Screw every Restaurant Week and for virtually the same price experience some far superior, modern, youthful cooking with heavy New Nordic elements.
Contra is an important restaurant to visit in the city because it both pushes the boundaries of New York restaurants and still manages to remain comfortably inside them. With a menu of 5 courses at $55, Contra subtly and persuasively undermines the ideals of "Restaurant Week" for culinary novices, presenting deeply thoughtful fine dining in a low-key, accessible manner, without sacrificing quality for the sake of mass reception.
For many, the restraint in the dishes will come as a surprise. Even for my first course, a carefully composed plate with thin slices of persimmon, squash, and ham, I found myself taken aback by the lack of salt or fat, almost yearning for something heavier to soak up an incredibly, almost shockingly fresh dish. Yet in the thin, silky sauce at the bottom of the plate, I started to find innovative flavors captured with seeds, oils, and vinegars, even though I did decide to use some of my bread to mop up fuller mouthfuls of the sauce. The dishes then got progressively better, with a second course of swordfish, horseradish, and treviso that was so perfectly and impressively cooked I couldn't recall having a better preparation of that particular fish. The third course of hangar steak with mushrooms and sorel was nonetheless the best of the night, with an herby green sauce that had an unexpected depth for its lightness.
The last two courses included a meyer lemon and coffee creation that seemed to be more about experimenting with modern textures than it was about balancing flavors, as the alternating notes of lemon and coffee seemed to compete rather than harmonize with each other, and a final dish simply described as "yogurt, grains, and seeds." I think I actually laughed after my second or third bite, as I uncovered a hidden mound of hazelnut and chocolate spread that made the toasted seeds and grains gently sprinkled over two textures of yogurt just sing with flavor. It was a course that perfectly encapsulated the spirit of subtle innovation that reigns here.
And yet for all of this boundary pushing, Contra is still a restaurant so suited to New York. The small, narrow, muted space tucked away on the Lower East Side would simply be inappropriate in any other city, and its sophistication, seasonality, and air of discovery reflect the truly modern New York dining scene that the chefs seem to be after. Contra is not a restaurant about hospitality or service in the slightest. It is a restaurant about food in New York City, promising and delivering on a contemporary, exciting meal.