This past Saturday, Joann, Keith and I went to dinner at wd-50 on New York’s Lower East Side. We had been planning it for a while, since we’re forever talking about the miscellaneous restaurants and cuisines we want to try. We decided on Wylie Dufresne’s place; it would be interesting, it wouldn’t be as pricey as some of the other locations we had been tossing around and, most importantly, we could get reservations for a Saturday night. Granted, we booked our table almost a month in advance…
Things got off a bit oddly; we were punctual and seated right away, but our waitress — one of our many servers over the course of the night — approached our table just as Keith was standing to excuse himself. She tried to take our order right then and there, while Keith was hovering and he had to send her away. Maybe this wasn’t such a big deal, but I thought it added an unnecessary awkwardness to the meal, especially because it took place right at the start.
The three of us had agreed ahead of time that we would all get the tasting menu, but would pair it with wines of our own choosing. We each started off with a glass of sparkling Gruner Veltliner and followed it up with a bottle of Sancerre Roc L’Abbaye. The Gruner Velt was really nice, but I particularly liked the Sancerre — more about it in a later post though, because this one is going to be quite long, I think.
The first item to arrive at the table were sesame crisps, which wd-50 serves in lieu of bread. Personally, I enjoy a bread basket since I have an ardent love for bread, but these crisps did not make me miss bread at all. Paper-thin and savory, these sesame-speckled crisps were ridiculously addictive. We went through two boxes of them — they arrived in a rectangular wooden box — and when I say “we” I mean “me,” as it was my hand that kept creeping back to snap off larger and larger pieces. My placemat was littered with crumbs. Joann rightfully noticed that the sheerer and thinner crisps had a more pervasive and rich taste, almost buttery, but honestly, I didn’t care. I just wanted to eat them all up. Which I practically did.
Amuse bouche of king oyster noodles, pomegranate and purple cabbage. Aesthetically appealing enough, not that you can tell from my terrible picture here. My camera is still MIA, so I borrowed my mother’s, which she acquired from her mother, who purchased it in Hong Kong. I could not for the life of me figure out how to make it work properly, so I apologize for the quality of the photographs. That said, in the case of the amuse, it does not matter in the least, because I thought it was entirely forgettable. I’m sure it tasted lovely, and though my photodocumentation is terribly lacking, I can’t remember a blessed thing about it. Maybe I was just too flustered with the machinery of the foreign camera to appreciate the shavings of pomegranate piled delicately atop — atop what? I don’t remember.
This dish was described on the very minimal menu as “pizza pebbles, pepperoni, shiitake.” (There were no puffy or superfluous description-inflating wordage here; it was just ingredients, barring hydrocolloid gums.) The pebbles were literally made up of miscellaneous flavored powders, except for what in the picture looks like little black chips, which are dried shiitake slices. Joann described the pebbles as such: “They taste like Combos!” I’m sorry to say that she got the taste dead-on; I was looking for something really exceptional, but is something familiar a bad thing? The texture was what made the pebbles truly special — an extra-fine and silky powder that was surprisingly soft in the mouth… and intensely flavored of Combos.
I was especially looking forward to this, what the menu called “knot foie,” because I love liver almost as much as I love bread. This malleable thread of foie gras was just the ticket for me, though I was a little nervous about the daubs of kimchi speckled around the knot and the plate. The foie was just as smooth and as decadent as I hoped, but with a little added snap, for lack of a better word. Here’s what I mean: when Keith, lovely man that he is, offered me some of his knot, I sliced a portion off and speared it with my fork; it lifted cleanly off of the plate, without smearing. Whatever Chef had added to the foie had lightly encased it, almost, so that the creaminess of the foie was contained within itself.
Here we have “hamachi tartare, wakame, sake lees tahini, grapefruit shallot.” Hopefully someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the dark beads on the left side of the plate is the wakame, a type of seaweed. What I can tell you for with absolute certainty that this was fantastically delicious. The hamachi — which, a la distance, looked like a solid piece of fish — was actually comprised of several shards of fish that were somehow held together to make these larger rectangles. The matchsticks of Asian pear that rested on the hamachi were so flavorful, and the tahini droplet was a less intense but still amazingly nutty version of your typical tahini, tempered by the sweetness of the pear. The mound of perfectly minced grapefruit was also tasty, but only when eaten in conjunction with another element from the plate. On its own, it was gravely sour.
When we went through the menu at the end of the night, Joann decided that this course of eggs Benedict was her absolute favorite. While it wasn’t mine, I can definitely see how she, or anyone, could go for this crazy dish. I’ve never understood the concept behind Canadian bacon (a sorry, sorry substitute for the real deal) but these crispy, crunchy, salty petals were the exception. The deep yellow chunks of yolk were also amazing: eggy, but not overly so. The undisputed star, though, was the hollandaise, which was not the yellow slick across the plate but rather the cubes that kind of look like geometric chicken nuggets. Like chicken nuggets, the hollandaise had been breaded… in English muffin dust. Not only that, Chef had devised a way to deep fry them. I wish that this dish had been served in triplicate; I accidentally pierced my first hollandaise cube and cut into the second, spilling hollandaise all over my plate. Had there been a third, I would have put it in my mouth whole, and held it there until the English muffin casing dissolved.
