Contra originally opened in 2013 with a $55 five-course set menu. In both price and temperament, the Lower East Side restaurant’s experience went against the grain of typical fine dining. Like what punk rock did to disco in the ’70s, but in this case, with a rotating menu of seasonal, experimental dishes. On any given night, you might have come face to face with monkfish roasted on the bone, or a dessert that looked like a fistful of sand and tasted like pie.
Fast forward to 2021 when, after nearly a year of relying on takeout meal kits, Contra reopened. The restaurant still looks like a goth minimalist den, flooded with low lighting and wine that’s cooler than you are. But this time with an a la carte menu and more freedom for diners.
Your meal at Contra might appear to have a lot going on (such as mirin reduction, puffed grains, and vinaigrette made from spruce) but each dish eats like it’s been tweaked and paired back by a harsh copy editor. You could meet a skate wing with zingy curried cherries on top, or a dry-aged striploin slathered in rhubarb mole. Or mussels bathing in juice extracted from grilled asparagus. It’s your choice whether or not to opt for any of these dishes, or all of them. Know that nothing on the menu costs more than $30, with portion sizes ranging somewhere between a few bites and a full entree.
Whatever you order, Contra’s food will be cooked so expertly that your knife will sit dormant next to your plate the whole night, probably sad not to be invited to the party. A boudin noir, for example, cuts like butter. The blood sausage is flavored by ume vinegar and shiso, and topped with a wine-soaked onion that makes the whole thing taste like chopped liver and onions dressed up to go clubbing. We’ll probably forget most of our meal at Contra a decade from now - but not this dish. If it were a permanent fixture on the menu, we’d occasionally return alone and order nothing but onion-y boudin noir and a glass of wine from the Loire Valley that prompted us to wonder if dirt and plums might actually be delicious together.
Contra’s 2021 reopening, in some ways, makes us think back to when New Yorkers first got to know the restaurant. As was the case in 2013, you still don’t need to spend more than $55 to have an excellent meal here - but this time you can choose exactly how you want to do it. Does that mean that tasting menus are going extinct? Probably not. But for all those who don’t want to be told what to do (a punk rock notion in its own right) or how much money to spend, it could be exactly what you want from an exciting night out.
The menu at Contra changes almost daily, but take a look at the Food Rundown to get a sense of what you might find.
There are two miracles at play with these oysters. One is the cold broth that reminded us of crisp nori in liquid form. And the other is the enduring crunchiness of the puffed brown rice, despite everything suggesting they’d quickly sog. After we delicately spooned out these oysters, we had no choice but to pick up the bowl and slurp the leftovers.
The only dish of our dinner we’d advocate for you to skip. The salty caviar and slightly sweet maple mirin reduction works well for the first four or so bites. But there’s so much tofu in the bowl that you’ll end up running out of toppings, and just be left with barren, silky tofu. It’s a portion issue.
When was the last time you had rhubarb mole? Oh, never? That’s cool. If you like the idea of sourness and bitterness hugging it out in the presence of mostly-raw, dry-aged steak, you’ll love this sesame-sprinkled dish.
We had skate wing at a different restaurant in the neighborhood not too long before eating this. And it wasn’t until we met Contra’s version that we realized how overcooked the skate wings of meals past have been. The curried sour cherries take it over the edge.
Between the sweet, wine-soaked onion on top and iron-y blood sausage that cuts like butter, this dish somehow takes on the quality of immaculate chopped liver and onions. Even though it’s made of pork, we thought of our Jewish grandfather when we ate it. Not in a haunted grandpa ghost way, but as a love letter to peasant food, like onions, blood, and organs.
Contra always serves two desserts that look like something an abstract expressionist made in an ice cream shop. One of them will probably be fruity and creamy, and the other might be nutty (featuring hazelnuts if you’re lucky). We can’t say for sure what they’ll be when you’re there - but we know that you’re going to want both.
Don’t get us wrong - Contra is still an exciting place to have a tasting menu experience. If you’re coming with another person and you’re down to share, we recommend ordering the entire menu. Each of the five courses is served with two dishes in tandem, usually complimenting each other’s flavors. You’ll be full by the time you walk out of the restaurant, but not so full that you need to apologize to your small intestine.