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Another Rebellious Fine Dining Spot Closes in NYC
On the importance of Contra, plus reviews of Roscioli, Aphoric, Poltergeist, and elsewhere
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The Loss of Contra
While folks like me were writing about the closure of Momofuku Ko the other week — and the dismantling of David Chang’s once great restaurant empire — another accessible fine dining establishment was winding down as well.
Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske Valtierra’s Contra served its final meal on October 28. The duo announced the closure a month earlier.
The rise of Contra in the 2010s was a boon for modern, French-y, edgy dining in New York — in ways that sometimes evoked the history of Ko.
The Lower East Side spot, known for dishes like maple-topped tofu with caviar and tangerine granita with popcorn mousse, began as a $55 prix fixe in 2013. Prices gradually rose, as did the course count — there was an extended $180 menu in the final year — though like Ko, Contra also maintained affordable a la carte options at the bar.
But one of the most important and unique legacies of Contra was its early guest chef program, where big-name folks from Septime, Maaemo, In de Wulf, and Chateaubriand would show up to serve fairly priced tasting menus. That was no small matter for me, or for anyone else who couldn’t afford to fly to Paris, Oslo, or Belgium to gain a bit of empirical culinary knowledge.
Unlike with visual art (which you can view online) or music (which you can stream), “with food you actually have to be there. You can’t eat via the Internet,” I wrote in my Contra review for Eater. I went on:
Perhaps these realities don’t register to full-time Instagrammers who crisscross the globe and eat still-beating reindeer heart every September at Fäviken, but for a knowledge-hungry cook earning $29K a year, a freelance food writer who doesn’t want to ask for a media rate, or an everyday eater who wants to expand her horizons, Contra’s guest chef dinners (and everyday dinners) are an essential alternative, a way to make an elitist playing field just a hint more democratic, a sign that it doesn't have to be tasting menus for the well-heeled and a la carte for everyone else. Think of Contra, with its brick walls, bare tabletops, and walk-in friendly ethos for prix fixe affairs, as culinary community theater, except with the actual pros at the helm.
Contra didn’t employ guest chefs for super-expensive, ego-packed affairs, or as a perk for Platinum Card holders. These events were about ensuring that more people could experience this edible art form from around the world.
The good news is that we’re still lucky to have a deep bench of sub-$110 tasting menus in the city, as part of our growing neobistro scene. And I feel in my bones that Stone and von Hauske Valtierra will do some cool stuff with Contra when they revamp it into a cocktail bar. But whenever you think about the (major) influence that Ko had on accessible haute gastronomy in New York, remember that Contra did some really heavy lifting on this front too — without a massive Momofuku budget.
For now, the chefs still run the excellent Wildair.
I spent a week in Oakland and San Francisco this March, visiting friends and cycling around the Berkeley hills. I ate extraordinarily well (really good Colombian at Parche!), but I somehow missed the newly opened Aphotic, chef Peter Hemsley’s serious seafood spot that specializes in dry-aged fish. The SoMa venue serves a $165 tasting with dishes like abalone with swordfish bacon and prawn risotto with uni. But honestly, critic Cesar Hernandez’s Halloween-like description of the space is making me quite hungry by itself:
I was captivated and haunted by the visual of glowing, spindly fish skeletons hanging over a hearth flame when I first sat down at San Francisco’s Aphotic. Lined in a row, the fish carcasses’ mouths were agape, with a hook through the center, and engulfed by smoke as if they were swimming upstream.
This ghoulish scene set the tone for the restaurant’s dark abyss-like setting, and it wouldn’t be the last I saw of the skeletons.
It’s a fact of life that recipes don’t spend too much time on the aftermath of a dinner party, on the doing of dishes — just as Netflix chef documentaries tend not to show armies of underpaid cooks scrubbing down every inch of a kitchen after service. So kudos to Marian Bull for finding beauty in this more mundane aspect of the culinary process — while also tipping her hat to others who’ve written about cleaning, including Kristen Miglore in “Simply Genius” and Dan Pelosi in “Let’s Eat.”
