Stepping through the entryway at 50 Clinton Street on Manhattan's lower east side is the gourmet equivalent of platform nine and three quarters, for the dining room and kitchen just beyond the threshold of WD-50 is nothing shy of a culinary Hogwarts. The wizard at the helm of this incontrovertibly magical restaurant, chef-genius Wylie Dufresne (the restaurant's moniker marrying its address and his initials), magnificently juxtaposes science and the culinary arts. While no actual magic spells or potions may be at work, Chef Dufresne utilizes the highest quality ingredients, freshly conceived into imaginative manifestations through the use of special equipment, natural gums, and hydrocolloids. Science lab has never tasted so good.
Considered avant-garde cuisine (sometimes mislabeled molecular gastronomy, which is technically merely the study of the scientific processes at work in cooking), his dishes find playful spins on classic favorites. Solids become liquids, proteins become noodles, popcorn becomes pudding, mayonnaise is fried. Nothing tastes like it looks. Colors, flavors, and textures surprise you at every turn, like some comestible house of mirrors. Though seemingly whimsical and free-spirited recipes, in actuality, each meticulously conceived dish is the result of what sometimes turns out to be months of purposefully guided experimentation, the labor-intensive results reflected in the cost. But if you are game for a new approach to mind-bogglingly sophisticated cooking that is every bit as delicious as it is inventive, then WD-50 is worth every penny of its rather steep price tag.
One of my favorite food enthusiasts and a fantastic friend, Denise, and I have had WD-50 on our NYC restaurant wish list for several years. Busy schedules, thin wallets, and a hundred poor reasons have prevented us from finally making the trip to 50 Clinton, until last week, when the stars finally aligned. Knowing that this was a dinner in which we most likely would not regularly indulge, we pulled out all of the stops, enjoying the twelve-course tasting. A graduate student of microbiology with an undergraduate minor in chemistry, Denise, also a wine connoisseur in training (currently enrolled at the International Wine Center), was my dream date for an adventure at WD-50. In light of her present studies, she indulged in the wine pairings, while I simply created my own cocktail pairings, also enjoying sips of the wines she graciously offered. With a tasting at $140 per person, wine pairings an additional $85 (a la carte appetizers, entrees, and desserts are also available, with main dishes averaging around $30), WD-50 is what most might consider a special occasion destination. Although Denise and I shared no particular occasion other than our momentarily synced up schedules, the utterly divine dinner we enjoyed was reason enough to celebrate.
While I will not attempt to conjecture at the processes behind each of the dishes we quite literally devoured, I will gladly share the few techniques about which I did learn, along with the images and my own personal descriptions to the extent my comprehension of this culinary field will allow. Let it be said, up front, that we perpetually laughed at almost every dish in astonishment, desperately attempted to restrain ourselves by slowly savoring each exquisite flavor profile, and really only spoke to one another in dumfounded interjections like Wow! Holy cow! Incredible! for the lack of intelligible, readily accessible vocabulary. I think my favorite point in our interaction was when Denise simply looked up from her plate and grinned at me before declaring, "God, I love great food!" Reassuring to hear from a slim and fit dining companion who regularly runs marathons at various destinations around the world (where her post-run itinerary revolves around some of the most acclaimed restaurants on the globe). When I grow up, and finally find that delicate balance between fitness and food, I hope to be like Denise (minus the godawful marathons).
Dinner service commenced with a large wooden trough of sesame flatbreads, deceitfully simple. Like crispy and savory elephant ear pastries, these seeded crisps were surprisingly addictive, each layered with thin and brittle sheets of flatbread.
The liquid component of my meal was ushered in by a Perilla Ponche, or mint punch of rum, pineapple, and shiso, the result: a dangerously and deliciously drinkable pineapple mojito. I finished the first embarrassingly quickly, and immediately ordered a second.
Our amuse-bouche was a crudo of tender and delicate spanish mackerel with shisito pepper and shiso. The ruby orb beneath is not a grape tomato, but rather a dollop of sweet watermelon gelee. The result, a fresh and clean minty, peppery, tangy palate and appetite awakener.
