In spite of my plan-ahead shortcomings, I had managed to get a table at Contra for Mende and I on a Saturday night. In 2017 Contra joined the exclusive crowd of 1 Michelin star restaurants in NYC, but even before the stardom, I’ve been curious about the restaurant.
The reservation was at 9:15, so it left us with plenty of time for pre-dinner drinks at The Ten Bells nearby. Mende was subway late, so I got a head start on the rosé, but she managed to catch up, before it was time to proceed over to Orchard Street for the much anticipated tasting menu.
The first dish was a beautiful burrata composition with rhubarb and wood sorrels to counterbalance the creamy fattiness of the cheese. The following dish was sliced scallops layered with sliced turnips, and the two looked so similar that you wouldn’t know whether the pearly white slice would be crunchy or smooth, before you chewed on it. Extra crunch was added from what looked like bread crumbs, but what was probably something fancy, though I’m not sure what it was.
The halibut was perfectly cooked, as you would expect it to be and the chanterelles and blueberries (which appeared to be green), were delicious companions.
“Beef, Chamomile and Fava” it said in the menu, and I started imagining one strange constellation after another, but the real-life version turned out to be both prettier and tastier than what my mind had come up with. Hidden behind half an English garden was a nice slice of tenderloin, more rare than medium, which is just how I like it. The chamomile & beef combo was interesting, but I’m still debating with myself whether I actually liked the mild herbal flavor with the meat.
Regarding the drinks, we started out with cocktails and intentions to continue with red wine. Though with drinks the size of a fishbowl and too much to talk about, our glasses were still half-full as we were finishing our mains. We therefore skipped straight to dessert wine and had an interesting Moscato recommended by the staff.
We had two desserts: A yogurt-based red-and-white one, which was tart and tasted healthy, and an almond/coffee one with the sweet kick we had been waiting for. I could easily have eaten 10 of those. As we got ready to leave, I was full and Mende was full, but I suspect that if I had been dining with Poul instead, it might have been one of those evenings, which would have required a pizza pit stop on our way back.
On their website Contra says their menu is Contemporary New York Cuisine, but I couldn’t help noticing that most of the food we had that evening also had a very distinct Nordic touch. I’m not sure exactly what triggered that feeling, but I think it was the subtleness of the flavors, probing you to ask yourself “what did this actually taste of” after every bite, as if none of them dared to take up too much space. And then of course the emphasis on plants and herbs. At some point I even said to Mende that Contra “tasted like Noma”. After our dinner, we met one of the staff members outside, and I asked her about any Nordic connections. Turned out that one of the chefs behind Contra used to work for Noma:)
The tasting menu used to be only $55, but that was pre-Michelin star, and we paid $74 for the 5-course tasting menu. Still very reasonable for a tasting menu of this caliber. If we had wanted the wine pairing, it would have been an additional $60 and a cheese add-on was available for $10.