New York does have its own, locally-grown practitioner of the new cuisine and his name is Wylie Dufresne. Wylie's restaurant is WD-50 at 50 Clinton Street on the Lower East Side, and he first gained notoriety as the chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, the restaurant credited as the progenitor of the "serious restaurants on the LES" movement.
Having blazed a path on New York’s restaurant landscape in being part of the groundbreaking 71 Clinton, Wylie seems to have decided to offer a place of his own where his creativity could combine with advancements in technology and the consumers' new interest in more experimental cuisine to establish a destination restaurant. In the beginning, it was a destination even for those of us that live in NY to get all the way down there. Now, since Sis and Bil just chose to celebrate an occasion there, I think it's safe to say this has become a restaurant to travel to, at least from as far as the Jersey shore.
WD-50 inhabits its space well; narrow and long, it seems to fit from beginning to end. There is a very pretty, simple bar as you enter, then tables in rows running the length of the room. There are banquettes capable of accommodating six or so along the northern wall, a line of deuces in the middle with a bench on one side and chairs on the other then, starting at a copper fireplace on the southern wall, are square tables for four with one larger rectangle at the end of the row. All this flows straight into the open kitchen where Wylie works his magic at a station comprised of reference books, a flat top and a service table.
The entire design – from the randomly different, brightly-colored blown glass pendant lights and the secreted, handle-less doors to the bathrooms, to the woven plastic placemats – seems to pay attention to comfort and fineness while understanding that this is the Lower East Side and that overdoing luxurious touches may not only feel out of place, but might also ruin the flow from outside to in. The restaurant really presents itself well. Along the southern wall is one large slice of beautiful, rose-colored marble placed in seven continuous sections that looks like it may as well be fractal imaging printed on stone. Somehow, this piece seems to subtly state the restaurant's mission, blurring the lines between science and nature using an artisan's skills to coax beauty from what could have been mundane rocks if left alone.
As the practitioners of the modern cuisine pop up around the globe, more and more people get branded part of the movement (this is found in press labels like “molecular gastronomy” or any comparison to Ferran Adrià). True practitioners are discernable in their tendency to:
1. Use technique to highlight the purity of ingredients' essential flavors.
2. Play with the standard balance of the four components of flavor (sour, salty, bitter, and sweet).
3. Use presentation for crafty subversion of visual perceptions.
4. Create textures different from those associated with a flavor’s natural state.
Wylie applies these without ever letting a chosen affectation outshine the dish as a whole. There is a note of soil in the flavor of a fresh-picked carrot and there is a note of soil in Wylie's interpretation, even when that the flavor is coming from a liquid that looks like an egg yolk, contained in a membrane that makes it actually act and feel like one. Not only do you taste it and say "this tastes like the essence of a carrot," you say, "this tastes like an organic carrot smells while being juiced."
In the interest of exposure, we ordered the tasting menu with its paired wines. The wines represent more then one course so I will note them at the end of their series (if we finished the taste before the wine's series had ended, more showed up promptly: beware the inebriation this inspires).
Rabbit leg, sweet potato, pecan, pea shoot led it all off. The rabbit leg was from a terrine with a crisped edge. Spring peas and pea shoots joined the sweet potato puree to be varying layers of sweetness, while the pecan and the rabbit leg were contrasting types of richness, all freshened by the acids of a piece of pickled rabbit rib.
Carrot-coconut "sunny side up" This dish cannot be discussed with out mentioning its presentation. It appears as an egg with an orange center, comprised of a carrot liquid trapped in an alginate on top of a coconut gel that appears to be the egg's white. Once past the dish's uncanny resemblance to the "sunny-side up" egg its name eludes to, it becomes about the clarity with which the flavor components represent themselves. The coconut is sweet, the carrot is sweet while earthy, and the two are brought together by olive oil, smoked maple syrup and cardamom. Once the yolk is broken, the flavors combine to end up reminiscent of a soup that may have been a second course, while all the while the textures force the dish's uniqueness.
