February 29, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Wildair: Tuning Up the Classics

Paying for bread makes me cranky, but if any loaf is worth $4, Wildair’s is.
Paying for bread makes me cranky, but if any loaf is worth $4, Wildair’s is.

          I meant to get to Wildair months ago. It started out as a modest little wine bar two doors away from the duo spinning the impressive tasting menu at Contra. “Good is often good,” I’d written in my Contra rave. “Glorious is not that often.” (Click here to read my Contra review.)

Fans of Wildair’s creative layerings and revised wine bar classics crown the small space.

          Wildair quickly found its buzz. But I was discouraged by the edict, “Walk-Ins Only.” A Wildair fan told me I might be unhappy perched on a tall steel chair at an elevated school desk. Factored into my reluctance was an $80 round trip from my Upper West Side nest (or two subway transfers). Meanwhile, tributes mounted for Wildair as a mecca of low-key ambiance and creative strut from the two Orchard Street stars I admire, Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske. It landed on important ten-best lists.   

Creamy pork rillettes with spices and cornichons sits under an ooze of fat in a canning jar.

          Finally, I’m here with a trio of friends, piling elegantly spiced pork rillettes on olive-oil-smeared crisps of baguette. The brick-lined storefront, packed, faces an open kitchen. Forty scholar stools, every seat taken. Youngish couples leaning in to speak above the din. I drape my winter layers over the iron and oak seat back and climb up. Swivel into place. Okay. Not bad. I reject the house Negroni for the classic because I want to taste the Campari. The fragrant pork paste comes in a canning jar under a layer of spun fat with a crown of tangy cornichons. 

At the next table, so very close: He doesn’t just hold her hand. He holds her arm.

          I can’t resist a smirk when our waitress tells us that the dishes we’ve ordered will arrive willy-nilly as the kitchen does them. How often do I hear that these days? “For the chefs’ convenience rather than ours,” I mutter. The man on my right, a chef, nods. He can’t get over the fact that his $20 bottle of Lorette Blonde, the one beer on the menu, is more than a quart. 

I never fell for radishes with French butter, and I’m not moved here by seaweed butter.

          “Don’t order our main course until we’re ready for it,” I instruct the server. Ever calm and agreeable, in a hectic setting with our demanding crew, she promises. My friends Penny and Peter usually mellow into the evening with Tito’s gin on the rocks. Tonight they’ve settled on rosé with ice cubes. Peter has asked if the music can be turned down and is soothed when the answer is yes.

          Suddenly, a brace of bussers arrives. The table is instantly covered. I instruct them to stop bringing dishes. “Stop, stop. That’s enough.” I’m being a pain in the ass, I suppose, but I feel smothered. I consider just the brilliance of the persimmon still life alone. I want time to savor.

A modest way to start the seduction: You could find these sausages at any wine bar.

          We’re starting with a trio of sausages -- spicy soppressata, chorizo and saucisson sec -- classic wine bar options. Radishes with butter -- in this case, with soft seaweed butter and sprinkled seaweed powder -- are the reimagining. Should the tour de force have to be better than radishes with sweet French butter? Or just different?

Taste as complex as the colors in this astonishing riff on persimmon.

          No argument about the crusty warm bread. I’m opposed to paying for bread, but it’s just $4. Like von Hauske’s lard-painted rounds at Contra, it is seriously seductive, scarcely needing a dip into the greenish olive oil offered alongside. The bright golden toss of butternut squash, with radicchio, nasturtium leaves and burrata splashed with persimmon, does indeed stand out -- startling Technicolor, dazzling taste.

Gem lettuce doesn’t really need so much fussy stuffing; but, then again, why not?

          I signal our server it’s a go for more plates. I’m not sorry I didn’t order the tallow-roasted beets with kumquats. I’m out six nights a week and someone always orders the beets. There’s always an octopus fan at my table, too, but tonight, what daring! No octopus on the menu. I do regret overlooking the Georgia white shrimp. I assume that’s the southern Georgia and not the Slavic enclave. Next time, maybe.

Kohlrabi ribbons are swirled lie pasta over bass crudo with pineapple in a ’nduja vinaigrette.

          Little gem lettuces layered with a melt of caramelized lettuce and pistachio butter and sprinkled with chopped pistachios and herbs could be the fantasy of someone who loves gem lettuce as much as I do. Wide ribbons of kohlrabi are swirled pasta-like over bass crudo with pineapple in a nduja vinaigrette. A tangle of greenery hides sweet potato salad dressed in herbed tahini with ricotta and puffed rice.

A hedge of greenery hides layered sweet potato salad with tahini, ricotta and puffed rice.

          So many explosions of flavor and textural surprises are exhilarating. The beef tartare looking like beef tartare gives me time to catch my breath. It proves to be another wine bar familiar in what only looks like unassuming dress. Pimentón, pickled shallots and flurries of grated raw chestnuts, grated raw horseradish and grated smoked cheddar add a tangle of excitement to the moist bits of meat.

Darphin! Wondrously crunchy potato cake. The fat uni on top is the unlikely crown.

          There’s a pause as the kitchen fires what I designate as “our entrees.” The tiny menu does not call anything anything. It just lists 18 items, from $4 for that bread to $85 for a Wagyu steak for two. I’m a big uni fan, and these plump creatures tonight, from Maine, crouch seductively on the cosmic crunch of potato dauphinoise that scarcely needs any accessories. Although a bit too much salt overwhelms the dish.

Beef tartare with grated horseradish, grated chestnut and grated smoked cheddar is a must.

          I find too much salt, as well, on otherwise quite wonderful pockets of fried squid with spring onion, lemon and basil -- cleverly unlike any fried squid I’ve ever encountered. I taste salt first in the batter of the pork Milanese, also. That comes with a classically rich sauce gribiche and a side of red mustard greens so over-salted, one leaf is enough for me. Maybe it’s just a salty night. Still, I know that chefs love salt and most Americans love salt. I know I do. (I love salt. I don’t love too much salt.) Perhaps no one else will complain. 

An unusual, light coating of potato flour mixed with masa wraps large curls of squid.

          There’s a dash of salt in both desserts too -- the chocolate peanut tart and the panna cotta with tangerine granita and milk crumble. But that delicate touch, subtly discernible, adds to a felicitous finale.

You can see the light crunch of Malden salt atop the chocolate, peanut tart.

          I hope to be back in late spring when the market changes, preferably in a friend’s car, by helicopter, on a drone, or flown in by Superman. Hopefully, you and your knees are still flexible enough to give yourself an evening of bistro enchantment here. If “Walk-Ins Only” discourages you too, perhaps engaging the chef over a tasting at Contra one evening might lead to a corner at Wildair being reserved for you. I’m not promising, but can anyone resist your charm?

Panna cotta with tangerine granite and milk crumble is lightly salted, too.

142 Orchard Street between Rivington and Delancey streets. 646 964 5624. Tuesday to Thursday 6 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 6 to 11:30 pm.



Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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