I had no interest in going to wd-50. It wasn’t that I’d not been exposed to molecular gastronomy, a main feature of the cuisine there. I’d eaten foods prepared sous vide and/or adorned with foams. However, from what I read about Chef/Owner Wiley Dufresne’s cuisine, it was highly manipulated food coupled with very weird ingredient combinations. Frankly, I saw nothing enjoyable about a meal composed of what I considered science experiments on the plate. Call me an unadventurous old fuddy-duddy, but it wasn’t for me.
Recently, however, I began hearing reports from various sources that Chef Dufresne’s cuisine had taken a turn toward the more “normal.” While not abandoning molecular gastronomy, he was now serving food that was a lot less weird. One of those sources was our friend Bonjwing Lee (aka ulterior epicure). He’s had three meals at wd-50 since it opened, most recently last year when he was served a tasting dinner that included just about every dish on the menu. While he’d been a lot less than enthused about his prior meals, he gave high marks to this one. So, though still harboring doubts, I put wd-50 on my “go to” list, figuring I’d try it at some point.
That point happened in early March when uhockey came to town. As I described in this post, we first met at EMP in February of last year. We met up with him again for several meals when he returned to New York the following month: dinners at Ai Fiori and Café Boulud, Roberta’s special tasting menu, and a parting lunch at Union Square Café.
Over the ensuing year, our friendship deepened via back-and-forth emails. When he informed me that he would be here in March for almost a week, we agreed to get together for several meals and began the fun process of putting together a dining itinerary.
Although I knew he had been to quite a few restaurants known for molecular gastronomy, he told me that he’d put off going to wd-50 because he feared it would be more form over substance. However, like me, he had heard the recent reports and was now interested in going there. Our friend Ellen was also interested in trying it. So, we booked a table for four.
On the appointed Sunday evening, our taxi dropped Michael and me off on the corner of Houston and Clinton, and we walked the block-and-a-half along Clinton to No. 50, from whence the restaurant gets the second half of its hyphenated name, the letters being, obviously, the chef/owner’s initials. This is the neighborhood I grew up in. In fact, my old building still stands a few blocks west of the restaurant between the same two cross street, Stanton and Rivington. Suffice it to say that back then, a restaurant of this type situated in this location was beyond anyone’s imagination.
As we approached the restaurant, uhockey was outside perusing the posted menu. The three of us entered, checked our coats, and waited at the bar until Ellen arrived. The interior décor is casual but handsome. The spacious bar area in front leads into the not overly-large dining room with nicely-spaced tables and comfortable modern-style chairs plus several booths along the left side. Our 4-top was along the right wall. There were only a couple of tables occupied when we were seated, but the room gradually filled up, and I was very pleased that the noise level remained comfortable throughout the evening. There was music but, happily, it was unobtrusive.
We had all looked at the menu on the restaurant’s website beforehand and had pretty much decided to go the a la carte route because the tasting menu did not include the dishes we were most interested in trying. Once we ascertained that the menu in hand was just about the same, we each chose two dishes from the appetizer section and one main course. While we waited for the first of our appetizers to be served, we chatted and munched on some crispy flatbread.
The Aerated Foie with Pickled Beet, Mashad Plum and Brioche was a much talked about dish, so it was a natural choice for this Foie Gras Queen. Of my three savory dishes, this is the one where molecular gastronomy played a pivotal role. The foie was puffed up into extremely light and airy pillows; yet, the foie flavor remained intense. I swooned! The beets and plum were perfect accompaniments. And piling some of the foie onto the ultra-thin, ultra-crispy pieces of brioche was a perfect study in opposing textures.
My second starter was the Sweet Potato Soup with Scallop Ravioli, Kalamansi, Hazelnut. No hocus pocus here. It was – soup! However, what made this soup exceptional was that the deep sweet potato flavor was given an enhanced dimension with the addition of lime. And gilding the proverbial lily was the complex scallop ravioli which was incredible. More swooning ensued.
I tasted Michael’s two appetizers. The great flavor of the Corned Duck was enhanced immeasurably by the mustard and horseradish cream. And the Cold Fried Chicken, another much talked about item, was very tasty.
