by Maria Cristina Spairani
Contraste is like a small theater, where diners become the protagonists of the play. It requires a sense of participation, and if indeed you allow yourself to join in, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Routine can be mind-numbing, and as we move through life, we often lose the capability to daydream. We try to relax and unwind, to see and smell and touch the world around us as if for the first time. Strange as it can seem, everything suddenly feels more natural, as if we are seeing the world anew through a fresh pair of eyes. Our senses take on new movements, in a sort of symphony for the mind or a ballet for the soul. Familiar flavors may appear before us, aromas we know, but they take on a form we have never seen before.
To enter the world of Contraste is to expel any expectation of the usual formalities of a standard restaurant experience and relinquish oneself to creativity, imagination and passion. It is to let go of the security and mundanity of life, which often keep us from viewing the world as we may have when we were younger, as magical and dreamlike.
Inside an old apartment on Via Meda, on a residential street near the Navigli neighborhood of Milan, a friendly voice beckons my companion and I to enter through the dark foyer, and from here we are catapulted into a fantastic world. The essence of "La Montagnetta" from 1900 imbues itself in the floor, frescoes and sculptures. The layered history of the apartment, once occupied by a doctor, can even be sensed. From here, the scene begins to unfold at our table.
To fully intake the experience, one must allow the mind to drift upwards into the clouds and, quite literally, there is a cloud on our table. It is clear that here, each piece of the presentation, down to the smallest detail, has been given proper attention, transporting guests beyond the expectations of an everyday restaurant experience. Inside the menu, alongside fixed multi-course options, a mirror sits in place of a traditional menu for the longest tasting menu option. Clearly, this dining experience is meant to be the customer’s own story, if they dare trust it. The goal of Contraste is to amaze and astonish, not to meet your expectations, but to bring you an experience you could not anticipate.
When we sit down to eat, our natural inclination is to scan the menu in search of trying to find something we want to eat. Often we are accustomed to deciding what we want to eat beforehand and choosing a place to eat that fits accordingly, but one of Contraste's ambitious goals is to delve deeper into what the customer really wants. For the daring diner who opts for the mysterious mirror in the menu, they will be presented with a cloud of small tastings, each with a distinct flavor. Based on their reactions to these tastes, the chef will tailor a menu based on what can be gleaned from the customer and seasonally available ingredients.
Another convention of eating that is done away with is the concept of “eating with one’s eyes.” Naturally, when we view a plate that has been set before us, and if the dish is familiar, our minds conjure up the taste before the food hits our palates. But the magic at Contraste is that our expectations are never met, and it may be impossible to anticipate just what will arrive on our plate. When a dish of tortellini is set before us, we naturally expect a certain flavor. But what appears to be a plate of tortellini is actually a small vessel carrying the flavor of the classic Milanese dish, risotto with saffran. However, not a grain of rice is to be found. The risotto is cooked, then strained, so that all that remains is residual liquid infused with the familiar taste of risotto, stripped of its typical texture and then injected into small pouches of pasta that explode in the mouth. Another surprising and memorable dish was a donut set before us. It’s dough was not sweet and its white and caramel-looking glazes were actually a béchamel sauce. Upon further inspection it was, contrary to its form, unmistakably lasagna ragù.
The dishes at Contraste are clearly the work of careful study, sophisticated technique, and the desire to experiment and constantly refine their dishes. Each dish tells a story, but also has a personality, perhaps a little playful, but always sophisticated, with the ability to transport the diner, who is left to drift above the clouds and gain a new perspective.
Contraste is like a small theater, where diners become the protagonists of the play. It requires a sense of participation, and if indeed you allow yourself to join in, you will be pleasantly surprised. Here, our time is ours again, and we can give ourselves up to moments of enjoyment in the company of our loved ones, or even alone, and smile.
Part II: Interview
Contraste is the brainchild of Matias Perdomo (head chef), Thomas Piras (maitre) and Simon Press (sous chef). Perdomo moved to Milan a decade and a half ago from Uruguay, and spent his young career working at Al Pont de Ferr in the Navigli neighborhood of Milan. During his tenure as head chef, the restaurant earned its first Michelin star.
What is essential to your life?
Matias: For me, time is essential. In the sense of “having time”: to enjoy the things that I like, the time to go somewhere, time to do things, time to play…time for oneself and of course for family
Thomas: Curiosity. To be curious stimulates you, it incentivizes you, it allows you to do the best and to understand how to improve everyday in any field. This is also comforting because it gives you the sensation of being alive, participating, awareness….
Simon: Communication. In every field, communication is essential: at work, in the kitchen, at home…everywhere. You have to extract your thoughts, you have to express yourself, confront others to feel like you are a part of something bigger, never alone.
At what point did you realize it was the right moment to open a restaurant all together?
Matias: We have been working together from many years, and this job brings out the best and the worst in you, so you learn a lot about the others, in a deep way. We remember very well the right moment; we remember that moment when our friendship was super strong….We were taking a lunch break around a table, eating something and drinking a beer, unexpectedly in silence, everyone was thinking about their own things…relaxing…then we looked each others and it was like that one second before we had the same thought, because when we looked each other we all had the same smile…telepathy
We made a toast in silence, because at this point we were ready to start. We knew that our time had arrived and we were able to start our project
To speak about it was unnecessary…in that moment. Then, when we decided to put forth everything, we spoke a lot..to understand etc… we spoke a lot and for a long time, but the beginning was that moment. From that moment we never turned back and never looked back.
How do you see the future of food in 20 years?
Matias: It’s very difficult to make any predictions in the long term because cuisine is forever in a state of unrest, in evolution, today more than in other time periods because we have a lot of tools and you are able to do a lot of things in a short time. It would be very nice to say where the kitchen should be in 5 years. (laughs) I think that there will be more space for research, like the research of ingredients…we will take genuineness to higher levels.
Thomas: I agree with Matias because I think that the direction will be a return to origins, tradition and simplicity.
Simon: I can’t make a prediction for the next 20 years, but for sure everyone needs balance. For this reason, I also think cuisine will translate this need and that it will go in the direction of healthy and balanced...to levels that we can't imagine now.