Friday, May 25, 2012

Snap, Crackle, Pop: the new menu at WD-50.

You know your life is not that hard, or that bad, when your biggest decision of the evening is five-courses or twelve. As I sat across from Melissa Sunday night we both shrugged, "I don't know, what do you want to do?" we said, and then quickly moved along to discussing the pros and cons of each route. "The five-course is shorter, probably less food, but it's nothing new," I said, even though I had never dined at WD-50. "The new menu," I said, which had been announced on the front-page of the food section in the New York Times a few weeks prior, "has only been out for a little more than a week." I'd taken time at home to read Yelp, to no avail, so I had very little to go on. After about five minutes of back and forth we decided it seemed silly to opt for old standards when the unknown was so close.

And so began a twelve-course journey into the heart and soul of chef Wylie DuFresne. Our first course was mackerel nigiri, which looked like sushi, had fish on top like sushi, but tasted like no sushi I had ever had. Firm rice was replaced with a rooty, vegetable mash made of salsify. Roe eggs on top were replaced with beads of colorful vegetables. It was a slight of hand, a fake to the left. Popping it into my mouth I was greeted with an entirely unfamiliar bite. There was so much in my mouth at one time that I had a very hard time distilling the tastes. Mostly the bite was overwhelmed by the root mash. I'll admit, I'm not sure sushi is meant to be set atop salsify. The best I can say for the dish is: beautiful to look at, soso to eat.


Our second course was a lobster roe pasta with bites of lobster, green grapes, lemon and coriander. The pasta, a bright pinkish, coral color, was described to us by a server as being made completely out of blended lobster roe, then spread out in a pan to dry and finally cut into narrow pasta ribbons. Pretend pasta (another fake out). The taste was the most intense, wonderful shellfish bite you'll ever eat. In it's current size I was happy to savor each salty, sea breamy bite, wishing for more, but content with what I had.


Next on our culinary adventure was a stunt double to Vietnamese pho noodle soup, called Pho Gras. It was a mock up of the traditional spicy, clear-brothed soup, with the addition of a round slice of light and airy foie gras, which was, a little reluctantly, the best part of the dish. WD-50's version of pho just didn't come together for me. The broth was rich and meaty but it was lukewarm. Was this on purpose? If it was, it didn't work. The soup wasn't spicy either. The beauty of this dish, at the hole-in-the-wall spots I frequent, is the push pull between hot and spicy. This dish doesn't have that. I was happy eating the foie but I left behind many of the other components.


I guess if you've got your own restaurant you can do pretty much anything you want. Want to serve peas and carrots as part of a lengthy meal that costs well over $100 per person? Go for it. Of course, if you're Defresne it means you'll do them any ole way you want. Which brings me to number four, a dish as tasty as it was visually stunning. Hands down it was one of our favorites. The course arrived with an egg yolk brined in amaro, along with chicken confit, carrot gratings and, rolling around and placed delicately atop, several slightly larger than standard faux peas. These green marbles were actually bits of carrot that were rolled around in dehydrated pea dust. They tasted just like you remember from childhood: slightly overcooked and soft, like frozen veggies that have just come out of the microwave. But different, interesting. They were perfect. The carrot peels covered the egg yolk, wrapping it up like a little dairy present. Each bite was soft, with crunch from the carrots and was deftly flavored–nothing too strong. It was a whimsical dish I'd eat again.


Our high from the fourth course continued into five as we were served paper-thin, sliced, veal brisket with plums, dehydrated mustard chunks, and a spice mixture called Za'atar. It was with this dish that I realized the theme of the meal, and here's the connection to my title. Every dish had some form of snap, crackle or pop. They each had an element of unexpected surprise. In this course it was the mustard. Not content with the usual form of mustard, Defresne combined the ball-game condiment with meringue, turning it into uneven, chalky chunks; dehydrated, inch-long pieces of intense mustard flavor. Realizing what it was I quickly made sure to eat a a small piece of meat, along with a bite of green bean, a sliver of plum and finally, with kid like delight, the mustard wedge. It was the consistency of Pez meets brittle. I could see myself buying it at Dean & Deluca.


