Last Thursday, the New York Times ran a story on chefs who have recently quit New York. Typically these are the young Turks, high profile and pedigreed chefs who have decided to relocate to smaller places--usually back to hometowns--not in defeat but as missionaries of the new excellence and in the new appreciation of American bounty. Quite simply there is good, even excellent, food to be had now almost anywhere in the US. The revolution has been just about complete.
Still the young, imaginative and ambitious have to start somewhere. New York remains the great incubator for talent and innovation. Which brings us to today's first-ever 'NYC FINE/DINING ' post--and it in turns begins with an ending. In honor of its anticipated closing
later this year, Camille Cogswell reviews the one and the only WD-50...
50 Clinton St, New York, NY 10002
12 course Tasting Menu: $155
6 course Vault Menu: $90
optional wine pairings for either menu at an additional charge
When most people think of WD-50 chef Wylie Dufresne's style of cooking, they tend to quickly label it as “molecular gastronomy.” You've probably heard this term before, but if someone asked you to define the food genre, would you be able to explain it? This modernist approach to cooking was founded by a generation of chefs who began to act on their curiosity to figure out why we cook the way we do. Scientists and chefs started collaborating to find out what happens to ingredients on a molecular level when different cooking techniques are applied.
This type of food isn't associated with any particular regional cuisine, it's simply identified by the utilization of more technologies, many not traditionally used in kitchens, to prepare food in a very precise and intentional way. It's often characterized by a whimsical and playful attitude; something typical of this style of cuisine is taking a familiar flavor or concept and focusing its “essence” into a new and surprising application or presentation, meaning to coax the diner into abandoning their preconceptions about food and the traditional dining experience. Or it's used to take a favorite dish or ingredient and use scientific techniques to make the “ultimate,” end-all-be-all version.
A handful of famed chefs such as Spaniard Ferran Adria, American Grant Achatz, and Brit Heston Blumenthol exemplify the molecular gastronomy movement. Wylie Dufresne is unsurprisingly included in this category as well. He identifies with the unquenchable curiosity, tech-geek persona, and playful attitude that characterize the trend. Not to mention the fact that he was one of the first chefs to introduce this style of cooking to NYC when he opened WD-50 in 2003 and has been a pioneer on the forefront of cutting-edge cuisine ever since. However, Dufresne is quick to disassociate himself with the term “molecular gastronomy.” To him, the title doesn't make his food sound inviting or appetizing, simply conjuring to mind a sterile laboratory, not a kitchen where cooks are lovingly preparing delicious food for their diners.
Though the occasional component on your plate may look like it came from another planet, Dufresne steeps his dining experience in comfort. You can feel this in the WD-50 dining room and in his tradition of taking regional street food classics and whimsically reinventing them on your plate. He is known for his obsession with the humble egg and one of his signature dishes has been his untraditional take on eggs benedict.
The hardest decision to make when eating at WD-50 is which menu to order. You have a choice between two tastings: the shorter of the two is a six course meal running the theme “The Vault.” This menu draws from signature dishes from the restaurant in the eleven years it has been open. The other, longer, option is twelve courses that are new, seasonal dishes. After much back-and-forth between my dining companions and I, we chose the longer tasting menu.
Don't pass up the opportunity to start with a cocktail, even if you plan on getting wine with dinner. We ordered two drinks from their list, which sticks to unique house originals, forgoing mentioning any classics. The Citrus Hystrix was a concoction of gin, kaffir lime, raspberry brandy, and egg white. It was light-spirited, but offered the wonderful sensation of coating your mouth in a sensually creamy and herbaceous way. The Pea Shooter, combining vodka, sweet pea, and Chartreuse, was so incredibly refreshing I had to stop myself from chugging the whole glass and remind myself there was booze in it. It tasted as if they had juiced Spring in a glass: peas, citrus, celery, and sweet, dewey grass distilled into pure joy. WD-50 also makes a few non-alcoholic drinks in-house that are well worth trying. We tasted a delightful pomegranate soda with ginger and citrus. The other was very similar to a booze-free version of the Pea Shooter cocktail, a juice of sweet pea and green apple that was incredibly refreshing.
