There are multiple factors that generally figure into whether or not restaurants succeed or fail. And, for the most part, they have little or nothing to do with whether the eatery is actively bad, or actually very good. Such was the case with Calliope in the East Village, which, by all accounts, was quite well liked; earning high praise from the New Yorker, as well as a starred review from Pete Wells in the New York Times. And yet, it ended up closing after only two years, when the original chefs parted ways (for undisclosed reasons) with owner Eric Anderson.
Fortunately, all is not lost at the gorgeous corner space on East 4th street, which was quickly transformed into the sunny, vaguely Italian Contrada (its charming predecessor was very, very French). And while its chefs’ departure proved a nail in the coffin for Calliope, Contrada is in fine form with the talented John Paidas at the helm, who honed his skills at The Little Nell in Aspen, spent three years at the incomparable Le Bernardin, and climbed through the ranks at Charlie Bird, eventually emerging as Chef de Cuisine.
Befitting a truly neighborhood-focused place, Paidas’ locally sourced menu is both accessible and reasonably affordable, while still interesting enough to imagine wanting to eat there multiple times a week. Start with a range of small plates, such as vibrantly red rectangles of Tuna, arranged on a floral, honey-based emulsion and delectably dotted with crispy cracklings of chicken skin, or a duo of totally on trend Toasts; either topped with a seasonally appropriate combination of Saxelby ricotta, fava beans and mint, or two fat lobes of Maine Uni, who’s unctuous, under-the-sea salinity isn’t the least bit sublimated by a smear of tangy smoked yogurt.
Committed carnivores will undoubtedly be drawn to the inventive Pigs Ear Salad, tamed with bitter treviso and sweet orange, or hulking Veal Marrow Bones paved with parmesan or pecans, listed under “Salads and Such.” But as steadfast shellfish enthusiasts, we couldn’t resist the utterly tender curls of Sepia interspersed with a riot of spring vegetables, including roasted and raw breakfast radishes, fava beans and basil, anchored by a tumble of fresh greens and tossed with juicy wedges of pink grapefruit (incidentally, Paidas has a way of seamlessly and smartly integrating acid in almost all of his dishes).
As for entrees, the list is relatively short and sweet; including an always appealing Bacon Cheddar Burger accompanied by Old Bay-dusted fries, a hearty Pork “Saltimbocca” paired with prosciutto and sage, Chesapeake Rockfish sporting perfectly caramelized skin, balanced atop astringent horseradish and supple pea puree, and a daily changing vegetable option, such as Toasted Quinoa with spring vegetables and Tuscan oil. There are only three desserts to close out your meal, but they’re Paidas’ own; paying sweet homage to his Italian heritage. There’s Ricotta Cake topped with stewed dried fruit and mint, Affogato finished with mascarpone and a pistachio rim, as well as — his most personal addition — a “hand-folded,” rosemary-flecked Semifreddo; created when the revamped kitchen at Contrada didn’t have so much as a rubber spatula in it, and strewn with his Grandma Angie’s scrumptious “Pizze Frite;” sugary fried dough pillows akin to bite-sized zeppole.
As Calliope illustrated, success in New York’s highly fickle restaurant industry is certainly never promised. But hopefully, in the case of its delightful reboot, Contrada, being good will actually prove good enough.