For me, the best part of this French onion soup was the caramelized onion smeared on top of the crunchy wafers. I might have liked the globules of gruyère more, had I not had something similar this past fall at the restaurant at Hacienda Benazuza, an el Bulli hotel. In effect, the cheese was liquefied and somehow suspended in a coating to keep it in its liquid state. If placed in the mouth, the teensiest bit of pressure breaks the casing, causing the cheese to explode. This is potentially very messy. Like the amuse that started the meal, the soup was sadly lackluster. The broth itself was quite disappointing; there was none of the robust flavor associated with a classic French onion soup. Generally speaking, I’m appreciative of anyone who attempts to put his or her own spin onto a classic, but this was a dud.
Both Joann and I were counting down to the cuttlefish; it must be an Asian thing, as Keith couldn’t awaken the same frenzied enthusiasm. As with all of the dishes, we didn’t know what to expect, particularly with the menu’s description of “cuttlefish, squash, chamomile, orange, toast oil.” There was no point even trying to imagine in what form the cuttlefish would arrive, and there was no possible way that we would have guessed cubed. Cubed, along with segments of squash (I don’t remember what type) and served with a generous smudge of orange-zest purée. We were warned that the purée was bitter on its own, and to only eat it mixed with cuttlefish and squash, but the three of us scraped our bowls regardless. Zest or no, this was a truly enjoyable plate: sweet, salty and bitter — all at once.
Keith was looking forward to this (“lamb belly, black chickpea, cherried cucumber”) probably just as much as Joann and I were the cuttlefish. And like us, he was not let down. To go through the components… crispy, salty lamb “bacon;” a black chickpea hummus of sorts; blades of lemongrass. I was particularly thrilled with the lemongrass — just chalk it up there with liver and bread. This was the sort of dish that had me wishing I hadn’t ordered the tasting menu. I wanted more of it. I’m especially pleased with the photograph; I think it’s undoubtedly the best of the bunch.
If there was something on the menu that I was not looking forward to, it was certainly the first dessert course of “wintergreen parfait, walnut, avocado, chartreuse.” Of the ingredients, the one that made me draw back a bit was the wintergreen — my dislike of it probably comes from years of my dad foisting mint tea on me whenever I didn’t feel well. He picked the mint from our backyard and kept it in a cupboard next to the oven; I hated having to retrieve something from inside because of the smell. Admittedly, because of this, my first bite of this parfait made me cringe. The mint was so acute, but then the flavor mellowed in my mouth, and ultimately it tasted of a bright mint cheesecake.
Another one I was wary about — “toasted coconut cake, carob, smoked hazelnut, brown butter sorbet.” Though I love the richness associated with coconut, the texture can be so off-putting. My nervousness, in this case, was completely unfounded as this was one amazing coconut cake: warm and buttery, with an unbelievably satisfying density. The brown butter sorbet, while a nice compliment to the coconut, didn’t conjure up nearly as many urges to to sneak spoonfuls from Keith and Joann’s plates as the cake.
Let’s review: thus far we’ve established my love of bread, liver, lemongrass and cuttlefish. To that list we can add chocolates, since I’m fond of them as well. It wasn’t unreasonable for me to think that “soft white chocolate, potato, malt, white beer ice cream” and I would be a perfect match. I’m not quite certain why, but I wasn’t anywhere as gaga about this smooth chocolate snake as I would have foreseen. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that this followed a near-perfect dessert.
Of the three of us, I’m the only one who can describe this fantastic finisher of “chicory ice cream-coffee.” Keith was hesitant to try this, especially after Joann and I explained the history of chicory as a coffee alternative, a clear turn-off to an anti-aficionado of coffee. In a burst of reverse-chivalry, Joann traded Keith her orange-dusted marshmallow for a second pleasantly-gritty lump of coffee-infused ice cream. I wasn’t half as noble-minded; I would have eaten both of their semi-sweet chunks as well as the citrusy mashmallows, had I been given the chance.
All in all, dinner was incredibly fun. I had to stop myself several times from clapping my hands and cackling with glee, two of my signature moves, though I might have given myself away more than once whenever a server placed a new plate in front of me. Or when our box of sesame crisps was replenished. Or when Keith offered to ask if we could give our compliments to the chef. (I wouldn’t let him. What would I say? I am so uncool.) Though there were some bumpy bits along the way, I would definitely return to wd-50 for another go at a different tasting menu. Anyone want to come along?
(P.S. Niki, the bathroom was very cool indeed. And the stalls came with instructions.)
50 Clinton Street
New York, New York 10002