Every table is first treated to a box of paper-thin, crispy sesame lavash flatbread, broken into stunning shards. Instead of a filling bread course that often distracts your stomach from the more delectable matters at hand, you can gorge on these addictive crackers shamelessly in between courses. With Chef de Cuisine Sam Henderson at the helm of the crew in the kitchen, she hit the ground running with our first menu course, an oyster in its “shell.” Our first lesson in tossing aside preconceptions, this edible shell seemed to be constructed of molded nori, complementing the briny oyster in its evocation of the ocean, brightened by preserved lemon and snow peas and given some depth by a hazelnut crumb.
Next, one of the most classic pairings in high-brow cuisine, eggs and caviar, underwent a downright homey transformation into something that tasted like it was served from your mom's kitchen table. A mashed potato filling was encased in a thin sheet of egg yolk, forming a ravioli, sprinkled with fried potato crumbs and accompanied by freshwater caviar. We continued to be pleasantly bombarded by a unctuous charred chicken liver mousse spiced with Szechuan pepper but invigoratingly brightened by compressed honeydew melon. And with a little bit of seasoning, the soup course, avocado and pea, with smoked crab, pistachio, and pickled celery would have been perfect.
Arguably my favorite dish of the night was the Shrimp Grits enlivened with pickled jalapenos. Speaking as a southern gal, it might have been the most flavorful, soul-squeezing bowl of that Lowcountry favorite that I've ever had. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was made from ground shrimp and freeze-dried corn ingeniously cooked to mimic classic texture and taste.
Whoever was cooking the proteins that night deserves the highest compliments for the parade of fish and meats that followed, each one executed to perfection. Umami-rich black bass a la plancha was served with a nori-mustard sauce, tender milk-braised pork benefited from a red bell pepper salsa and a fun poppy seed “pringle,” and duck breast swam in a beautifully clear and sumptuous buttermilk consomme in a play on curds and whey. There were a couple of components in each of these courses that felt irrelevant and unnecessary next to such exquisitely prepared proteins and could have been simplified to let the stars shine brighter.
I was buzzing with excitement for dessert courses to start coming our way from Malcolm Livingston II, a pastry chef for whom I have volumes of respect. His confident ambition shone in our first sweet course: yeasted yogurt swiped alongside a banana sorbet, topped with an oat meringue crisp and compressed strawberries. The components may have been a little odd individually, but together they married into round waves of flavor punctuated by a delightful tang that made me want it again for breakfast the next day.
Ovaltine sponge cake took us back to childhood with cardamom ice cream swirled inside a cylindrical chocolate malt striped tuile, sheep's milk cream, and fresh grapefruit. A throwback dish of Alex Stupak, former WD-50 Pastry Chef, came in the form of a hazelnut tart that had us making involuntary noises and licking our plates. Deceivingly classic until cutting into the “tart,” you realize that it is all one pudding-like texture, but comprised of three different flavors and colors. Candied hazelnuts and a chicory crumble contributed the crunch alongside a coconut powder and chicory foam.
Sweet conclusion came as playful petit fours: a cherry – root beer pate de fruit, a sphere of cookie dough ice cream dipped in caramel then rolled in cacao nibs, and a pouch of nutella “leather” holding dehydrated hazelnut.
At a meal such as this, no matter the quality of the food, the overall experience is often determined by the nature of your service. I wish that every restaurant could lead by the example that WD-50 sets in this industry. The wait staff was utterly welcoming, calm, friendly, knowledgable, purposeful yet always willing to spend an extra minute at our table entertaining our questions. They were able to immediately detect and level with our ideal air of comfort, not getting overly casual with us, but not showing an ounce of pretension. In the hospitality industry, that is truly a valued skill.
Sadly, there is now a limited time to experience this landmark of Contemporary American Cuisine. Wylie Dufresne announced in June that WD-50 will have it's last night of service on of this year. Because of huge amounts of construction on the building that the restaurant is located in, Dufresne felt he could no longer offer the same quality dining experience for his customers that he has strived to maintain over the past eleven years. Though he is already looking into locations for his next project, it would be safe to predict that it will take a different form than WD-50. But don't fret, if you aren't able to make the trip before it closes, visit his other NYC restaurant, Alder, which is slightly more casual, and no less playful, and keep an eye out for the next big thing.