Restaurant Review: Contra on the Lower East Side – The New York Times

And I won’t forget Contra’s pairing of chicken breast with pickled daikon, toasted sesame seeds and blood sausage. The sausage had been transformed into a swipe of soft, tangy, beet-red paste, dotted with marjoram leaves and tart nubs of dried raspberries. It all came together in a way so unexpected and right that I had to shake my head.

New dishes roll onto the tasting menu every few days, and old ones are subject to restless tinkering. (Old, at Contra, means anything that was invented before today.) The first time I ate monkfish there, a mash of raw walnuts and garlic in miso was trying out for the role that was later played, with more depth, by the onion jam. And I liked watching the evolution of a raw scallop dish outfitted with noodle-like ribbons of raw kohlrabi. As wide as seatbelts the first time, they had slimmed down and looked more like fettuccine the next. On the other hand, the dried raspberries had gone from the blood-sausage swoosh the second time I saw the monkfish. I missed them a little.

You get the luck of the draw at restaurants that offer only tasting menus, but the format suits Contra’s food unusually well. The flavors are subtle, and on first encounter it’s a bit like walking out of the daylight and into a candlelit room: you need to adjust. Five courses is enough time to open your eyes (you may get more time than you need on nights when the pace drags).

Another advantage of the tasting menu becomes clear when you are served dessert, followed by a second dessert. As you may have guessed, Mr. von Hauske is judicious with sugar and quite comfortable with vegetables. I liked a beets-and-yogurt number more than I did a creamed gianduja studded with tough sunchoke chips that put up more of a fight than I could face at the end of the night.

But at least I knew everybody else would be crunching along with me, and I’d already smiled my way through a less-antagonistic dessert, a kind of rebuilt apple crisp, with an oat crumble and whipped oat-infused custard around a cider-like apple granita. This dessert was pure fun and charm, like Mr. von Hauske’s partnering of tangerine granita with a smooth popcorn-infused mousse and smashed bits of caramel popcorn.

Linda Milagros Violago, who stocked the cellars at Mugaritz in Spain and Geranium in Denmark, has put together a list of bottles from the kind of small winemakers who think of themselves as farmers and avoid modern tricks. The results aren’t always what you’d predict; a French cider, she said, had a note of blue cheese, and it did. The list almost forces you to try something unfamiliar, which feels just right for this restaurant.

I hope Mr. Stone and Mr. von Hauske achieve all their goals except the one about creating a shared New York style. The crazy riot of voices chattering in hundreds of accents is the whole point of this crazy, riotous city they have adopted. We don’t need other chefs imitating Contra’s style. We’ve got the original now.