They call it second-child syndrome: a loosening of the reins, a slight dimming of the overeagerness that comes with adding a sibling to that precious firstborn. Same goes with restaurants—the debut is the pride and joy, painstakingly planned for and helicopter-parented. The second is, often, looser, more casual, given more slack and less push.
Such is the case of Wildair, the 45-seat sister restaurant to chef Jeremiah Stone and pastry chef Fabian von Hauske’s avant-garde tasting-menu den, Contra, two doors down. Contra already had an understated, almost mumblecore approach to set menus—five courses clocked in at $55 when the place opened; elevated to its current $67, it’s still a bargain—but Wildair is even more low-pressure, set with sardine-packed bar tables, a fuzzy midaughts soundtrack and neighborhood affability. (On a recent night, more than one diner recognized wine director Jorge Riera from his tenure at the nearby Ten Bells. Bear hugs ensued.)
And though Wildair’s snacky, à la carte menu has less sharp-edged experimentation than Contra’s, there are low-key innovations at play here. The simple bistro pleasure of breakfast radishes with soft-churned sweet butter are smacked with the briny funk of seaweed ($8), and beef tartare ($14) is sultry with smoke courtesy of a haze of hardwood-kissed cheddar, with chestnuts adding pops of crunch. A snarl of lemony fried squid ($15) proves less heavily battered than it appears, shatteringly light against a rich aioli stained black with ink.
Entrée-size options are well-executed—a dutifully crunchy pork milanese with mustard greens ($19); a fat-bordered for-two Wagyu beef with charred Padrón peppers and shallots ($85)—but lack the brainy tick of Stone’s small plates. Actually, the most cerebral section of the menu is Riera’s economical wine list, focused on offbeat natural varietals. Grab a quartered hunk of Von Hauske’s superb bread, a few small plates and a deep-gold bottle of big-boned Bodegas Gómez Nevado sherry ($36), and see—Wildair proves second doesn’t always mean second best.