It’s easy to say that Contra, the new NYC restaurant from the still young, but experienced chef duo of Fabián¹ Von Hauske Valtierra and Jeremiah Stone and the even more experienced sommelier Linda Milagros Violago², is a great value. In fact, at $55 per person for a five course tasting menu in NYC, it is actually an incredible value, but that would diminish the fact that the food and the overall experience at Contra happen to be really, really good even taking the relative cost out of the equation. That’s not to say that the experience rivals that of a place like Saison, noma or other truly great restaurants. It’s not quite at that level, but it is seriously good with potential to get even better.
Butternut squash was shaved into beautiful ribbons that were laced on top of fresh ricotta, cashew cream and chopped cashews with slightly chewy strips of fried pig’s ears carefully placed on the dish. The sweetness of the squash ribbons was effectively balanced by the rich nuts and the creamy ricotta. The pig’s ears could have been crisper, but the slightly chewy texture worked with the dish as it was. Fresh oregano leaves completed the dish, which while still quite good, proved to be the least polished of the evening.
With the help of Sommelier Violago, we chose a fine, reasonably priced German Riesling to accompany the meal. Riesling is one of the friendliest and most versatile food wines I know. It accompanies so many disparate foods and this one was no exception. With a strong acid backbone to brace the little bit of residual sugar and lovely tropical fruits, it washed down everything we had quite well. I used to be a wine first kind of guy that would choose a restaurant based on its wine list and then order food to go with the wine. I have reversed course over the past ten years or so, but Contra and some other new restaurants like Pearl and Ash should satisfy both camps with quality and great value.
With the price of the meal as low as it is, it was not unreasonable for the restaurant to charge an extra $3 for optional bread service. Those who are not interested need not pay it, but for those who are, the charge was well worth it. The multi-grain boule was crisp-crusted and hearty. The butter served alongside begged to be slathered wherever and whenever.
One of the main criticisms of tasting menus is that the small plates don’t allow for sufficient exploration of a dish. The platings at Contra were generous and negated that criticism. This was especially welcome with the standout monkfish roasted on the bone and served with wilted cabbage and mussels along with a mussel emulsion. This stellar dish put it all together. It was subtle and full-flavored without any part overwhelming any other. The perfectly cooked fish was moist and beautiful. The cabbage was a superlative adjunct to the fish and the mussels added exclamation points of flavor. Though an entirely different construction, the dish brought back very fond memories of a monkfish and cabbage dish at Le Bernardin the first time I ate there almost two decades ago.
There are other extras available besides bread. An optional special of a crisp skinned chicken leg was offered for $16, so we shared it. The leg and thigh meat had been taken off the bone and reconstructed and covered with shaved button mushrooms and black radishes. The combination was moistened with a bone marrow reduction. The meat was juicy and full of flavor without residual tendons or ligaments. The skin was crisp as a cracker with the epitome of roast chicken umami. I’m not sure that either the mushrooms or radishes added much, but they didn’t need to and they didn’t detract. The dish was well worth the supplement and was easy to share.
I was asked if I had any issues with foods and if I ate offal. I answered no and I was glad I did. The kitchen sent out a special dish as a gift. It was half of a lamb’s head cut through down the middle and roasted. While there was some tasty meat on the cheek and the lower part of the posterior skull, there wasn’t much of it, but that wasn’t the real purpose of the dish. The cranium still had half of a brain intact. The roasted cerebrum was creamy, perfectly seasoned and absolutely delicious either spooned out and eaten as it was or spread onto some more bread that had been sent out with it. This unusual and off-menu dish was the piece de resistance of the meal. A dish not for the squeamish, but a true and most excellent reward for the adventurous eater.
To accompany the lamb’s head as well as our final savory, we each had a glass of a nice, light, well acidulated and fruity red. The Coteaux du Vendômois 2011 from Domaine de Montrieux is on the by the glass list for $15 and was a lovely food wine, perfect for both the lamb and the beef that followed.
Beets have been popular in high end dining for a while and the rise of the New Nordic movement has elevated them to new heights. Given the background of the kitchen it is not surprising that at this time of year they featured in at least one course. Here, they worked with some robust and delicious Crekkstone Farm hanger steak both as thin slices and a beet-bone marrow puree. Pinning it all together was a pleasantly smoky charred eggplant purée. The dish was another strong winner.
Dessert also showed a bit of Nordic influence with the inclusion of strands of caramelized Norwegian gjetost, a caramelized goat’s whey cheese and toasted barley complementing vanilla ice cream and just enough raspberry to notice it. This dessert was delicious and very well constructed and superbly balanced. It was sweet, but not profoundly so.
The second and final dessert was quite refreshing. A mousse of toasted oats was abetted by caramel and an oxidized apple granita. It was a fine way to finish a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
Contra has not been without criticism. Though his review was overwhelmingly positive, Stan Sagner of the New York Daily news, wrote,
The thrill of a virtually new menu each night has a real-world tradeoff: The kitchen can rarely master a dish before moving on to its next creation. It’s exciting to see what two cutting-edge veterans can dream up, but the risk of a clunker is omnipresent. The good news is that Contra delivers far more hits than misses.
My experience was decidedly positive with no real misses, just gradations of goodness with the weakest, but still very pleasurable dishes bookending the strongest ones. The monkfish, chicken and hangar steak were all superb, while the lamb’s head was truly extraordinary. If the restaurant were significantly more expensive, some inconsistency of quality might be unforgivable, but the tariffs charged allow for the experience of possible greatness. For me, the potential tradeoff is very well worth it. When they hit it like they did for this meal, the experience is worth far more than what was charged. If I lived in NYC, this would be a place I would return to again and again to follow the sure to be exciting evolution and growth of this fine young team. As such, I say Yes! to Contra.
¹Fabián is pronounced Fah-be-ahn with the emphasis on the “ahn”, not Fay-be-in with an emphasis on the “fay”.
²Von Hauske Valtierra was born in Mexico City, moved to NYC at age 17 and has spent significant time working in restaurants like noma and Favikën. Stone has worked in Isa in NYC and Rino in Paris. Linda Milagros Violago has worked at Charlie Trotter’s, Mugaritz, In de Wulf, Geranium, Viajante and others.