Smart New Yorkers whose wardrobes I admire and whose salaries I envy often ask the following irrational question: “Where should I go for Restaurant Week?”
My response is always the same: Don’t.
The twice-a-year affair, which begins on Feb. 17, uses the promise of three-course meals at lunch ($25) and dinner ($38) to lure culinary novices (and some pros) out of their Seamless delivery bag-strewn microwave caves. It all sounds well-intentioned until you realize that Restaurant Week, just like Groupon, is brought to us by the Pied Piper.
The deal means subjecting yourself to prix-fixe meals at places where better a la carte choices abound. The gambit gives an illusion of saving money, until you end up spending more -- were you really going to order three courses at lunch? It’s a false bargain that traps you into eating lousy desserts at venues where you wouldn’t have ordered them in the first place.
But you’re addicted to the concept of a sale so you keep going to Restaurant Week anyway. So be it.
And so allow me to suggest two alternatives that mimic the experience at a close enough cost. The first is Contra on the Lower East Side, where a five-course menu is $55. The second is The Bar at Aska in Williamsburg, where a three-course prix fixe runs $39. Both spots dish out some of New York’s most relevant new food at any cost. And together, they serve as a year-round counterargument to the implicit myth of Restaurant Week: That dining in New York should be treated like retail shopping, with consumers waiting around for seasonal sales to avoid paying the sticker price.
Contra, which I like to pretend is named after the violent 1980s Nintendo game, is steeped in the style of Paris’ Le Chateaubriand, a no-choice neo-bistro that sells tasting menus for 60 euros ($81), not bad for a town where shorter meals can easily cost twice as much. Jeremiah Stone, one of Contra’s two chefs, apprenticed for a short time at that French spot and has adopted a similarly lean format here in Manhattan: You sit down, review the menu to make sure there are no allergies, and then fancy food starts coming.
Lamb soup, often a musky ode to the varsity locker room, turns out to be a clean and precise start to the meal, with just enough funk to let you know what it was forged from. A mint leaf floats on top, while a soft sunchoke sits at the bottom, a brilliant pairing that mirror’s the sweetness of the sheep.
Then come the scallops, the chicken, two desserts, and you’re done. Such an affordable omakase-only format is a change of pace for New Yorkers. We’re more accustomed to submitting to the dictatorial will of the kitchen at high-end venues like Atera and Blanca, where 20-plus course dinner dates can exceed $700 after wine, tax and tip.
But the no-choice (or low-choice) way of life is a tradeoff we’ll have to get used at any price if we want eating out to remain accessible to diners (and profitable for the restaurants) in this era of rising food costs.
Don’t like what’s on the menu? Go somewhere else. Places like Contra can cut us a better deal when the chefs don’t have to worry about whether they’ll throw out eight orders of the a la carte goat testicles because no one ordered them.
Though Contra did offer buttered goat brains a few weeks back as a supplement. How did they taste? Like scrambled eggs and you might’ve mistaken them as such if they weren’t served out of the goat’s own cranial cavity. How very Indiana Jones.
Bread is extra too, at $3 for a portion that feeds three. The miniature loaf, on auspicious nights, is made from roasted buckwheat and basted in pork fat, resulting in a golden crust and an interior that’s as dense as cornmeal. It’s what a Russian oligarch might expect to eat while surrounded by evergreens in a Michelin-starred dacha.
Contra’s sleek but stripped-down environs are about on par for a restaurant located across from a flea-market-style men’s discount store. No tablecloths or flower arrangements at Contra. Just wood chairs, smooth wood tables and a proper bar for walk-ins. A cold draft wafts in each time the front door opens.
The waiter flashes a tight smile when I ask about the gin and bergamot cocktail. “Unfortunately, the bergamot isn’t local. It’s from California.” I order it anyway. Later, the waiter sits down next to another party, either to take their order Outback-style or because he’s still broken up about the bergamot.
Stone tosses a few raw scallops on a hot plate to gently heat up the mollusks, bringing out their natural sugars. It’s almost cloying until you’re hit with a brilliantly fishy high-tide tang -- the funk comes from a house-made XO sauce of dried shrimp, chili and fish sauce. You then cleanse the palate with a Normandy cider packing the righteously musty aromas of a decades-old beach house. I dig it.
Poultry -- the final savory course -- might appear as a clean breast, anointed with obscenely crispy skin and communion-like mushrooms rounds. If those flavors are too delicate, a swath of blood pudding lies on plate’s left edge. It tastes like iron and oregano and it makes the entire dish look like an abstract rendition of continental drift. On another night, fowl might come in the form of roasted guinea hen, with as much flavor as dry-aged beef and enough seaweed to qualify as MSG.
Desserts, compliments of chef and co-owner Fabian von Hauske, are light and bright. First there’s tangerine granita with popcorn mousse, then comes tangy yogurt sorbet. You leave sated, happy and confident that this is the future of fine dining in Manhattan.
Aska, in Brooklyn, is the future, too. The Nordic venue earned itself a Michelin star last year for $79 and $125 meals, which can run three to four hours. And now it’s serving a $39 three-course job at the bar. In about 60 minutes, you can be in and out.
Perhaps this is where we have to give Restaurant Week its due. The promotion is proof that in our era of long tasting menus (which are great) and small plates (where every meal is a de-facto tasting menu), the general public sometimes still just wants an appetizer, entree and dessert. It’s also proof that consumers are somewhat willing to restrict their choices in exchange for knowing precisely how much they’ll spend at dinner.
At Aska, that precise amount is just a dollar more than a Restaurant Week menu. And like at Contra, there are no choices.
A recent meal began with toasted leek soup, sporting just enough sweetness to suggest a Vidalia and yet just enough sting to remind you that it’s not. In the middle is a soft-cooked egg spilling out its wonderful yolk into the vegetable broth. It’s a rustic preparation that’s heartier and more nourishing than the pigs-blood crackers and other avant-garde eats chef Fredrik Berselius leans toward in the main dining room.
Course No. 2 might be glazed oxtail with dry-aged beef fat and purple carrots. The beef, braised into submission, boasts as much flavor as a $50 cut of ribeye. The meat’s natural gelatins provide a pleasantly sticky texture not unlike peanut butter on the roof of your mouth. It is a near perfect dish. Finish off with Swedish pancakes and milk sorbet, and there’s your $39 meal.
Yes, prices will always go up. Once upon a time, Torrisi Italian Specialties served a $50 tasting menu (it’s now $100). But for now, Contra and Aska are two of our best deals in town.
Rating: ** 1/2
(Ryan Sutton reviews restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.