I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a fan of sharing communal tables with strangers, straddling backless stools in bare bones dining rooms… with no reservation policies; the hipster way of dining. Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t make sacrifices over the years. After all, I love great food above all else and there have been a slurry of exciting eateries worth surrendering creature comforts for in the last decade.
Wildair falls into that category, especially right now. Shuffle inside and you won’t find much relief from the blustery cold outside. That’s because the restaurant is so tiny you can feel a draft from the door no matter you sit. Speaking of seating, all the chairs are high top stools at high tables packed tightly together. Aside from a ceiling obscurely stitched with yarn, there’s not much in the way of decor to admire, but that doesn’t seem to be the point at this Lower East Side newcomer. Modeled after European wine bars, the intention of Wildair is to focus on a great glass of wine and your plate. And there just happen to be several wonderful wine offerings by the glass, particularly in the funky natural wine and sherry department, so you’ll want Jorge Riera, the wine director, to guide you to something new and different.
Romaine Lettuces with Pistachio
Wildair is a stone’s throw away from its ambitious older sibling, Contra, with a daily changing tasting menu of supremely modern dishes. Wildair, on the other hand, offers an a la carte menu, populated with some very innovative dishes that still manage to comfort, which is no easy feat where food is concerned. Take the homemade Sourdough Bread, wondrously crusty, served with a salted and nutty olive oil that makes the trip down to the edge of the Chinatown worthwhile in and of itself. (I only wish they sold those enviable loaves to-go!) Then there’s the rich, velvety Pork Rillette (also made in-house), served with toast and cornichons, or a trio of cured meats, to nibble on while you choose between dishes, titled “Chicken, Turnips and Onion,” or “Tuna, Cabbage and Potato.”
Georgia White Shrimp
Whatever you do, start with the Beef Tartare, a dish that’s got everything going for it. The delicate, chopped meat is mingled with roast Chestnut and a genius foil of fresh horseradish for potent zip, then showered with sharp wisps of Smoked Cheddar and toasted buckwheat for needed crunch. And don’t order the Romaine Lettuces expecting a garden variety salad, because what arrives at the table is shockingly intense; Lettuce leaves peppered with a crumble of Pistachio and a thick, pungently flavored dressing made from butter & caramelized lettuce.
Salad of Roast & Raw Cauliflower
There’s a beautiful Scallop Crudo accented with crispy kale leaves, cucumber, chives and oro blanco (citrus fruit), all basking in a reduction of kale greens; a crudo rendition that easily stands apart from the rest in this fine city. And so does the Ricotta consorting with Sweet Potato, Purslane and an addictive Tahini dressing (that I’d also buy to-go!) as well as a small plate of both Roast and Raw shaved Cauliflower topped with Watercress and dosed with Onion.
Intense flavors pop up everywhere at Wildair, like in a plate of Georgia White Shrimp, stewed with celery and cilantro in a garlicky pimenton oil (cooked with the shrimp heads & shells on) to intensely briny effect. Really, the only dish I wasn’t fond of was a Fried Trio of Squid, Lemon and Spring Onion, over-battered and served with a muddy squid ink aioli that seemed to rest too much on its inky laurels for flavor.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Tart
The best part of the meal at Wildair just may be dessert, the handiwork of pastry chef, Fabian Von Hauske, who got his feet wet at Jean-Georges under Johnny Iuzzini. Don’t let the fact that there are just two desserts on the menu deter you. Order both! (You won’t be disappointed.) While I usually hate when chefs pair opposing temperatures on the same plate, there’s something about the combination of green apple granita, a killer, room temperature panna cotta and cinnamon crumble that is beyond words. Though it does have tough competition when eaten alongside the Chocolate Peanut Butter Tart, dosed with plenty of salt and served on a buckwheat shell pedestal to admirably offset some of the sweetness.
Panna Cotta with Granita
What Wildair lacks in creature comforts, it easily makes up for on the plate with really original cooking. Besides, there are convenient cubby holes under each table for menus, silverware and, of course, your phone. Wildair is easily one of my favorite, new restaurants, and I’ll like it even more come spring when the chilly draft eases up!