People are always asking me for restaurant recommendations in New York City, which is really embarrassing for me. I don’t know the next coolest spot, I haven’t tried all the fancy standards. Normally if I go out to eat, I’m looking for something that maximizes the cheap to tasty ratio, and I don’t have time for the tomfoolery of haute cuisine. (But I wish I had the disposable income to partake in both!)
Last night, however, I was lucky enough to go to WD-50, Wiley Dufresne’s molecular gastronomic restaurant on the Lower East Side (which, truth be told, is not new in the slightest), with a friend. And we went whole-hog, getting the tasting menu—all 11 courses and then petit fours. We happily analyzed every bite, picking apart the components before assembling them on our forks. Some courses blew us away, others left us feeling “meh.” And I managed to snag a photo of every course.
One thing that was particularly fun about the meal was comparing the printed menu (they give you a print out to follow along with) to what we saw in front of us. Sure, the waitstaff place the dish in front of you and explain all the components (and you ask them to repeat themselves more than once, if you’re me), but you still can’t really get it all memorized, so you look at the printout of the menu, but then you laugh. Because the relation between the two is sometimes tenuous at best (especially so in a later course). For this first course, the text said, “Scallop, concord grape, saffron, black sesame.”
What that didn’t indicate was that the scallop would be an amazing “noodle” of raw scallop, resembling fettuccine. It was long, just like pasta, too. I can’t even really conceive of the knife skills for that. There were also strands of yellow squash—that’s the yellow mixed in with the scallop. The smear was the saffron, and the liquid in the bottom of the bowl was the concord grape. My friend thought the grape taste was too sweet; it didn’t bother me. The scallop was crunchy and really fresh—it was the yellow squash I could have done without.
The second course is what I’d been hoping for from WD-50: a surprise. The menu said “Everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, crispy cream cheese.” It came out, and I for some reason touched the bagel with my finger—and it melted! Guys, the bagel was ice cream. You can kinda see how the left edge was starting to melt. The smoked salmon threads were really smoky, which blended well with the smoothness of the “bagel.” I have no idea how the cream cheese was made crispy, but it was like a cracker, and didn’t add much other than novelty.
When my friend went to WD-50 before (years ago), she said there had been an egg course on the tasting menu, and I’ve read about Wiley’s obsession with eggs. So this course (“Foie gras, passionfruit, chinese celery“), though eggless, seemed, to us, to be his homage to the egg. How did we determine this? Because we cut into the block of foie gras:
and yellow liquid came spilling out! It was a passionfruit liquid, and it was way way way too sweet. The foie was delicious, with a lovely texture and light flavor, but the passionfruit was too much; I ended up scraping most of it out and not eating it. The Chinese celery was a relatively flavorless component. The whole dish needed something to spread the foie gras on, too—we probably snacked on the sesame crisps on the table most during this course.
Next up, “Scrambled egg ravioli, charred avocado, kindai kampachi.” So okay, maybe THIS is the egg course! It’s no 64-degree egg, but this one was really, really tasty. The “ravioli” seemed to have an outer soft casing of . . . egg, and inside it was perfectly scrambled egg. (Definitely not pasta.) The charred avocado was really just mushed avocado extruded thru a pastry tip and then hit with a torch. The little bits in the front were teensy tiny bits of fried potato—and the fish was phenomenally good. With a little bit of everything on your fork, the bites were really really tasty—the right balance of textures and saltiness.
This here, the blurriest picture I took, is hands-down my favorite course of the night. I am kicking myself for not being more patient with shooting it! I knew from the name alone that it would be a winner: “Cold fried chicken, buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar.” Now, fried chicken is one of my very favorite foods, so this—which was more like a terrine of dark meat that was then fried, sliced, and served cold—was right up my alley. The little bits sticking out were crisp bits of chicken skin, my favorite part of the bird. And the caviar! Who came up with that? Such the perfect salty accompaniment to go with the chicken and the “wait, these aren’t mashed potatoes” ricotta, along with the mouth-coating warmth of the yellow tabasco. This dish was a winner winner winner.
Could the next dish ever have compared with the one before? Sadly, no. This “Striped bass, chorizo, pineapple, popcorn” was promising but boring, just . . . nothing to write home about. We won’t even really talk about it, other than to say the overly dramatic plating cracked me up, and the popcorn puree (the dollop) was a cool thing to sample.
Luckily, the menu redeemed itself with this beauty. The menu said “Beef and bearnaise,” so when this came out we sort of just stared at it. And while my brain was trying to process what was going on in front of me—the phrase “Where’s the beef?” comes to mind, doesn’t it?—I didn’t hear anything the waiter said about it. Those little balls were ricotta-based, I believe, the broth was the most delicate delicious beef broth ever, and omg for reals this was such such tastiness, who cares what it was exactly. We both left nary a drop in our bowls.
Lamb is my favorite meat, and this obviously sous-vide “Lamb loin, black garlic romesco, soybean, pickled ramps” pleased me greatly. The lamb was a fairly large portion for a tasting menu, I thought, and was meaty and rich and perfectly cooked. I loved the soybean schmear—super salty and great umami-ness to that part. The pickled ramps were delicate—could’ve been more pickly—but still nice.
Next up was a palate cleanser, “Chewy lychee sorbet, pistachio, yuzu, celery,” and each individual component was nice (the sorbet really was kind of chewy—how does he do it?) and the yuzu foam was bright (if cliche—we had a long conversation about whether foam is a dated food trend), but I found the pistachio-celery stuff (underneath it all; not shown) to be waay too salty. Though my friend pointed out that the bowlful bridged the gap from salty to sweet, which was a good point, I only enjoyed the sweet components, and I felt the lychee flavor was too easily overwhelmed by the rest.
Onto dessert proper, this cacophany of “Rainbow sherbet, rhubarb, tarragon, orange, olive oil” had a range of textures, which was nice, but overall just seemed like, I don’t know, ice cream in a tuile over a piece of cake. Wasn’t bad at all, just didn’t wow me. I left most of it on my plate—at this point I was getting FULL.
This also pleased me from a molecular gastronomy viewpoint beacuse of the “exploded raspberry,” which I feel pretty certain had been frozen with liquid nitrogen so that it would break apart at each individual seam of the fruit. It was pretty. I liked how the chocolate was soft but stood up, but the raspberry was suuper sour. I wish more heat had been present, too—the long pepper of this “Soft chocolate, frozen raspberries, long pepper, ricotta ice cream” was sadly nonexistent.
And thus ended our meal at WD-50, with this little sampling of chocolates, including (the foreground, blurry) dark chocolate shortbreads with milk ice cream centers (that was the darkest dark chocolate i’ve ever experienced) and the (background, less blurry) “cocoa packets” of their so-called chocolate leather with a crackly chocolate interior. It was like chocolate fruit roll-up, only way better and thinner and nicer than a fruit roll-up. They were cool.
All in all, some dishes were more successful than others, but the whole experience was a delight. Not only did I have good company, but I got to eat for three hours, tasting things I’ve never tasted before, thinking about food in new ways. Oh and the sommelier, who I neglected to mention, recommended a really great bottle of wine . . . and then a nice wine to have a glass of after we’d finished the bottle. Thanks, Wiley and team!