For my main course, I chose the Duck Breast with Black Sesame Dumplings, Red Cabbage, and Parsnip Consommé. The duck was very tender, the dumplings were tasty, the red cabbage (which I think had onions mixed in) was like a slaw, and the consommé was surprisingly though not unpleasantly spicy. I should add that I adore parsnips, which made the consommé very appealing. Two minor complaints: (a) the duck skin wasn’t crispy, and (b) cutting meat in a bowl is awkward. Overall, though, I enjoyed this dish.
I tasted Michael’s Wagyu Chuck Steak. Superb! The black-eyed peas accompaniment was especially outstanding. I also had a taste of uhockey’s Pork Ribs – not my thing – and of Ellen’s Smoked Char which, though it had a pleasant smoky flavor, I wouldn’t order since I’m not a fan of Arctic char.
The evening was going swimmingly until it came time for dessert. It is here that we hit a glitch. uhockey, Michael, and I wanted to do the 5-course dessert tasting menu; however, Ellen wanted only a single dessert. The restaurant’s policy is that everyone at the table must participate in the dessert tasting. Our server, Andrew, was kind enough to check with the kitchen to see if they would make an exception, but no dice. The manager came to our table and with an apology reiterated that the policy was firm. When asked if the dessert tasting could be had at the bar, he said yes.
With that in mind, I offered what I felt was a good solution. I’d forego the tasting and have a single dessert with Ellen while the men repaired to the bar for the tasting. It would have been no big deal for me, but Ellen wasn’t comfortable about it, so she decided to leave without having dessert.
While I can understand the “entire table” policy for a full tasting menu where timing of courses is a big issue, frankly, I think it’s a ridiculous policy for desserts. Since they come at the end of the meal, I can’t see what’s so difficult about serving one person his or her one dessert during the first round, and then then serving the ensuing rounds to the rest of the table. A policy should make some sort of sense. To me, this one does not.
There had been universal raves for the dessert created by wd-50’s previous pastry chef, Alex Stupak. However, the current pastry chef, Malcolm Livingston II, was Stupak’s sous chef. So, my guess is that his desserts are very much in that mold.
We were first presented with a pre-dessert: Mango with Saki, Vanilla, Lemon Balm, and Caramel. Light. Refreshing. Delicious.
I loved the first three desserts: Menthol with Ginger, Pomelo, and Chamomile; Soft Meringue with Passionfruit, Banana, and Star Anise; and Warm Spice Cake with Coconut, Tamarind, Coriander, and Pineapple. Each one had a sublime combination of flavors and textures.
Number 4 was Chocolate & Beet with Long Pepper and Ricotta. This definitely had the splashiest, most eye-catching appearance on the plate. Beets are one of my favorite things, and while I’m not a huge fan of chocolate desserts, the combination worked very nicely, and I did love the Ricotta Ice Cream.
As they went along, the dessert portions increased substantially in size. Thus, by the time we got to Number 5, I was beginning to feel stuffed. Root Beer Float turned out to be unlike anything I would have expected. Not very visually appealing to me, looking at this gargantuan mound, I immediately got this image in my mind of the Devil’s Tower, in North Dakota. (We’d stopped there during a cross-country trip in the 1980’s.) Though I’ve never had a root beer float, I do like root beer. But I didn’t care aat all for this dessert. So, after eating a few bites, I turned the rest over to uhockey who, after having consumed his own, was very happy to polish off mine.
One last comment about the dessert. While I enjoyed the first four, I do feel that the desserts for the tasting should have been scaled down to tasting portion size.
The service Andrew provided throughout the meal couldn’t have been warmer or more attentive. His joy in what he is doing was quite evident, and his enthusism was contagious.
As we were finishing up, the manager returned to invite us to visit the kitchen. He described the various stations and encouraged us to take photos.
Wylie Dufresne was not in the house that night, but Chef de Cuisine Jon Bignelli along with his team did a masterful job. He and Chef Malcom were there to accept our well-deserved praise.
There is, obviously, no way I can measure the degree to which the cuisine at wd-50 has changed since it opened. But despite having heard that it was now much more “accessible,” and even though there were some elements of molecular gastronomy in my dishes and those I tasted, I was shocked at how “normal” the food was. It was all really, really good. Delicious, actually. I liked it a lot! To be sure, we will be back.
To see all the photos from this dinner, click here.
You can read uhockey’s review of wd-50 here.