Pairing: Cava Rosado Avinyó Non vintage A 100% Pinot Noir rose sparkler from Spain, it had enough fruit and structure to compliment the rabbit while being dry and earthy enough to allow the "egg" its sweetness.
Foie gras, candied olives, green peas, beet juice This is probably the dish that best shows the chef's skill in presentation, juxtaposition, technique, and balance. For sweet flavors there are micro beet greens, candied olives, sweet pea sand, and beet juice. However, the greens have the slightest bit of chlorophyll bitterness, the pea sand has the bitters of uncooked starch, the olives are sweet on the outside while displaying pure olive richness on the inside, the beet juice is both sweet and somehow astringent. All this is served with the most uniform, rich, creamy, unctuous foie topped with flakes of Maldon salt. The textures are all opposites, soft peas are mealy here, the bite of beet flesh is replaced with a liquid, the meat of an olive presented as a crunch. Each part interesting when taken and appreciated alone, they all tie together to make a harmony of disparate ingredients that run the gambit from obvious to subtle depending on how you've apportioned each component's share of space on your fork.
Pairing: 'Rainwater' Justinos Madeira NV Choosing a sweet wine with this made sense; choosing one as lightly sweet as this was appreciated. While doing the job of bringing balance to the foie's richness, it was not so deeply flavored as to blow out the delicate flavors in the dish.
Shrimp cannelloni, chorizo, Thai basil Shrimp and leaves of Thai basil are rolled into a wrapper made of shrimp, which is placed on an emulsion of chorizo. The lightness of shrimp is toughened in texture, while the flavor is dragged ashore by the Thai basil, and the normally heavy flavors of chorizo are lightened through emulsion. This dish seems to lose the essence of shrimp to the power of its accoutrement, the dilemma of the classic surf-and-turf battle made interesting by unique textures across the board. While Bil hated the basil and chorizo notes, Sis declared it the best-cooked shrimp she had had. So if you love texture, love this; if you hate the union of dissociate flavors, hate it.
Beef tongue, fried mayo, tomato molasses In case it hasn't already occurred to you from the name, I'll tell you the garnish was finely diced romaine ribs and red onion and, once you figure out that some type of breading must be involved in frying mayo, you'll see that what we have here are the deconstructed components of a traditional deli sandwich. Maybe while he was opening Wylie walked past Katz' a bunch, maybe not, whatever his inspiration, the flavors of a good deli sandwich are good flavors. By pickling the tongue, warming the mayo, and adding the deep, burnt, sweet flavors of molasses to the ketchup, you end up with one of those “wow” moments familiar flavors in a new presentation can inspire.
Pairing: '03 Bianco di Jacopo Colli Orentali Ronco del Gnemiz A super-white of Friuli, this had the acid definition to play with the shrimp and sausage flavors, while being rich enough to complement the tongue. With its well-balanced notes of minerals, flowers and citrus, I imagine this would pair well with many foods.
Miso soup with sesame "noodles" The "noodles" are basically raw tofu in a squeeze bottle that sets when you squeeze it into the hot soup. Make sure to separate the noodle once you have extruded it. If you eat it all in one bite, as one is apt to do since it comes out as one long strand floating atop the broth, you find that the remaining broth is exceedingly salty without the taming affects of the protein. Also, get as much out of the bottle as you can in the beginning. Once you have finished and the soup has cooled a bit you realize that what you can still get out won't set and ends up a boring, flavorless paste. Get it all together while the getting's good.
Langoustine, celery root, banana-mustard This dish is really about the banana-mustard, interesting in both flavor and texture. The bitter celery greens, sweet langoustine, caramelized starches of the celery root, and dried bits of bananas all serve to coax out the unique sweetness of banana. Bananas walk an interesting side of flavor and seem almost savory when tamed by things like fish. All together, this dish contrasts and compliments flavors, textures, and familiarity.
