Here’s a revolution in dining: At Contra, Jeremiah Stone and Fabian van Hauske’s new restaurant, waiters don’t come over to ask what you’ll be having.
They tell you what you’ll be having.
The premise is so simple that it’s actually controversial: The menu offers just a single prix fixe meal — and it changes daily, depending on the day’s best ingredients, which are typically sourced from Union Square Market.
Your “burden” of choice has been lifted. You show up and go with this kitchen’s flow. The customer-is-never-right approach isn’t deterring the crowd of young, knowing diners who continuously fill the long, spare room.
The daily set menu is a mere 15 words. Five dishes, each described in just three words. Fifty-five bucks, all in.
Chicken, salsify and peas are one of the prix-fixe specials.
Well, sort of. On a recent night, the waiter did mention a “special” beef tartare — worth every penny at $ 15. Also on the menu is bread to swab the plate — at $ 3, it’s not worth it. Add a couple of glasses of wine from the thoughtful and continually evolving list, and you have strayed well into Ben Franklin territory.
On a recent visit, we scored a plank of seared monkfish tossed with a glistening verjus glaze and crisp cabbage stems. It was offbeat, but ingenious enough to compensate for the undercooked and underseasoned squid and red-onion concoction that surrounded it.
The thrill of a virtually new menu each night has a real-world tradeoff: The kitchen can rarely master a dish before moving on to its next creation. It’s exciting to see what two cutting-edge veterans can dream up, but the risk of a clunker is omnipresent. The good news is that Contra delivers far more hits than misses.
Succulent slow-roasted chicken breast gets an austere accompaniment of single, buttered salsify stalk, English peas and a crayon-green slick of a buttery, tarragon-rich herb sauce. Its flavors are stark, bold and compelling and I wished for more.
Equally persuasive, that special steak tartare is an umami bomb of sirloin spiked with black radish, tiny crystals of shrimp powder and a drizzle of walnut oil. It could use a bit of acid for balance, but its intensity gave this carnivore deep pleasure.
Desserts don’t live up to their ambition. A deconstructed Apple Brown Betty looks as if a tiny dump truck had scattered a jigsaw puzzle of tasty pieces — deliciously bright apple granita, caramel bits and a seriously clever, dehydrated oat mousse — into a messy jumble in the center of the plate. Each spoonful captured some of the elements, but never all. I kept searching for that “perfect” bite, but it eluded me.
A striking parfait of luscious hazelnut and chocolate ganache topped with an orb of tart yogurt sorbet was actually a bigger miss, thanks to the inexplicable inclusion of beets. A lurid puddle of beet sauce and “scales” of dehydrated beet chips created a spectacle for the eyes, but utter confusion for the tongue.
No question, a meal at Contra is a roller coaster ride with some serious highs — and the occasional stomach-churning dip.
Monkfish, cabbage and seaweed at Contra
138 Orchard St., Manhattan
Hours: Open for dinner at 6 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Phone: (212) 466-4633
Reservations: Recommended, up to two weeks in advance
Don’t miss: Well, you don’t get a choice, but the best dishes were “monkfish, cabbage, seaweed”; “chicken, salsify, peas”; and beef tartare ($ 15 supplement).
Pass on: Well, you don’t get a choice, but the less-
successful dishes were “squid, potato, onion”; and a dessert called “beets, hazelnut, yogurt.”