I first met Jeremiah Stone back in September at a pig roast in Williamsburg. Night had fallen and I was devouring a chorizo caramel ice cream from OddFellows with friends when Michelle introduced us to her friend, Jeremy, who was opening up a restaurant called Contra in early October on the LES.
He was amped about the progress; with 2 weeks left before opening, the decor and furniture were installed and the 5-course, $55 prix-fixe menu of New American cuisine were in the final stages of development.
Last week, Michelle called in a reservation for what turned out to be an enjoyable experience for our group. The five of us sat comfortably at 2 veneered wooden tables near the bar. By the time we ordered the extra bread and cheese course, the restaurant was humming along, filled with eager patrons.
The server told us about the two specials of the evening, raw diver scallops ($10) and a 35 day dry-aged steak ($100). Upon hearing the word “steak”, Frank declared, “let's YOLO this bitch” to which we planted our face in our palms and shook our heads. The ladies ordered the supplemental scallops while the men decided to split the steak.
The bread came out first - a gorgeous buckwheat sourdough brushed with bacon fat and served with goat milk butter. The bread had a hard crusty exterior that gave way to a soft sourdough interior.
The delectable combination of bacon fat flavor and creamy goat milk butter made us hungry for our first course, a Japanese sweet potato with roasted kabocha, walnut milk, and chrysanthemum essence. The pickled onion slices provided crunch and slight acidity to cut through the chalky texture of the sweet potato and pumpkin.
Next, came the first special of the night, raw diver scallops with jujubees (tart apple taste) and green tomatoes with sprinkled sesame. The scallops themselves were very fresh with a velvety- smooth texture. Green tomatoes and apples added a similar crunch and acidity as the previous dish. For me, the scallops could have used a pinch of salt. Also, there was subtle inconsistency between our dishes - Sharon's sauce was sour and Michelle’s sauce was on the sweeter side.
What followed after was a weakfish from Rhode island, fish emulsion, served with a side of cabbage, sliced pickled radish and crunchy snow peas. Unbelievably juicy and tender with perfectly crisped skin. Definitely better than the black cod at Jungsik.
Sharon really liked the next dish - Chicken with chicory, corn, husk cherries. The smattering of dill flowers was not for garnish sake, but to enhance the dish with pops of intense dill flavor that echoed of anise and licorice. The meat and skin were perfectly cooked and ranks up there with the chicken of NoMad and Zuni Cafe.
After a brief respite, which consisted of us patting our food babies, the 20 oz, 35 day dry-aged, medium-rare steak from Stone Creek Farms in TX appeared on our table. The flavors of the red amarnth, tomatillos, frostberries, and soy reduction hit the sweet, sour, and savory notes. The cook on the steak could have been longer as it was a bit too rare for my preference. The crust on the steak was not like Minetta’s. It was soft and wet, almost as if it was cooked too long in its own juices. What didn’t help was my mistake of slicing with the grain so each bite took 45 seconds to chew. Going forward, I will slice against the grain for all steaks; lesson learned.
A delicious Vermont cheese and pickled pear course followed that helped cleanse the palate for the upcoming dessert, a chamomile parfait in chamomile tea with fresh pickled grapes made into raisins.
At this point, most of the tables were clearing out which allowed Jeremy to come out and extend a personal welcome to our table. Positive word of mouth has brought a steady stream of traffic which means 9am-12am days. Until they find a manager, Jeremy is juggling front of the house duties such as taking reservations over the phone and kitchen duties such as cooking the dishes alongside his partner Fabian von Hauske, a young and talented chef with a specialty with desserts.
Before running back to the kitchen to finish the last few tables, he provided us glasses of a delicious Rosé, which tasted like sweet grape juice. Delicious.
The final course was a dessert crafted by Fabian, a young and talented pastry chef. Hazelnut puree, yogurt sorbet, dried beet chips and beet puree. What a creative way in using beets two ways. After dessert, Danny Bowien dropped by to regale the Contra crew with stories of the lively NIN concert at Barclays last week.
After the conclusion of the meal, Jeremy walked us outside with both exhaustion and happiness etched on his face. He mentioned that the menu changes multiple times a week depending on what is available at Union Square Greenmarket. Often, he won’t know what will go on the menu until that morning.
Inspiration strikes him in different ways; catching a glimpse of a vegetable at the greenmarket and pairing it purposefully with a protein in mind, or simply observing two random ingredients lying next to each other in adjacent stalls and finding a way to make them coexist on a plate without fuss and extraneous elements.
Jessica asked him point blank, “Isn’t it scary? Not knowing what you will cook or serve every day of the week?”
Jeremy just smiled.
This thrill in the known and unknown has creatively manifested itself on Contra’s menu and I’m looking forward to a return visit.