Tue 12 May 2009
Eagle-eyed Top Chef fans will recognize wd-50 Chef Wylie Dufresne (read: Du-FRANE) as an occasional guest judge; a bespectacled wonder on the New York City dining scene who looks as if he would just as likely be teaching high school chemistry and playing bass on the weekends as creating one of the most lauded tasting menus in the city.
On a recent girls weekend in Manhattan, we were lucky enough to score a prime Saturday night reservation at wd~50 and I was even luckier to be dining with two friends willing to go for the adventurous tasting menu. Chef Dufresne, and in turn his restaurant, are a study in barely contained eccentricity. Main components of the 11-dish tasting menu are recognizable to the average diner: scallops! fried chicken! rabbit! squab! Okay, maybe not that last one. I had to convince my companions the squab was not actually “farmed” on the front curb. But with a few exceptions, the menu leads the diner to think the plate will be a dressed up version of recognizable. As it turns out, that diner would be wrong.
In DC dining terms, wd~50 is a combintation of Komi and MiniBar. Like Komi, the small restaurant is intimate (it only seats around 30) , high-end but relaxed. Like MiniBar, the menu borders on familiar science fiction. When my companions shared they were interested in the tasting menu but concerned about specific ingredients such as the rabbit and snails, our waitress enthusiastically encouraged them to point out what they weren’t interested in and the kitchen would supply substitutions. “They’ve been doing this for years,” she shared, “they can make adjustments without a problem.”
Our second course, the “everything bagel” is a perfect example of the molecular gastronomy that made Chef Dufresne famous. The menu bills the dish as an “everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, crispy cream cheese.” What we received was a bagel-shaped dollop of ice cream with white and black sesame seeds and a side of shredded, crispy salmon that had a brittle crunch of well-done shoestring fries but with the potent, unmistakable flavor of salmon. To achieve this consistency, the salmon is treated, dried until is completely out of moisture and then shucked with a grater. I wondered if astronauts had enjoyed a similar dish in the 60s.
The following course, foie gras with passion fruit and chinese celery veered away from the unexpected presentation and into the “I can’t believe it’s not gross!” category. The circular cut of foie gras arrived on its end, sprinkled with chinese celery and looking like a bologna salad. Cutting into it and taking my first bite, I was not at all surprised to find the fois gras rich, creamy and decadent. By my third bite, I was most definitely surprised to find an injenction of passionfruit (gel? compote?) in the middle of the cylinder. Paired against the chinese celery, which offered just the slightest kick, and the depth of the fois gras, it was a trifecta of flavors – a perfect balance, a wonderful harmony, a veritable symphony of things-I-never-thought-would-work.
More food, photos and what Chef Dufresne does if you don’t clean your plate after the jump.
Throughout the meal, the tasting menu had an amazing way of polarizing diners. My companions wouldn’t go near the foie gras, which I devoured but I gave my next dish – scallops, tendon, endive, parsley and hazelnut oil – to my friend Philly Utzie to polish off. This is unheard of – I love scallops. Something about the texture turned me off but she could not get enough of them. Maybe it was the puffed beef tendon that looked and tasted like a flavorful pork rind? You can take the girl out of Philly…
The cold fried chicken, served as perfect breaded rectangles with buttermilk-ricotta, caviar and a swipe tobasco sauce was an instant crowd pleaser. Later on, I inhaled my snails with red lentils in an orange reduction sauce and all the while marveling that such ingredients could ever add up to something so delightful.
The squab was a mixed bag. None of us had every tried squab before and, I’ll be honest, it’s a tough dish to take in after a day of walking the pigeon-populated streets of Manhattan. But we were all up to the challenge and adventurous enough to at least try it. Even in the mood lit dining room, the color of the meat was a striking deep ruby red. The protein was cooked rare and the combination of shape and color reminded me of the one time my mother deigned to make liver and onions at home. The flavor felt more familiar: dense, gamey with a wonderfully thick viscous texture. If anyone had an iron deficiency before the meal it was taken care of by now. The squab was served with a cream soda gel that I happily smeared onto the meat with each bite. The creamy sweet soda gel made the protein even more potent. The flavors were big. The dish came with two slices of squab but my palate needed a break after one.
It was around this stage that we learned another wonderful characteristic of the service at wd~50: they really care if you like your dish or not. The plates are small and if more than a bite or two is left when you are clearly finished, the waitress (or the sommelier, or another server who is nearby) will ask kindly ”Did you like it? Would you like another dish? Really? It’s not a problem, we’d be happy to.” We never did ask for another dish, but we quickly figured out why the servers were so inquisitive: whoever brought back a plate with food still on it got the third degree from Chef Dufresne. It’s a straight shot from the dim dining room to the floodlit kitchen and the Chef is front and center. His hands are a concentrated motion but his eyes seem to be everywhere. Those spectacles certainly don’t miss a slightly full plate. He’d look from his current work to the dish, to the server who brought it, ask them a question and then peer into the dining room with a furrowed brow. We couldn’t hear the conversation but the meaning was Cyrstal Pepsi clear.
I felt for the guy. You don’t have to be a professional chef to recognize that every dish placed in front of us took hours of prepping and even more time to dream up and experiment into something consistent enough for a menu item. It’s the inherent challenge of being avant garde – no old stand bys, no crowd-pleasing classics, no favorites. Everything is new and untried. If I wasn’t already impressed enough, I was bowled over when I found this write up of the tasting menu from 2 years ago and not a single creative dish made a second appearance in our meal. Even Jose Andres’ venerable MiniBar hasn’t significantly updated their menu in the last 15 months.
Even desserts, some of the least controversial options a restaurant can create, wouldn’t rest on Chef Dufresne’s laurels. An incredibly simple vanilla ice cream with balsalmic sauce tucked inside was a simple pleasure to eat – continuously surprising and almost familiar. Much like the tasting menu itself.