple menu card at each place setting.  Few or no concessions are procurable for finicky diners or fragile constitutions: picky people might be better off elsewhere.  But
despite the name, Contra doesn't really defy convention (as I interpreted the name to imply) in any sense besides the strict menu (relatively affordable at $55 per person).  It wasn't particularly thrilling, either, although everything we had was pleasant, solid, and at times notable.

With no ordering to do, we were quickly bequeathed first with a piping hot loaf of bread ($3 extra, and worth it) with a crumbly, moist density and gorgeous golden crust- almost biscuit-like in texture.  It was uniquely leavened, attaining a subtle sourness much gentler than a San Francisco-style sour, a tangy nuance balanced with buttery sweetness.  And that was even before
adding a swipe of the lusciously creamy whipped butter that accompanies.  Typical or not, the courses which ensued were not insurmountably voluminous, and thus abstaining from the bread for appetite conservation would be vigorously discouraged.  I seriously considered stashing the unfinished half-loaf in my purse, although considering the company I was keeping, I thought that might be.... frowned upon.    A lively salad arrived quickly to distract me, anyways, a lovely composition of salty brined cucumber, pleasantly acerbic plum, and translucent layers of onion that were cleverly charred, just on the edges.    Intrinsically bread and salad,  although expertly done, our meal thus far wasn't exactly contra- anything.  In fact, it was much in keeping with recent years Scandi/Nordic fervor that continues to be a hot ticket.

We continued with the fish course, a sous-vide pollack (my tablemates couldn't resist noting that this is the stuff of mass-produced frozen fish sticks) festively adorned with frondy sprigs of dill, sharing the plate with tiny, halved grilled cabbages and exceptionally large, al dente spring peas.    A creamy, lemony sauce washed over the plate beneath, but other than that the flavors were singular, elemental.  The plate was gorgeously composed, the fish steamed just to the cusp of doneness, the vegetables tender and flavorful, but it wasn't revolutionary in any aspect of its construct.   A mild white fish with green vegs and lemon: we could have been anywhere.  And then, at least, arrived the conversation piece of the evening: the (very minimalist) menu described it simply as beef, beet, dulse.  Our waiter informed of us a change, however: the beef had been substituted with lamb (or so I understood).  The profuse scatter of weedy herbs and garnet slices of beet obfuscated the meat initially, and not being a very avid carnivore, I focused on cutting into the very rare medallions, which required a lot more effort than I would've liked.  After a few bites, I surrendered.  I enjoyed the oxalis and beet much more than the meat, which was pretty tough and not particularly
flavorful, aside from the well-seasoned exterior.  One of my tablemates remarked, postprandially, that she hadn't really enjoyed the veal.... wait.  Veal?  I thought it was lamb.  And another chimed in, that no, we were both wrong- it was venison.  Honestly, I couldn't tell.  It didn't taste like much of anything, and dueling it with a laughably dull knife was more of a challenge than it was worth.  Still now, to this day, none of us know what we ate.  It was some indeterminate red meat, which is pretty sad given the company I was with, and their respective professional palates.

Thick in the fog of the mysterious prior course, we began a barrage a finishers, starting with an off-the-menu cheese plate that was probably the most innovative course of the night.  It was simply a warmed plate, dusted with a flurry of grated cheese studded with a crumble of crunchy Corn Nut clones.  Now I'm not much of a cheese course fan, nor did the order of serving this make sense to me, but I have to say , a couple of swipes off this communal plate was pretty yummy.  I mean, melty cheese and corny crunch: it was the most elegant stoner food ever.  And then came a palate cleanser of strawberry (changed from honeydew) and chamomile, but it was so ridiculously oversized that I actually thought it

 was a sub for dessert.  It was fascinating to watch the frosty strawberry shell drizzled with olive oil melt into weirdly biological configurations, sort of like a slo-mo globular lava lamp- revealing a cool, gently sweet chamomile-inflected gelato within.  It was fruity and smooth, and in a smaller portion would've been an apt palate cleanser, or else a nice component to some light gateau or meringue or something.  But it wasn't dessert.  Dessert came in the form of a blueberry granita shrouding a novel potato gelato, slightly salty and dense, a lovely foil to the sprightly fruit ice.   But wait, WAS that dessert, or another palate cleanser?  By now, our palates were immaculate
 (maybe one of these prior to the meat course could have rendered our taste buds sharp enough to determine the animal that died for our meat course).  Because hence arrived another dessert, although this granola-y little concoction would've been more welcome as a breakfast option at this point, as a fourth dessert course was simply superfluous.  That said , the yogurty ice cream would've melted away before morning, and the nutty granola crumble did prove rather tasty with its toasty honeyed notes.

In the end, aside from the mystery meat, there wasn't one dish I wouldn't been satisfied with in a traditional a la carte format at a well-serviced,
attractive restaurant.  Perhaps I'm being too picky here, allowing my companions' expectations to rub off on me, because there wasn't anything technically wrong with anything but just that one dish throughout the course of the night.   It was just all a little lackluster given the  young pedigreed chefs behind the whole ordeal.  Jeremiah Stone (Isa) and Fabian von Hauske (Noma, Favriken).  They might've done well to stay at those establishments a little longer to gain their footing.   If they're gonna keep in this game, they need to iron out the the substantial wrinkles in the service (protracted lapses between courses, and maybe that one enunciation issue) and consider a little less frantic variability in the menu until they can perfect the offerings.  Although I have to say, given its relative affordability for this quality of cuisine, playing the guaranteed new-experience-every-time card might be the trump that provides meaning to the restaurant's name.

138 Orchard Street
 (212) 466 4633 

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