Economists have their own ways of measuring the end of a recession. I have my own: how long does it take to get into a hit restaurant in New York?
Contra opened on the Lower East Side in October 2013, and it took till March 2015 for me to get a reservation. Now, I’ll admit: I didn’t work at it desperately. With dogged persistence, I surely could’ve gone sooner. But at the pace I was willing to work—something less than desperation—it took almost eighteen months for a reservation to appear, at a time I was willing to go.
The concept was daring for late 2013: a $55 five-course set menu from two chefs most people (then) had never heard of. Apparently they never got the memo: that’s not The Way We Eat Now. Diners want sharable small plates, to order either a short snack or a multi-course degustation at their whim. Or, do they? Contra was willing to bet the opposite.
Of course, the fixed-price menu is what every kitchen would love to serve: planning is so much easier when every cover will be the same. But most places don’t open with that format; they adopt it later (if at all), after their reputation is secure. For an unproven restaurant, the fixed cost of entry is supposed to be off-putting—even where, as here, it isn’t really that high.
Contra did it anyway, the rave reviews rolled in, and the rest is history. Last week, the restaurant finally got around to raising its prices. Thursdays through Saturdays, the price will be $67 for 6–8 courses. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the original five-course menu will be a hair less expensive than before, at $53. (You can order à la carte at the bar.)
The chefs here are Jeremiah Stone, who worked at Rino in Paris and Isa in Brooklyn; and Fabian von Hauske, whose CV includes the obligatory fifteen-minute stint at Noma, plus Faviken in Sweden and the pastry department at Jean-Georges. Stone looks after the savory courses, von Hauske the bread and desserts.
According to the staff, the menu changes every few days, if not more often, depending on the available ingredients and the chefs’ whims. Theeir style is very loosely “New Nordic,” although the website (not very helpfully) describes it as “Contemporary New York cuisne.”
The lower-priced menu ($55 when we had it) is long enough to feel like a bargain, but short enough and inexpensive enough that you could try it regularly. Is every course transcendent? Of course not, but then you pinch yourself, and realize you’re not dreaming that it’s only eleven dollars a plate. Bread ($3), and cheese ($8), are the only options—aside from what to drink.
For an extra three bucks, the bread (above left) is well worth it, served warm with smooth, soft butter. The appetizer (above right) was a clever salad of persimmon, squash, and cured fish roe (bottarga).
The fish course (above left) was a Spartan and uninspired filet of fluke. We were more impressed with the meat course, chicken (above right) with ham and garbanzo.
The meal ends with two desserts. Strawberries and cream (above left) was just fine, but unmemorable. We were more impressed with shaved rhubarb over vanilla ice cream (above right).
Others will have to opine on Contra’s new 6–8-course weekend menu. The five-course menu, now offered only two days a week, seemed to us just right: the kind of menu you’d want again and again, if you lived close by and could just drop in. I hope Contra won’t lose that aspect of its appeal. The space is casual, in a Lower East Side kind of way, but the staff render service more polished than many a white table-cloth restaurant.
Contra (138 Orchard Street between Rivington & Delancey Streets, Lower East Side)
Food: New Nordic meets New York
Service: Smooth and polished
Ambiance: Lower East Side casual