After a subtle amuse-bouche, the second course gloriously baptizes you into the wacky and wonderful world of Chef Dufresne. In a nod to the neighborhood (Katz's deli, after all, is just a few blocks away) comes this unfathomable take on a bagel with lox. Look carefully, and you might notice that the bagel is melting. That's because it's actually everything bagel flavored ice cream. The chef literally steeps crushed, toasted everything bagels in milk to infuse the flavor before straining, adding cream, egg yolk, and a few other ingredients to create ice cream, which is then set in a mini-bagel-shaped (savarin) mold, air brushed to the likeness of an actual bagel, then rolled in poppy and sesame seeds for added effect.
Next to the "bagel" you will find a small mound of what appears to be an unraveled spool of salmon thread, which melts in your mouth. The brain says you are eating lox-flavored cotton candy, while the morsels literally reconstitute on your tongue to resemble a juicy and delicate slice of smoked salmon. The trick? It's really hand-shredded poached furikake-style salmon which has then been box-smoked.
And what bagel with lox would be complete without a few other accompaniments. Also with this dish comes a paper-thin wafer of dehydrated cream cheese, pickled red pearl onions, and a few leaves of wood sorrel (a lemony herbal substitute for the citrus wedge).
While I wanted to taste each component individually and marvel at the creativity, Denise carefully stacked each element into a beautiful sandwich before cutting evenly-portioned nibbles from the Jewish classic. It was cold. It was ice cream. It was savory. It was absolutely incredible and quite literally like nothing I've ever tried.
How do you follow such a standout second course without paling in comparison? A passion fruit puree filled disc of creamy foie-gras garnished with various forms of chinese celery.
A decadently rich, smooth, and salty foie-gras cylinder cut with a fork reveals a pond of tart and tangy passion fruit that flows from its center, gorgeously balancing the savory outer compartment. Slivers of tender celery are ribboned atop like an edible bow, while a crunchy dehydrated bed of the same vegetable add texture and earthiness. It's every bit as addictive as it is creative.
The next course is a scrambled egg ravioli. The chef actually freezes cubes of a gentle blend of cream cheese and scrambled egg (with just a kiss of gelatin), dips them in egg yolk, and then slowly poaches the ravioli. After an ice cube bath, the ravioli are then raised to warm temperature, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. The result is a firm, cube-shaped egg yolk dumpling filled with creamy scrambled eggs, and it's breakfast like you never knew you could crave it. The ravioli is served with a cylindrical dollop of avocado that has been blended with yogurt & mustard, then bruleed for a charred avocado effect, alongside a scattering of mini-fried crunchy potatoes, and topped with a tender slice of cured kindai kampachi. The final result is a somewhat Asian inspired, yet entirely new American take on a cornucopia of breakfast flavors that sing harmoniously together in flavor and texture.
According to our waiter, the next dish was inspired by leftovers. Layers of various chicken filets have been pressed into a terrine, before being cook sous vide (vacuum-sealed under temperature controlled water), and then chilled again. The cold fried chicken is then topped with dollops of buttermilk whipped into a ricotta, almost like cool mashed potatoes. Teardrops of tabasco honey add the only element of heat, and shiny mounds of sturgeon caviar remind you just how far from leftover fried chicken this brilliant dish actually aspires. Crispy fried chicken skin and chervil are the perfect garnishes. It's wildly playful, delicious, and would never really exist as an actual leftover... We practically licked the dish clean.
A tropical twist on a Chilean classic, two discs of exquisitely prepared sea bass rest atop a mound of spicy and piquant, chopped dried chorizo, a luscious cube of juicy pineapple, crushed cilantro delfino, and lime zest, over a ribbon of popcorn puree. A tangy and salty jazzy creole marriage of surf and turf. Did I mention pureed popcorn!?! Unbelievable.
One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the uncanny rendition of beef and bearnaise. Typically a buttery filet with a creamy sauce, the topsy turvy world of WD-50 flips this dish in a wonderful role reversal, creating delicate bearnaise gnocchi. These herbal dumplings are crowned with caramelized shallots, julienned snow peas, and tarragon leaves, all in a shallow pool of a tongue teasingly robust beef consomme. My brain literally exploded as the flavors combined in my mouth with all of the elements of the classic french dish, yet the textures reassigned to different players on the plate. Deconstructed, reconstructed, and mouthwateringly phenomenal. It was paired with a 2008 Cotes du Rhone that tasted like smooth raspberry jam with a slight finish of peppercorn, and convinced me that next time, the wine pairing is absolutely worth the added expense.
