Cooks and servers converging on the pass
About a month before eating at Per Se, I made reservations at Chef Wylie Dufresne’s avant-garde restaurant, WD-50. Two weeks later I was there with my lovely roommate Hom.
In part, this visit was gastronomic training for Per Se, like a runner slowly upping his milage before a marathon. But perhaps the bigger reason for coming to WD-50 first, was that I knew eating at Chef Keller’s restaurant would spoil me for my future meals.
I was excited. There were a number of “firsts” at WD-50. It was the first time I was taking pictures of my whole meal. (I felt extremely self-conscious, and I still do a year later, almost to the day. I was at WD-50 on June 14, 2007. Wow. I’d also like to take this opportunity to apologize for the low quality of photography here and in my up-coming posts in the leaving New York series. I was totally clueless on photography then. The beautiful photography at Per Se was a fluke, the side effect from the magic of a perfect day.) It was my first Michelin star experience. The first time dining in the restaurant of a celebrity chef, although I think Chef Dufresne might cringe at that label. But I had seen him on television and was totally intrigued by his food. Indeed it would be my first time sampling what is labeled as avant-garde cuisine, characterized by its use of molecular gastronomy techniques.
Stepping into the restaurant from its nondescript entrance on the Lower East Side, I was surprised by the casualness of the place, which I appreciated. It was inviting. (My only complaint was that the row of two tops where we were seated were uncomfortable close to each other. But I often encountered that in New York City.) I was glad that Chef Dufresne didn’t take himself too seriously. Throughout the course of the meal, I could see that there was a sense of humor and wit that translated into his dishes.
The “bread basket” immediately set the tone for the meal to come. A wooden box of paper thin sesame flatbread was set in front of us. It looked like a two dimensional vista of a jagged mountain range. It tasted like a sesame papadum, and like my favorite chips, I couldn’t stop myself from nibbling at them.
Cured Hamachi, Lemon Leather, Cilantro Sorbet, Paprika
I was expecting really “out there” food from WD-50, a Methyl Cellulose and Isomalt filled pyrotechnic show. So I was surprised to see a rather conventional looking dish of cured hamachi. But the dish, taken in its totality was a wonderful symphony of flavors, textures and temperatures. If this dish were a person, it would be the sort of person who could seduce someone on the first date.
Pizza Pebbles, Pepperoni Emulsion, Shiitake
I think the “Pizza Pebbles” suffered from the bar being set so high by its predecessor. I was intrigued and impressed by how Chef Dufresne, through his technological culinary wizardry, transmogrified a mushroom and pepperoni pizza by using Maltodextrin into a line of small pebbles. But in all honesty I found the taste and texture lacking. Well it tasted like pizza, but without all the elements that I love about pizza; the gooey cheese, greasy pepperoni and doughy base. His pebbles had a slight dry roughness to them. It’s like the Combos snack that I love, and it would be great if I had the munchies, but just not in this restaurant setting.
Knot Foie, Kimchi Puree and Iranian Raisin Puree, Rice Pebbles
The “Knot Foie” was the sort of culinary alchemy I was expecting from WD-50. Fragile foie gras had been transmuted into a pliable rectangular log and tied into a knot. Yet it retained the smooth and unctuous qualities that characterized foie gras. This dish also demonstrated Chef Dufresne’s considerable talent in pairing seemingly incongruous flavors to create an extremely dynamic offering. He had beautifully dotted the foie with Iranian raisin and kimchi puree. So each mouthful was punctuated with an alternating sweet and spicy bite. The dish was completed with studs of Japanese puffed rice for textural contrast. This was a brilliant dish on so many levels. Read how they created this dish in this New York Times article.
Sweetbreads, Cabbage-Kaffir, Fried Water Chestnuts
This next dish should have been a slam-dunk, but wasn’t. I’ve been infatuated with the luscious deliciousness of sweetbreads ever since my first bite at Wesley Genovart’s Degustation a few months before. But the sweetbreads here were dry. I liked how the plate resembled fried chicken and fries but at the same time the monotone made the dish look dreary.
I love beef tongue and its something I don’t see often on menus. I thought the fried mayonnaise was genius. Put all the components of this dish together and you have a sophisticated rendition of the familiar corned beef sandwich. Clever, elegant, comforting and utterly delicious, this and the Knot Foie were my favorite dishes.
French Onion Soup, Gruyere Ravioli, Rye Crisp, Onion Paste
Finally spherification. I was wondering if this molecular gastronomy technique was going to make an appearance. It did, in the form of a skinless liquid Gruyere ravioli in the “French Onion Soup.” A fun and modern interpretation of a classic, I ate a ravioli whole and it exploded in my mouth, then I pierced another, the cheese oozing out to mingle with the clear and flavorful broth in my spoon. It reminded me of soups back in Singapore where the hawker would put a barely cooked egg yoke in.
