Casual, inventive, small plates from two talented, young chefs in a space that blurs the distinction between restaurant and wine bar.
In March of this year, I wrote about Contra, the first, tasting-menu-only restaurant by the young, boundary-pushing duo of Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske. I called it a sophisticated, subtly innovative restaurant so well suited to a youthful New York culinary scene, and though the price of 5-courses has since moved from $55 up to $67 this season, the ambition and the sensibility behind the restaurant is still there.
In June, the pair then opened Wildair, a slightly more casual space, offering an à la carte dinner menu just a couple doors down on a quietly gritty stretch of Orchard Street. And as is true of a great oeuvre in a great discipline, both restaurants are made better by the other’s existence.
Where Contra is disciplined and restrained, the no-reservations Wildair is brave and informal. The chefs seem to have relaxed their cooking and now apply salt, fat, and spice with a more freewheeling hand, and it is for the benefit of all. The tender morsels of beef tartare were made rich from ethereal ribbons of smoked cheddar and chesnut, and then quickly made spicy by just the right hit of horseradish. With crispy barley scattered on top, it is a dish made by chefs with an almost unparalleled intuition for what is perfectly fresh, natural, and seasonal, and yet the depth of flavor is more profound than imaginable.
The spicy tuna on toast topped with tomatoes of an identical hue is slightly less successful, with the briny scallion that tastes of seaweed too strong a flavor to sit next to the delicate fish. It is, however, just a rare unfortunate incident when one novel, conceptual flavor wins out at the expense of others.
Yet in the whole Georgia white shrimp, served heads-on with celery and cilantro, adventure and experimentation return, and bold, oily, spicy flavors zing around the palette. The plate feels like an evolution of the chefs’ more emphatically New Nordic inspiration taken at Contra, presenting a meal here of whole, scavenged ingredients treated with a breathless, expressive energy.
As at Contra, Chef von Hauske’s "bread and butter service" is still exceptional, most recently presenting a gloriously dense and chewy roll with a crackling crust. However, the dish that possibly best represents Wildair is the fried squid. Here, the chefs have lightly fried in what is ultimately an airy skin both tender bites of squid and barely preserved slices of lemon. After a surprising bite of the fried lemon, the acidity and bittersweetness linger, and the next bite of squid, dipped in a rich, dark aioli stained with ink, becomes even brighter and more deliciously energetic. The dish in its entirety embodies the earnest, experimental approach at Wildair, where culinary norms are upended with gentle, contemporary moves.
The space itself has also been designed with a neutral attitude on what form the experience of going out to dinner should take. The narrow, 45-seat space is divided into two long rows of bar-height tables with four additional seats on a counter facing directly into the open kitchen, and the long, modern, heavily French wine list offers many the option of just enjoying a drink while perhaps nibbling on a small snack from the menu. Others will be squeezing 5 or 6 larger dishes onto their table, eagerly making a full dinner last for 2 hours. It is almost as if the restaurant wants to scream that it is "For the People!", whoever they might be.
The chefs are young and they are exceedingly talented, and thus the food is focused and energetic, the restaurant honest and transparent in turn. Indeed, Wildair is a great work in a great discipline, a great addition to dining in the Lower East Side, a great addition to the young, modern New York we know.