A short selection to whet your…hands for dishwashing:
The end point of cooking is not eating; it is cleaning…Sometimes—and I’ve come to dislike this, though I know I’ve done it in the past—a recipe will end with a one-word instructive sentence: “Eat.” They almost never end with phrases like Eat, and then when you’re done, store the rice separate from the soup, or else it will become a big brothless glump. Or, Be sure to soak plates immediately, else you’ll be scrubbing against gnarly pools of congealed yolk. It’s obvious why recipes omit this bit: it would make them too depressing. People read recipes for inspiration and reassurance, not for a glaring reminder of chores.
If the Italian American Torrisi was the city’s most high profile new pasta spot of 2022, Roscioli, a big deal Roman import, surely qualifies for that same unofficial honor this year. I’ve not been yet, but Helen Rosner of The New Yorker has, and while she enjoys the rich carbonara and buttery cacio e pepe, I’m most fond of the kicker graph, as wonderfully breezy as an Aperol spritz.
Here are the last few lines of that kicker:
Dishes like lamb tartare, with crispy fried capers and an earthy artichoke aioli, or fried baccalà (fresh cod), over a swirl of ultra-floral red-pepper cream, have the easy, sexy lightness of an unplanned meal eaten late: lunch at four, or dinner at eleven, too many glasses of wine, a taxi home. Is it just like being in Rome? I couldn’t tell you. But it’s absolutely just like being in New York.
If you’ve paid any attention to the growth of New York’s Modern Korean restaurant scene, you’ve probably come across the name Hand Hospitality more than a few times. But this Eater story is about someone who’s been at it a bit longer. This is about Younghwan Kim, who has been “cementing Murray Hill as the heart of Koreatown in Queens” since 2000. Click through for Caroline Shin’s full story on Eater NY, which includes detailed notes on how the city’s sizable Korean American community has evolved over the decades.
If you’ve seen Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs,” the Wall Street Journal’s “Off Duty,” section, or Chrissy Teigen’s “Cravings,” chances are, you’ve seen the gorgeous work of Aubrie Pick, a West Coast food and lifestyle photographer who died last week.
I didn’t know Pick. But many of my peers did. “She treated her crew with respect and understanding; the least senior person was as important to her as the those at the top of the ladder,” cookbook author Adeena Sussman wrote on Instagram. Andrea Nguyen also posted a loving tribute to Pick on her “Pass the Fish Sauce” Substack.
I hope you read Nguyen’s post in full, but here are a few quick lines:
What is special about Aubrie Pick? She is calm, cool, curious, and smart. She allows her subject(s) to easily radiate their inner force via her lens. It’s difficult for me to talk about Aubrie’s work in the past tense because it still lives…Aubrie also thoroughly read manuscripts before a shoot. That’s not always the case with photographers.
Poltergeist in Los Angeles’s Echo Lake is not a…normal restaurant. It’s located in a video game arcade. That means a soundtrack of synthesized beeps, rings, and blasts accompany your dinner. But what’s more unusual are the freeform culinary creations by chef Estrano Diego Argoti. Here’s one of the more approachable dishes, as described by Los Angeles Times critic Bill Addison in mid-October:
Most everyone finds the same way into Argoti’s domain: via the Thai Caesar salad. He saturates frisée in an emulsified dressing that blares with lemongrass. The scent of lime leaves reinforces the herbal brightness. But familiar Caesar ingredients also ring through: anchovy, lots of garlic, mustard, Parmesan. Bites are intense and urgently delicious, on the edge of over-salted without tipping over.
As for croutons? They’ve been reimagined as sheets of fried rice paper, sprinkled with powdered parsley and blue fenugreek and stacked around the salad’s bowl. They look like 2-D renderings of Southern Californian mountains after sudden rains. They crumble easily into shards that crackle and then dissolve on the tongue.
P.S. do yourself a favor and scroll through the artsy Poltergeist website for a few seconds.
Also be sure to check out Robert Sietsema on Swadist, “the place to be” in Jersey City’s India Square; Matthew Schneier on Sailor, a tough table in Fort Greene by April Bloomfield and Gabe Stulman; and Vittles on the soupe de pêcheur at Sikatiô.
That’s it. See you right here, probably sooner than you think.
p.s. Shortly before I published this column, I noticed that my ex-colleague Khushbu Shah has an eating and traveling Substack!!!! It’s called “Tap Is Fine.” Check it out.
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