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ulterior epicure | Jun 17, 2010 08:12 PM

I recently had dinner with a friend at wd~50 during which we were each served a mini portion of nearly everything on the a la carte menu. You can find the photos over here:


1st Course
Spanish Mackerel
Broccoli rabe, enoki, orange.

2nd Course
Corned Duck
Rye crisp, purple mustard, horseradish cream.

3rd Course
Hanger Tartare
Smoked almond, banana, and hibiscus.

4th Course
Aerated Foie Gras
Pickled beet, Mashad [sic] plum, brioche.

5th Course
Tomatillo-Pine Gazpacho
Soybean falafel, octopus confit.

6th Course
Eggs Benedict
Fried Hollandaise, “egg yolk.” and pancetta flags.

7th Course
Peas-n-coconut, nori, carrot dashi.

8th Course
Mediterranean Sea Bass
Yeasty mashed potatoes, curry, zucchini, nasturtium sauce, crushed nasturtium.

9th Course
Sweet and sour salsify, wild rice, butternut squash.

10th Course
Duck Breast
Apple, cheddar, kimchee-cous cous.

11th Course
Venison Chop
Freeze dried polenta, fennel, Asian pear.

12th Course
Cold Fried Chicken
Buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar.

13th Course
Smoked Eel
Spice bread, black radish, campari.

Pre Dessert
Chewy Lychee Sorbet
Pistachio, lemon, celery.

14th Course
Pineapple, raisin, saffron, lime.

15th Course
Lemongrass Mousse
Brown sugar, jack fruit, whole wheat ice cream.

16th Course
Coffee Ice Cream
Pecan, cocoa, argan oil.

17th Course
Soft Chocolate
Peppermint ice cream, black cardamom, toffee.

18th Course
Caramelized Brioche
Apricot, buttercream, lemon-thyme.

19th Course
Licorice Custard
Sake sorbet, Bartlett pear.

20th Course
Hazelnut Tart
Coconut, chocolate, chicory.

Petits Fours

“Chocolate Packets“

Chocolate Shortbread Truffles Milk Ice cream

I’m not the most enthusiastic cheerleader of the molecular gastronomy movement.

Much of what I’ve experienced in this realm has struck me as gimmicky, silly, and unsatisfying.

As a theoretical and philosophical discourse, I recognize that it is a tremendously important phenomenon in the culinary world. But, as a diner, and in practice, I find that molecular gastronomy, when taken to the extreme, can be distracting, senseless, and often, deflating; l’art pour l’art, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And that’s what my first meal at wd~50 was like.

Flavor seemed sacrificed to spectacle. Function followed form.

But this second meal was different. Despite Dufresne’s unpredictable food groupings and notwithstanding the fact that it had clearly been manipulated, the vast majority of the food we we had was delicious

Flavors were more carefully calibrated, more finely tuned, pitched for greater appeal. (Go ahead, accuse me of being populist.)

My favorite dishes (not surprisingly) were those wherein the “molecular gastronomy” techniques were so seamlessly incorporated that they were barely noticeable – a sign that they were being used to enhance the food rather than to defy it. Among them was the “Corned Duck,” ribbons of silky, cured duck breast dotted with horseradish and “purple mustard” intense with lees.

“Cod” boasted a beautifully cooked medallion of fish veiled in a translucent sheet of pasta flecked with seaweed. The cod was set atop a wonderful sweet pea mash infused with coconut and circled by a warm, carrot dashi. Were those little carrots compressed? Sous vides? I don’t know, but they were exceedingly sweet and intense. Together, they opened up a unexpectedly lovely world of flavors.

There was also an excellent, sliced “Duck Breast” with crispy skin and rosy meat. It came sided with wonderfully cooked fregola sarda spiked with kimchee and topped with flakes of sharp white cheddar. At the bottom of the bowl was a shallow pool of apple-cheddar broth; too acrid and bitter on its own, it carved a wonderfully sharp edge around the dish.

And, holy “Cold Fried Chicken,” Batman! Replete with a syrupy Tabasco sauce and fantastic “buttermilk-ricotta” (think mashed potatoes studded with tiny, tart cottage cheese curds), this icebox breakfast was, perhaps, my favorite dish of the night. Next to cold pizza, this must be America’s favorite leftover.** It might have been a bit lost in translation for the British chap beside me, who eyed my ecstasy with misguided suspicion.

