Thursday, June 01, 2006

Smooth Engines of WD-50

50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002
Chef Wylie Dufresne (formerly sous chef Restaurant Jean Georges)
Sous Chef Mike Sheerin
Dinner nightly

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Interesting. That word sums up the dining experience at Wylie Dufresne's WD-50.

Like the food, the atmosphere at WD-50 exudes casual chic. Opaque lamps shaped like wine bottles hang across the bar, and the decor is otherwise sparse and minimalist, including the unisex restrooms with a trough sink. Several rows of dark wood tables line the long, rectangular dining room, with a large window at the far end opening into the kitchen. The low lighting in the dining room in contrast with the bright lights in the kitchen made the expediting window look like a large television screen, with all of the characters on-screen dressed in white with identical vertical black-and-white-striped aprons.

Upon being seated and presented with menus, we received a basket filled with thin crackers that were so tall they almost created a vertical barrier between diners. The crackers were actually flatbread made from crushed sesame seeds and were so thin that I could practically see through them. As I munched on these delicately salty and nutty crackers, I observed the dishes being served at adjacent tables-- not difficult as the tables are set so close together, it almost felt like everyone was seated along a long communal table-- and noted that the a la carte dishes were quite sizeable. Our group opted for the tasting menu (twelve courses for $105 per person; $55 for wine pairing), which is required to be ordered by the entire table.

Napkins? Refolded when diners left the table. (I have an OCD thing about used napkins being refolded when diners leave the table during a meal. While I realize that it is an accepted and even expected practice in more formal dining establishments, my personal preference is to not have soiled napkins touched and refolded by a server. As an alternative, some restaurants replace napkins when diners get up to visit the restroom. In one place, I have even seen silverware being replaced as well as the napkin, which is a bit overkill, even for me, but I was impressed.)

The first course was a smoked oyster with a strip of rhubarb, topped with lilyroot puree and decorated with a mustard microgreen. Although I generally prefer oysters fresh, the smokiness worked with the sweet and tart rhubarb and the tiny bit of bitterness from the mustard green. Next came a faux fried egg. The egg white was a cardamom coconut gelee and the yolk was a carrot ginger jelly, which broke open in similar consistency to a real egg yolk. Topped with fresh ground pepper, it looked and (sort of) tasted like an egg. A glass of cava rose was served with these intriguing starters and matched both quite well.

The next course was a terrine of foie gras shaped into a cylindrical disk, resting on top of what looked like a mound of bright green sand and decorated with candied olives. The sand was actually crushed, dehydrated peas. The server instructed us to cut the terrine across the center first before eating. As I sliced into the terrine, a dark red viscous liquid oozed out. The center had been hollowed out and injected with liquid cherry. Fun with food. The sweet cherry worked well with the terrine, but the foie gras was somewhat bland and not otherwise noteworthy. I found myself enjoying the candied olives more than anything else. The green pea soil was visually interesting but rather tasteless. The pairing, a non-vintage madeira, was a safe choice.

Following the foie gras, we had a shrimp "cannelloni," which looked like a miniature egg roll. Both the cannelloni and the filling were made of shrimp, with the "pasta" shell made of mashed, steamed shrimp. The cannelloni was served with a chorizo sauce and accented with micro-red Thai basil. A glass of 2004 Oregon pinot gris provided the right flavor profile for the elements of this dish. As with the foie gras, I was more entertained by the concept than the taste, which was fine but not exceptional. The texture of the shrimp was a bit gummy, and I would have liked the chorizo sauce and spices to have more presence in the dish. Also paired with the pinot gris was a deconstructed BLT, Wylie Dufresne style. The "B" was a thin slice of beef tongue, the "L" was a sprig of green herb, and the "T" a tomato-molasses marmalade, accompanied by deep-fried cubes of mayonnaise. This is probably the only time I have ever enjoyed beef tongue, as the thin slice had none of the slick, slimy texture I normally associate with tongue. The deep-fried mayonnaise I absolutely loved-- how twisted and lovely.

Next came a miso soup with shiitake mushrooms and finely diced scallions, showing that when it decides to, this kitchen can execute basic flavors flawlessly. Tiny squeeze bottles with red caps, which looked like kindergarten glue bottles, accompanied the soothing, milky beige-brown soup. They contained liquid sesame tofu, intended to create instant noodles upon being squeezed into the soup. The noodles failed to form, as the soup was not hot enough and the soup bowl too small for this chemical equation to work successfully, but the flavors were still quite pleasant. The 2002 Rosso di Montalcino by Sassetti Livio that was paired with the soup, however, did not work. Against the Asian flavors in the soup, the wine tasted tart and bitter. The wine worked slightly better but still fought with the next paired course-- smoked eel with peanuts, snow peas, peppers, caramel foam and lime salt.

The last savory course, duck breast with spaghetti squash, dotted with bits of ricotta and cocoa nibs and tied together with a black vinegar gastrique, was the best flavor combination of the evening. The spaghetti squash, acting as sweet and mildly crunchy pasta noodles with the creamy bits of ricotta, and the rich duck meat highlighted by the intensity of chocolate and black vinegar gastrique were fantastic. The 2004 vin de table from Yves Leccia was also a nice match.

Of the desserts, my favorite was the corn bread ice cream, which tasted like cold and creamy sweet corn bread. Having these familiar flavors and textures in a new context was a delightful twist. The dehydrated bits of corn caramel brittle on top of the ice cream tasted like a black-tie version of Cracker Jacks. The second dessert was a cashew tonka bean brulee with pine nuts and cherry sauce, dusted with dried powdered cherries. The brulee was not quite sweet enough and cherry sauce a bit too tangy but the overall taste combination was still quite pleasant. The last dessert was a smoked chocolate ice cream with caramelized banana, topped with Guiness foam. Although the chocolate and stout combination was better executed at Silk's in San Francisco, this was still an outstanding dessert. To conclude, we had red beet jellies served on a black slate slab. The soft, sugared jellies quivering on the black slate were still warm to the touch and dissolved satisfyingly as soon as they touched my tongue.

While it is probably the best "scientific" cooking restaurant I have tried, I could not help wondering what Chef Dufresne's cooking is like when he is not "experimenting." (In the interest of full disclosure, the chef himself was only there for a short period the night I tried WD-50; apparently he had surgery for appendicitis the day before but still came in, as he does every night according to our server.) Although I quite enjoyed his novel creations, I must admit my brain was more entertained than my tastebuds.


Sam said...

I am going to WD50 for dinner tomorrow night, straight off the plane, though I doubt because of my finicky family that I'll be able to sample the tasting menu. I am certainly looking forward to it, but with a certain amount of trepidation.

Anonymous said...

If you can get everyone to order different dishes, you might get a make-shift tasting menu after all. Have fun! (If you get a chance to be in midtown during your trip, try the lamb pita at Kwik Meal.)

andy said...

Been reading your blog for the last couple of weeks and enjoy your reports. Taking my gal here for her birthday soon for the tasting menu -- would you recommend leaving it to them to choose the wines and go with the pairings?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Andy. Now I REALLY feel guilty for not posting lately-- work has been completely crazy. I personally like doing wine pairing whenever it is available, but WD-50 has a nice list so you can't go wrong either way. Have a great time celebrating your girlfriend's birthday, and hopefully I will have some overdue posts completed soon.

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