Pairing: '04 Agiorgitiko 'Notios Red' Gaia Wines This is a light, red wine. I mean like Beaujolais light. Were it not for strawberry and cherry on the nose, blind I would probably have guessed it white. The acids are light, the flavors are light, and it was red, perfect in a flight where most people are going to insist on a red-colored wine but your ambition is to have them taste your food.
Duck breast, parsnip "ricotta", spaghetti squash, black vinegar Black vinegar is another not-what-you-thought ingredient. Thick and black, resembling a balsamic reduction on the plate, it is actually light and has an aroma of fermented malt with hardly notable acidity. The ricotta seems to be the coagulated starch of a parsnip and is more a textural than a flavor component. The flavor of the sides comes more from the sweetness of the spaghetti squash and the bitterness of tiny cocoa nibs, which together pull richness from the duck.
Pairing: '04 House wine The Magnificant Wine Co. A brand name befitting this big, hot-weather Syrah fruit-bomb. Fine next to the duck, it seemed to point out the strength of the accompanying flavors in the dish in that they stood up next to this fat, cherry, chocolate monster.
Tangerine sorbet, basil, olive oil not mentioned is salt The bitterness of the tangerine pith incorporated with the sweetness of the fruit was contrasted by the richness of the olive oil and the strictly herbal basil. I found it a pleasing intermezzo, while Bil thought it far too salty.
Manchego cheesecake, foamed pineapple, pear Sooner or later foam was bound to show up. Here, it seemed to do what foams do best, accurately representing the pineapple while controlling its power so as not to blow out the cheesecake.
Pairing: des Charentes Ferrand NV The alcohol used to fortify it does a good job of lightning a wine that tastes like it was on its way to being a sickly sweet one, reminiscent of Madeira. As it is, it is a light, sweet wine that will involve but stay out of the way of food.
Butternut sorbet, pumpkin seed cake, chocolate soil A dessert about the natural sugars in gourds, of course this spoke to me for its not being sweet for no good reason, but sweet more as an exploration of types of sweetness.
Pairing: Commanderia St' John Another Greek wine, made in the Solera method of sherry, it was as slightly sweet as the sorbet it accompanied.
Red bell pepper jellies What if you ate something from that was reminiscent of bell pepper, but wasn’t? It tasted exactly like a bell pepper, the sweetness, the astringency, the color, the slight bitter note, even a sense of juiciness, yet rather then being crisp and cold, it was chewy and room temperature? Could it play the role of a petit-fours for you? That’s what this is, and you’ll have to try it if you want to know the answer.
The hunger WD-50 best sates is the intellectual one that involves inspired food. If you love thinking about food, Wylie is definitely putting himself out there to stimulate your thoughts. There are enough unique presentations to captivate one's imagination, enough emphasis on less-often accented components of well-known flavors, and enough juxtaposition of known textures to excite anyone that truly enjoys dining, while the element of playfulness and whimsy that accompanies presentations that subvert one's expectations -- the "egg" that tastes of vegetables, a deli sandwich separated into assorted shapes and sensations, the surprise of blood red beet-juice pouring from a cylinder of foie gras like a jelly doughnut -- lend a sense of childish fun to the whole venture. There is something here for most, if not all.
Seldom is the dining experience solitary, and Wylie's approach may not appeal to everyone. Before going I would ask myself, "how much do I want my chef testing boundaries tonight," and "how open am I to experiences that play with run-of-the-mill standards?" If you are intrigued by a savory course that incorporates two interpretations of banana, then you should either find like-minded people or a group whose boring boundaries you like to push.
Wylie makes no apologies for these dishes; there is an integrity, a definite and precise logic to every dish, which everything at WD-50 seems to stand behind. If someone is going to “not get” dried bananas, you may find them asking you to apologize, and this food is too exciting, meticulous, and inspired to apologize for and so involving that you may only muster an “oh well,” even for a loved one. Go with people strong enough for this reaction.