I have yet to mention what I was drinking and, since I'm still on my white kick, that's what I drank with most of my meal. I chose a white from Greece, from the town of Larissa to be exact. It tasted like a crisp, young Albarino, but this was from '05 and had a deeper complexity that I enjoyed. Good enough to track down and drink again. Now, where were we? Ah yes, we're halfway there. For our sixth course we were served crab toast with saffron, kaffir and arare. Arare sounds like some crazy middle eastern spice, but it's not. Arare is the base of those funny seasoned rice crackers you buy at the drugstore. For this version they're, of course, a step above. The round little granules (see photo below), were tasteless for the most part, lacking the salty, soy sauce taste of the usual crackers. Set on top of the dish they added a nice crunch to the crab and the toast. Three distinct textures in your mouth that worked very well together: crab meat, crunchy toast and granular ping. I'm also a big fan of kaffir, so this dish was another bite I would bite again.


The seventh course was missable, at least for me: sole with licorice, fried green tomato and fennel. The fish was boring. The licorice, while interesting and something I like, was not something I really wanted with fish. The ingredients in this dish stood apart rather then melding together. Let's move on, to red wine–a North Coast Pinot–as well as our eighth course: lamb sweet breads, nasturtium buttermilk, zucchini and pistachio. The lamb looked and tasted like a deep, smoky meatball. The two highlights for me were the nasturtium leaves, which tasted like a spicy cousin to arugula and the pistachio tuile, which, no surprise, I wanted more of. An inventive dish, it was fun to poke around and put together different tastes.


Still with me? For our ninth course we had the savory caboose: root beer ribs, rye spaetzle and an apricot relish. This dish was just ok. The meat had the consistency of corned beef, stringy, somewhat dry meat I didn't really enjoy. I'm actually wondering why we need meat to be the last dish. Because it's the richest and most savory? I'd argue for a different ending. I left most of this dish uneaten, saving myself for the dessert(s).


I feel cliché admitting this but, I loved the desserts. Is it so wrong to be more tickled with the sweet side of life? Sad but true, I'm a sucker for dessert. Maybe it's because I seldom order it. Maybe it's just who I am. Embracing my inner child I ate every last bit of every sweet thing they placed in front of me. First was a mix between a bowl of ice cream and a crazy science invention. A mostly lime green bowl of  jasmine foam, cucumber niblets, honeydew ice, chartreuse (I don't know where this tucked, maybe in the ice?), topped with cashew nougatine. Crazy good, you had to break through the top glass, like an ice skating rink, it was tart and sweet, strangely compelling when you grabbed a bit of foam, a dash of the cashews, a few cucumber bits and hmm, there was something else down below the ice, perhaps a fifth secret ingredient? It was like nothing I've ever eaten. As fun to think about as it was to eat.


The next sweet was a yuzu milk foam–which tasted and felt like a soft, fluffy, homemade marshmallow–with hazelnut sprinkles, rhubarb compote and black currants. I'm sure there were ten more ingredients in this, but that's all I could pull out. The overall dish looked like an impressionist painting. Maybe Dufrense spends his free time at The Met? (If he has any free time.)

Our final course was a showstopping take on the campside classic of s'mores. In this version you could even eat the stick (made out of bitter cocoa and beer)! Another marshmallow lookalike, but not actually a marshmallow, this was meringue with an ice cream center surrounded by a constellation of chocolate and graham bits and pieces and dollops. There were so many different consistencies and textures to the dish that were fun to savor, I'm not sure it could get any better, but maybe. Maybe it still needs more of a twist.

But wait, it's not over, not yet. Almost. Our totally last bite was a white chocolate truffle ball coated in freeze-dried raspberries and filled with an unusual goat cheese called gjetost. Yes, I even made room for this. It sounded weird but tasted great; crunchy, tart on the outside from the fruit and savory, sweet goat on the inside. If these were for sale in a shop I would buy one. Or two.

OK. So we sat and ate for almost three hours, and if you count up the dishes I enjoyed versus the ones that were a little dull, there were far more that I liked, than those that I didn't. Not a bad track record for a brand new menu. Would I do it again? I have to admit, I love firsts, so now that I've been I'll have to wait awhile before I go back. I do want to plug that you can sit at the bar and get any two dishes from the menu for only $25, an insane bargain, in my humble opinion, I imagine I'll go back to do this.

My last word on WD-50 is that the decor is so outdated it's hard not to notice how wrong it all looks. Our quickie redesign thoughts: paint the walls (lose the bright colors that are out of date), change the awful hanging lights (they remind me of the Chihuly ceiling at the Bellagio), re-upholster the banquets and, speaking of lighting, improve the lighting overall, especially over the booth area. I'd love to see this place lose the retro bowling ball vibe, bring in some of the history of the building and include more cohesion with the neighborhood. Think art from the Met meets brick buildings and bodegas of the Lower East Side.

By the way, thanks to my dinner companion, Melissa W. for taking the photos (mine are good, but hers are better) and sitting across from me for three whole hours.

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