But, whereas these dishes were gratifying, the ones I found most meaningful were the ones that were slightly challenging to both mind and palate.

These, like the “Hanger Tartare,” I appreciated far more for the unique congress of flavors and textures than for sheer gustatory pleasure alone. That tartare was daringly austere. The beef was lean and sturdy; the company of ingredients, odd. Between the banana and the sweet potato there arose a woody, vegatal sweetness that reminded me of Chinese red date paste.

A couple of dishes simply failed.

The “Skate,” unseasonably autumnal*, lost me entirely. I won’t go so far as to say that the fish was overcooked, because I suspect that this is what happens when you glue two wings together and griddle them on both sides. But I did find it inordinately stringy.

The milky, viscous salsify puree encapsulated inside a toasted wild rice cigar was too strange to bear, not to mention rather flavorless. Much better were the butternut squash puree and the pickled ribbons of shaved salsify, which were more sweet than sour. But together, it was incoherent, if not cloying, the pickled salsify being the only escape.

The “Smoked Eel” was also disappointing. The eel, we were told, were from the fresh waters of Delaware, smoked before they arrived at the restaurant. I found the meat unusually dense and hard, its marriage with grapefruit and radishes unconvincing.

Two dishes had been “aerated.” I’m too lazy to look up the technique involved, but whatever it is, (a) it (surprisingly) leaves the end product tasting no different from the original product, and (b) it leaves the end product in a form wholly (or, hole-y?) different than its native state.

“Aerated Foie Gras” looked like a wedge of Swiss cheese, a sea sponge, and fermenting mass of yeasted dough came together in an unholy union. But spread on toast (too little of which they provided), it was as silky as the finest foie gras au torchon. The foie gras was accompanied by beets and smooth-skinned plums (which had the flavor of umeboshi).

“Coffee Ice Cream” looked like a tattered mattress of fiberglass insulation, fuzzy and whispey. But it tasted just like coffee ice cream (a fine one at that) when spooned into my mouth. Here there was pecan, cocoa, and a big smile on my face. This was truly fantastic.

Actually, all of the Boy Wonder’s desserts were fantastic. (Okay, maybe I wasn’t so hot on the “Soft Chocolate” dessert, both because the extruded chocolate was a bit too clay-like and chocolate and mint aren’t my favorite couple.)

But, where Stupak failed twice to win me at alinea, he slayed me at wd~50.

Insert pop-up bubbles with zany exclamations in all-caps where appropriate:

The sake sorbet served with “Licorice Custard” was truly spectacular. It really eclipsed all else.

But that’s not the say that a “Caramelized Brioche” cake with an oozing core of apricot gel wasn’t amazing too, or that a trompe l’oeil “Hazelnut Tart,” which exhibited all of the dark features of a chocolate dessert that I love, wasn’t outstanding. They were both very good.

And then there was “Cheesecake.” Gosh, who could forget that cheesecake? The little gnocchi-like nubs tasted like custard and graham in one. To one side there was a thinly shaved pineapple “skin” topped with lime zest, to the other side, pineapple skin dusted with saffron. Depending on which bite you took, the “cheesecake” was either key lime pie, or a warm, fragrant custard from the Mediterranea.

The service here was attentive and friendly. Some of the servers might not have known all of the answers to Food Snob’s questions, but they batted an impressively high average given the trivia and pedantry at play.

Pacing couldn’t have been more even, with the exception of an unusually long pause in the middle of the fish courses, which was more than welcomed. In fact, it was perfectly timed.

Q: So, where does this leave me?

A: In a much better place than I was before I revisited wd~50.

I was impressed. The technique and level of execution was very high. The creativity (and randomness?) was prodigious (turning chocolate into leather, for example). And, for the most part, the food was delicious.

Embodied by the two or three best dishes from this meal, wd~50 is brilliant.

But that being said, my personal preference alone dictates that wd~50 is not an experience I care to repeat on a consistent basis (although, I might have to make a carve-out exception for Stupak’s desserts). Stylistically, the Caped Crusader and I are of different minds, different sensibilities.

As an infrequent exercise of my “mental palate,” however, wd~50 is perfect.

50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002

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