review: batman and robin…
There’s a culinary dynamic duo in Gotham.
Their names are Wylie and Alex.
Their ways are mysterious, their synergy, great.
This stealthy team, comprised of an eccentric rebel maverick and his boyishly handsome sidekick, champions a culinary movement that the city has, for some inexplicable reason, largely resisted.
Why? I don’t know. But consider this:
The last time I had dinner at wd~50 was in 2006. The food and service was so disappointing that we stopped shy of then-pastry chef Sam Mason’s dessert menu.
Strange food pairings aside, there were odd flavors and aftertastes that I couldn’t quite explain or figure out. It was very off-putting.
I don’t mind it if food doesn’t look edible, but it ultimately has to be edible. Some of what we had was barely that.
Maybe I caught the restaurant on a bad night. Or maybe, the food was just not very good at that point in the restaurant’s life. I know I’m not alone; others have shared their grief with me.
Whatever the reason, I walked out with very little interest in returning. And what with all of the talk about an impending “Final Crisis,” I had steered clear of the restaurant altogether in the past couple of years.
But just a month ago, when my friend Sneakeater, who has had similar experiences at wd~50 in the past, came to visit me in Kansas City, he mentioned that the restaurant was really on its A-game now. I tend to trust what Sneakeater says; his word is usually worth gold.
Go, he urged, now was to the time to give it a second chance.
So I did.
This latest meal at wd~50 was extraordinary in a number of ways.
First, Food Snob, whom I had last seen in Kansas City when he made a pit stop for barbecue and bluestem, joined me. He was in New York from London with the noma posse for the Omnivore events. What is not extraordinary is the fact that I was eating with him (although, as you will discover, invariably, eating with Food Snob often turns into an extraordinary experience for many reasons).
What was extraordinary is that Food Snob was at wd~50 the week before and had the tasting menu, and this time, he asked Chef Wylie Dufresne to send out every dish that he hadn’t had. And with much patience and virtue, Dufresne did just that. But he didn’t just send out every dish (essentially, the entire a la carte menu) for us to share. He portioned each plate down, plating one of each for Food Snob and me.
Our twenty-course meal lasted from 6 p.m. until midnight.
Second, I couldn’t really find a single flaw with the execution of any of the food. It was all very exact.
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I found my female counterpart on the cover of the menu. Uncanny.
Here is what we had (to see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE; to see each dish, click on the individual course titles):
Broccoli rabe, enoki, orange.
Rye crisp, purple mustard, horseradish cream.
Smoked almond, banana, and hibiscus.
Aerated Foie Gras
Pickled beet, Mashad [sic] plum, brioche.
Soybean falafel, octopus confit.
Fried Hollandaise, “egg yolk.” and pancetta flags.
Peas-n-coconut, nori, carrot dashi.
Mediterranean Sea Bass
Yeasty mashed potatoes, curry, zucchini, nasturtium sauce, crushed nasturtium.
Sweet and sour salsify, wild rice, butternut squash.
Apple, cheddar, kimchee-cous cous.
Freeze dried polenta, fennel, Asian pear.
Cold Fried Chicken
Buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar.
Spice bread, black radish, campari.
Chewy Lychee Sorbet
Pistachio, lemon, celery.
Pineapple, raisin, saffron, lime.
Brown sugar, jack fruit, whole wheat ice cream.
Coffee Ice Cream
Pecan, cocoa, argan oil.
Peppermint ice cream, black cardamom, toffee.
Apricot, buttercream, lemon-thyme.
Sake sorbet, Bartlett pear.
Coconut, chocolate, chicory.
Chocolate Shortbread Truffles Milk Ice cream
Those who read my blog regularly know that 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.
The “Tomatillo-Pine Gazpacho” was more novel than it was refreshing or tasty. Served cold, the thick soup seemed to be equal parts bitter (fortified by sesame, or tahini?), tangy, and spicy. It was all very oddly out of place, yet oddly put into place with a drop of pine oil, which enlivened the whole with a mentholated scent.
The soybean falafels in the soup, however, were comforting and familiar. These were great. The shells were crunchy and golden, the interiors warm and soft. Confit of baby octopus tentacles and strips of cucumbers rounded out the Mediterranean story nicely.
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.
Whereas these were gratifying, the “Lemongrass Mousse,” alone, was challenging.
Jackfruit isn’t a flavor I dislike, but has a pungent body that wasn’t exactly approachable to the non-native eater. Stupak tamed the jackfruit with a nutty, whole wheat ice cream and a heavy injection of citrus fragrance, both from the lemongrass mousse and the micro lemongrass used as a garnish.*** It worked magnificently.
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.
Sneakeater was right, now is really the time to see the dynamic duo in action. 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.
To read about the other restaurants I visited on this trip to New York, CLICK HERE.
50 Clinton Street
New York, New York 10002
* It being the middle of June, I have no idea how this was remotely appropriate. I might ask the same of the duck with apples and cheddar.
** As a matter of restaurant efficiency, this cold fried chicken was brilliant – they could batter and fry the cylinders of chicken (forcemeat?) ahead and chill until service; no frying to order necessary.
*** Micro lemongrass is new to me. But, apparently, both Dufresne and Stupak love the stuff. It appeared on no less than four of our twenty dishes. What does it taste like? Lemongrass, with a floss-like texture.