The playfulness and bold creativity of the previous dishes made the following plate somewhat disappear into the shadows in retrospect, although it was undeniably a well-seasoned and flavorful, albeit somewhat resistant lamb loin. In this case, I might have preferred a grill to the sous vide technique, as the char and aerated heat results in a tenderness and contrast to what became a slightly unyielding loin. With the addition of pickled ramps and a bold black garlic romesco, however, even this less-than-ideal lamb was quickly devoured due to all of the wonderful flavors employed.
White beer ice cream made a beautiful introduction to the sweet end of the tasting menu, dressed with a dollop of tart apple puree, a drizzle of caramel, a decadent cube of molasses gelee, and caraway in both the form of powder, as well as a yogurt-drizzled cookie swirl. If it can be said of ice cream, it was actually effervescent, as if someone had skimmed the frothy head from a frosty pint of hefeweizen and morphed it into a scoop of ice cream. Delicious.
The next dessert was a cleverly reinvented rainbow sherbert, almost like a confectionary spring roll. A "wonton" of crisp, sugary sheets of sweetness encases profoundly creamy ice cream on a pedestal of plump orange wedges, poached rhubarb, and olive oil sponge cake, polka dotted with olive oil gelee and tarragon foam. The memory of the beef bearnaise still not so distant on my palate, the tarragon wonderfully bridged our meal to this heavenly light dessert.
Ask anyone who really knows me, and they can tell you that the duet of chocolate and raspberry is without contest my favorite dessert combination. And on this one, WD-50 absolutely floored me. An impressively thin little mohawk of chocolate ganache was the star of this dish, sprinkled with zippy little bits of long pepper. Two frozen raspberries, one whole, and the other shattered into tart little smithereens, sang back up, all components deliciously mellowed out by a quenelle of silky ricotta ice cream. Wow... wow... and wow...
Next came what I call oreo cookie orbs, little spheres of rich chocolate shortbread filled with creamy milk ice cream.
Our final nibble, cocoa packets, were a playful sendoff, and only-so-slightly helped lighten the blow of our bill. What our server called edible chocolate leather was the texture of a fruit roll-up I so dearly loved from childhood, only with a wonderfully chocolate flavor. Each packet was filled with crushed chocolate feuilletine, almost like little envelopes of chocolate toffee pop rocks. Way more fun than the proverbial macaroon at Manhattan's top tier competitors.
So what keeps this little juggernaut from making the top-starred list in the New York Times? Probably location, and decor. The atmosphere is inviting, smart, and casual. The service impeccable, each member of the team ready and capable of enthusiastically answering any question. One food runner announces the presentation with the gusto of a radio voiceover. Another describes the next dish to us like a mother cautiously explaining a secret family recipe to her children. The elements marry perfectly with the concept, but with such innovative food laced with pure sense of humor, anything more frilly would only distract. Ergo, the extra star probably isn't worth what might be lost for its gain. WD-50 does retain a Michelin star. Furthermore, Chef Dufresne even once served as sous chef at the highly acclaimed Jean-Georges, just one of several partnerships with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who also helped fund the upstart of WD-50.
But where Jean-Georges frequently mingles with guests in his dining room, Chef Dufresne rarely leaves the kitchen. Instead, the entrance is free of doors, almost like an open invitation to observe what's on the stove (or in a controlled water bath, more likely). Greatly to our surprise and extreme pleasure, Chef Dufresne offered us precisely that... a small tour of his kitchen laboratory.
An entire wall of just some of the powders, gums, and enzymes that aid in transforming his culinary masterpieces.
At the tail end of table service, his staff carefully plates the final set of desserts for the evening, each dish simply waiting for the sherbert cylinder before delivery to an eagerly awaiting guest.
Denise and Chef Wylie Dufresne in the kitchen at WD-50
Though I am oftentimes leery of meeting celebrities face-to-face for fear that the reality will shatter the ideal persona I have conjured, Wylie Dufresne was every bit as warm, humble, and down-to-earth as I could have possibly hoped. We truly shook hands with a culinary genius that night, and left with vivid sensory memories that will be slow to fade. If you ever contemplated breaking the bank to splurge on a meal, this is undoubtedly the place you should book a table. It was beyond the most creative and unique dinner I have ever enjoyed, and I can only hope to be afforded the opportunity to return soon.