Surf clam, Watermelon, Garlic Chive, Fermented Black Bean
I had mixed feelings about the next dish. I loved the surf clam and the use of black bean because even though I see it all the time in Chinese cuisine, and up till now, I’ve never seen it applied in a western context. But once I bit into the fermented black bean, the impact of its pungent taste overpowered the delicate and tasty mélange of flavors from the other delightful ingredients. It was a bold move to put that ingredient in there and I love how Chef Dufresne isn’t afraid of taking his guests out of their comfort zone, but the black bean threw the delicate balance of the dish off.
Lamb Belly, Black Chickpea, Cherried Cucumber, Lemongrass
The last savory dish was lamb belly prepared to mimic bacon. It felt like crispy bacon and tasted very similar to it, with a hint of gaminess from the lamb to make it interesting. I liked the dish by itself, but not in the context of the meal. I’m primarily a carnivore and wanted something substantial to round out the meal. When I saw lamb belly on the menu I was hoping for something like the lusciously lamb belly I ate at Suba, also in the Lower East Side which Hom had taken me two weeks before for my birthday. I wanted a big chunk of meat more than the thin strips of lamb bacon.
Argan Oil Horchata, Cantaloupe, Carob
I never had horchata, the Latin American drink made with rice and usually flavored with vanilla and cinnamon. At the time I didn’t even have a clue what argan oil was. (It’s from the argan nut grown in Morocco and it’s supposedly good for your skin.) The horchata tasted like the almond milk Rusty (my college buddy and roommate while I was living in the Financial District) and I used to get on our late night runs to the real Chinatown, east of Chatham Square. But this “soup” was more complex, with the addition of cantaloupe, the distinct yet complementary flavors danced on my tongue. It was tremendously refreshing and definitely set the mood for the desserts to come.
Desserts at WD-50 are splendid. Even with the departure of the rock star like über pâtissier Sam Mason, the desserts were inventive, ingenious, gorgeous to behold and a pleasure to eat. Definitely one of my favorite dessert places in the city, second only to Will Goldfarb’s now defunct Room 4 Dessert.
Fried Butterscotch Pudding, Mango, Taro Ice Cream, Smoked Macadamia
Butterscotch is one of my favorite flavors and one that I don’t see too often on menus, although I feel that it’s making a comeback. Here at WD-50 it was fried, doubling the yum factor.
Soft Chocolate, Avocado Puree, Licorice, Lime Sorbet, Mint Puree
When the chocolate dish was presented to our table, we just stared at it for a while. If there was ever a dish that could win an architectural and design award, this would be the one. The spiral of soft chocolate tasted amazing. It felt smooth and tasted rich and luxurious. I liked the ice cream and the avocado puree. I wasn’t a fan of the licorice, but that’s just because I don’t like that flavor. I thought the play on the color green was great. You didn’t know if you were going to taste the avocado or mint.
From left to right: Me, Chef Dufresne and Hom
At the end of the meal I asked if it were possible to meet Chef Dufresne. The manager brought Hom and I to the kitchen. I was surprised that Chef Dufresne wasn’t expediting but on the line, cooking. I’m not entirely sure, but I think the mutton chopped chef was cooking some lamb. Meanwhile the manager gave us a tour of the kitchen. He pointed out the dehydrator used for the mushrooms in the pizza pebbles dish, he let us look over the shelves on the wall where they kept their specialized ingredients; it felt like it belonged in a lab than in a kitchen, and then he explained the work space lay out. It was definitely fun and interesting to be given such a behind-the-scenes look. Once Chef Dufresne was done with his dish, we chatted for a bit. He was so friendly and down-to-earth. He then introduced me to the pastry chef, Alex something, formerly from some restaurant that also started with the letter A. I told him that the desserts were amazing and that we enjoyed it very much. Although inwardly I was disappointed that I had missed the opportunity to meet Sam Mason. It was only months later that I realized the enormity of that introduction, that the young looking pastry chef was Alex Stupak, formerly from Alinea!
Brown butter-passion fruit marshmallows that were presented with the bill
Intellectually I thought the meal was excellent. Although my stomach told me to take it down a notch to very good. Hom said the meal was good too. But I sensed a lack of conviction. Months after the meal, I talked to a prominent chef who also features avant-garde techniques in his acclaimed French restaurant in Singapore. He said that the restaurant was a disappointment on his recent trip to New York. Perhaps he was expecting El Bulli or Alinea. I pointed out though, for the price you pay and the large number of courses given that it’s actually quite a bargain. I also pointed out that Frank Bruni, the critic from The Times had raved about the restaurant. Bruni had given WD-50 three out of four stars, something that he doesn’t do lightly.
I began to wonder about the range of responses to the food at WD-50. Shouldn’t good food appeal to everyone? I have no answers for that question.
Sure there were some misses during my meal, but there was never a boring moment. I applaud Chef Dufresne’s courage to dare. Eating at WD-50 is a riveting culinary adventure.
(I have to admit that I didn’t take note of the names of the dishes. But luckily I found them at the The Gourmet Pig’s blog while researching on how WD-50 made the Knot Foie. Read his account here. In an amazing coincidence he dined there on the same night that I did!)
50 Clinton Street
New York, New York 10002
Dinner offered only. Monday though Saturday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and on Sunday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
It was $115 for the tasting menu when I dined there. It is now $140.