The paper menu posted in Contra’s window offers an interesting proposition: five courses for $55. The $11-per-dish average looks promising for a restaurant filled with in-the-know downtowners, but dinner here is less of a steal than it appears.
With Contra, young guns Jeremiah Stone, 29, and Fabian von Hauske, 23, draw inspiration from Paris’s néo-bistrot movement, which champions affordable set menus served in casual spaces. Their own narrow room verges on spare, stripped down to elemental forms like bare brick, scuffed wooden tables and a slab-oak bar.
Stints at forage-friendly restaurants—Stone helped open Isa; Von Hauske worked briefly at Noma and staged at Sweden’s Fäviken—inform the sparse, hyperlocal cooking. Chefs change the menu every day, accommodating bolts of Greenmarket-induced creativity, but it’s nearly impossible to produce polished food when you’re making new dishes so often.
Inspiration goes awry in chewy rounds of raw squash sprinkled with even chewier half-popped sorghum kernels; the creamy ricotta and fatty guanciale there to soften the texture aren’t quite up to the task. Slow-roasted Mangalitsa pork collar, however, hits every note, with fat-swelled flesh brightened by sweet husk cherries and crisp turnips.
Large intervals of time pass between the small dishes, requiring supplemental bread ($3), cheese ($8) and plenty of wine. All of this conspires to effortlessly nudge the gentle $55 base price toward $100.
Triple digits no longer seem like a bargain for five nonnegotiable courses, two of which were offbeat desserts one night. Where vanilla ice cream sweetened by freeze-dried raspberry jam and squiggles of gjetos (caramelized cheese) tastes like a savvy order from a Scandinavian 16 Handles, toasted-oat mousse topped with apple granita conjures Golden Grahams doused in juice.
For now, Contra is more experimental kitchen than well-oiled machine. And in a town with plenty of stellar tasting menus available for reasonable asking prices, it will have to hit a steadier stride to endure beyond its newcomer buzz.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: The menu changes often, but recent standouts included roasted Mangalitsa pork collar, vanilla ice cream with raspberry jam and gjetost, and whole-wheat rolls with butter.
Behind the bar: Sommelier Linda Milagros Violago—formerly of Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s and Spain’s Mugaritz—focuses on small, sustainable producers, and, like the menu, will tweak her short, by-the-glass list every day.
Vibe: Stone and Von Hauske seem to teach their cooks dishes on the fly, creating an air of experimentation that’s exciting and nerve-racking at once.
Cocktail chatter: The restaurant gets its name from a hardcore band called Contra, of which Von Hauske’s friend was a member.
Soundcheck: A solid alt-rock soundtrack keeps the mood lively when the pace of dinner lulls.
By Daniel S. Meyer