Contra

When I wrote about my dinner at Wildair, I had referenced my first visit to its big sister restaurant, Contra. Like any place here that I’ve enjoyed (I know I’m repeating myself), not going back has only to do with the problems of money, time, and too much choice. Yes, I want to return, but I also want to try options A, B, and C, and don’t have the money to visit all soon enough. And yup, time then flies and you’re returning to a place many many months late. Woe is me and my very insert-privileged-hashtag-here problem.

In those many months, Contra had upped the price and number of courses to its set, regularly changing, tasting menu, although there is now an option for a smaller menu at the bar. Seeing that the reservations were either too early or too late on the night I wanted to go, I inquired about how difficult it was to get a seat at the bar, and if it was possible to get the full menu while seated there. It was, and I was told that if I tipped the restaurant off in advance of coming down, they would try to mitigate any possible wait. So I did just that, and I expected that my name might be on a waiting list. Despite half the seats at the bar being free, the best seat had been set aside for me, place set and menu waiting. My solo diner heart beamed. A little gesture with a big impact. Add the fact that I randomly had met the bartender before—a friendly face always calms solo dining insecurities—and I was more excited for my meal than anticipated.

I would do the works: the $67 six-course tasting menu, the bread for $3, and the plated cheese course for $8. For me, the portions were perfect. I ate everything and felt on the good side of full by the end—ready to recline as soon as possible into a puddle of bliss.

The meal was fantastic. I found it exciting and inspired, challenging in a very accessible way. A lot of the flavours and textures were comforting, and there was a good balance between lighter and richer courses. The option for a three-course bar menu is an attractive one, but after eating all six, I would have a tough time narrowing it down to only three.

Scallop, brown butter, oro blanco

Things started off with an amuse (photo on my Instagram) of a savoury tartlet with trout roe, caramelized onion puree, and creme fraiche. The first course contained raw sliced scallops with oro blanco, a type of grapefruit, matcha powder, a bitter like treviso (the name I’ve forgotten—I almost never take notes), brown butter, the toasted rice of genmaicha, and Bordeaux radish. This might have been the weakest dish only because the scallops got a little bit lost in the bitter flavours. The brown butter was an unexpected and welcome richness.

Bread and butter supplement, $3

Just look at it. Makes me weak in the knees. Eating it all was not difficult. The crust was very crackly and substantial, but it gave way to soft swirls of crumb. The wooden paddle was slightly awkward for spreading the butter, but the plus was that it ended up giving a thick swath no matter how hard you tried to be dainty with the fat.

Potato, walnut, mint

The second course was German butterball potatoes, cheddar, and walnuts in a maple and Mirin sauce. Topped with mint and nasturtiam. And some type of allium, which I’ve forgotten. I loved the heartiness of the main ingredients paired with the mint and slightly sweet sauce. The potatoes, cheddar, and walnuts all had a chewiness that was cut well by the greenery.

Tilefish, celery root, parsley

This tilefish course included a foam made from the roasted fish bones, a lemon beurre blanc, dehydrated raspberries, celery root, lemon rind, parsley, and capers. The foam and the largely blonde palette made it hard to distinguish what I was placing on my fork at each turn, but I was never disappointed. The raspberry powder added colour more than anything, the salt from the capers really popped against the mildness of the other ingredients, and the beurre blanc gave the weight needed to be considered the first of two “main” courses. Sopping up the sauce that remained with my bread was a delcious favour to the dishwasher.

Lamb, broccoli, turnip

I think this was my favourite savoury course. The lamb sat in a broccoli sauce and was paired with a cauliflower puree, roasted Matsutake mushrooms and turnips, more of that genmaicha toasted rice, and green olives. The lamb was cooked to just pink enough, with my knife slicing through it with great ease. It was also portioned large enough to feel like the big event, but small enough so that I could finish it wanting more. I really noticed the crunch of the rice in this dish and appreciated that texture against the softer vegetables and tender meat. The sauce tasted purely of broccoli without, thankfully, making me think of juice. The olives were a nice touch, the mushrooms, delicious.

Plated cheese course supplement, $8, torched Gouda, rye crisp, kasha, Asian pear

I can be picky about melted cheese, so I wasn’t expecting to give much love to this course. But its complexity won be over. Beneath the torched Gouda were unmelted slices of the same cheese, kasha grains, and finely diced pear, all sitting atop a very thin rye cracker. The melted Gouda kept it altogether. The differing textures and temperatures kept me interested, even just by noticing the flavour changes that occur when a cheese is melted.

Vanilla parfait, tangerine

When looking at the two desserts, this wouldn’t have been my iniital choice if I had chosen to do the three-course menu, but it was definitely the better of the two. A frozen vanilla mousse and creamy tangerine one were brought together with tangerine slices, kumquats, and milk cookie crumbles. The overall effect was that of an orange creamsicle, and I wished it was twice the size.

Banana, peanuts, dried cherries

The last dessert was a banana semifreddo with dried cherries, caramel, peanuts, and what I took as a dehydrated/freeze-dried peanut powder. The cherries had been reconstituted, but in what, I don’t know. I didn’t taste alcohol. My biggest issue with this course is was that I thought it was served in the wrong vessel. I would have preferred a bowl rather than a shallow plate, and to use a spoon instead of a wooden paddle/spoon. As the semifreddo melted it was both hard to get it off the plate with the paddle, leaving dregs to waste. Licking the plate didn’t seem like the thing to do. But I wanted to, because it did taste really good—true banana, deep cherry, the unflappable salty-sweet combo of peanuts and caramel.

Gift from the kitchen, cassis semifreddo with wildflower honey; the Bitter cocktail (strega, fernet branca, cynar, carpano antica)

A small final dessert was sent from the kitchen, re-elevating my thoughts on Contra’s desserts. The small cassis semifreddo (plated perhaps like the banana one should have been) was rich with the almost pucker-inducing acidity and sweetness of black currants. The honey only enhanced this. It was the right last note, saturating my taste buds but in a manner that didn’t weigh them down. A sad note, nonetheless, because it meant the end of a great experience.

My back was ready to go home, though. Sitting for almost three hours on a bar stool is a reason to try and reserve a table, but I think I’ve become numb now to New York’s current state of discomfort. What we endure for love.

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