…molecular gastronomy, modernist cuisine, deconstructivist cooking – no matter what you call it, it is here to stay – and I’m glad. Sure there are times when spherification, centrifugation, foams, transglutaminase, and hydrocolloids are overused to the benefit of nothing but perhaps a camera, but in the right hands these progressive techniques can take something delicious and additionally make it visually and texturally incredible…or, in the wrong hands, inedible. To say the least dining at a ‘molecular’ restaurant is a risk with high highs and low lows, and it was with that in mind that I’d waited so long to visit wd~50.
Having dined at most of the United States molecular temples from Adres’ Bazaar in Los Angeles to Voltaggio’s VOLT in Fredericksburg and any number of places in between (Achatz and his disciples, mostly) part of my reluctance to visit wd~50 was based on earlier reports that Chef Wylie Dufresne was more Cantu than Achatz – the sort of chef who let form and function get in the way of flavor – and in a city where I never seemed to make a dent in an ever growing list of places to visit it just didn’t seem worth the risk until a steady stream of positive reviews began to appear that perhaps Dufresne had matured, his food become more flavorful while still maintaining the fun, and with three friends willing to investigate these rumors with me a reservation was made.
Arriving at wd~50 mere moments early for our reservation and hot on the heels of an impromptu visit to DBGB I would actually encounter two of my co-diners as I browed the posted menu and entered the deceivingly large restaurant we were greeted graciously, coats taken, and offered a seat at the table or the bar until the final member of our party arrived. Opting to check out the bar and elaborate cocktail menu while we waited I immediately felt at home in the long room as the slate floors, modern chairs, and light woods all glowed under spotlights clearly intended to put the focus on the food while Radiohead’s OK Computer played overhead.
With the menu undergoing little change from that which was listed on the website and our party now completed it was mere moments later that we were led to our table, a spacious four-top with views of the kitchen from two seats and of the dining room from the others, and greeted by our server – a young man named Andrew R who exuded so much enthusiasm for the restaurant and the food that it was almost contagious (without ever once crossing over to fake or annoying ) – we were welcomed, menus were formally presented, and water was poured.
Surrounded by good people, good sounds, and already with a good feel for the space and the staff I decided that a cocktail would be a fine way to start off and while the Chardonnay and Dargo enjoyed by one of my co-diners were reportedly very good I can’t imagine either was on par with the “Fountain of Youth” – a blend of Oaked Cream Soda, Venezuelan Rum, and Fino Sherry that I’d rank amongst the best cocktails I’ve ever had, and one of many ‘sweet’ cocktails on the menu that would place wd~50 high on a short list of places I would actually consider going ‘just for drinks,’ as the saying goes (though given my track record food would inevitably get involved.)
Deciding on three savory courses each as opposed to the tasting menu Andrew took the liberty of deciding on the order for each of us in order to form a logical progression and confirming that this would be okay the meal began with the restaurants version of a bread basket – a signature sesame flatbread something like Indian Papadum but perhaps a bit thicker, more buttery, and entirely addictive without being ‘filling’ in the least.
With wines presented and poured by Andrew, one to accompany the appetizers and one to accompany the main, and 5 different appetizers ordered between the four of us the first and second courses would arrive in two waves and amongst the options selected the only question was which was best, beginning with the a strong contender in the form of “Aerated Foie – Pickled Beet, Mashed Plum, Brioche.” Ordered by the 3 lovers of liver at the table and formed by taking a frozen and shattered terrine and placing it in a cryovac the only way to describe the texture of the dish is to call it a foie sponge, yet at the same time it is also something like a mousse – melting on the palate with the expected gossamer finish. Served in three large balls alongside rolled beets filled with plum gel and crisps of brioche this was yet another memorable foie gras dish in a city filled with them.
With duck on the menu, obviously someone was going to order it and although it was not the person I’d have expected, the choice of “Corned Duck – Rye Crisp, Purple Mustard, Horseradish Cream” was another good one despite containing two ingredients I don’t tend to flock to. Again served as a trio, these small rolls of house cured duck really did taste like a fowl version of the beef namesake and resting atop crunchy crackers with a light layer of both mustard and horseradish within the spice was cut just a bit with a simple garnish of microgreens. Not especially ‘molecular,’ just a play on tradition and executed very well.
Next up, a soup selection arrived in the form of “Sweet Potato Soup – Scallop Ravioli, Kalamansi, Hazelnut” and although deceptively simple in its appearance aside from using compressed scallop to form the ‘pasta’ around the buttery scallop puree, this would prove to be perhaps the most shocking of the appetizers in terms of its flavor profile. Seemingly a riff on butternut squash soup and potato soup at the same time, the potage itself was creamy, rich, and smooth with the taste of the tuber in full effect, but there in the background was this nutty essence and right up front a veritable ‘twist of lime.’ Knowing Wylie’s considerable skills in the world of chemicals and foams this was just pairing the right ingredients in the right manner to reinvent something ostensibly familiar.
For the last two appetizers we could not pass up two of Dufresne’s classics, the first his “Eggs Benedict” a dish once on the ever changing tasting menu but now a staple of the a la carte and perhaps the dish most associated with wd~50. Beginning first with the “eggs” – essentially just yolks with a bit of salt and pepper cooked sous vide the texture is that of a hard boiled egg-white while the flavor is all yolk. Moving next to the “hollandaise” – in this case deep-fried and no doubt using gelatin plus a binding agent along with the eggs, butter, and lemon to achieve a runny consistency it really does taste like hollandaise sauce in a cube – deconstructivism at its finest. Moving last to the ‘ham’ – here a dehydrated pancetta…and there you have it, deconstructed and reinvented Eggs Benedict, more interesting as a sort of piece of the “mg” canon than anything more tasty than a good take on the classic and inspired without a doubt.
For our last appetizer, two orders of the nearly equally famous “Cold Fried Chicken – Buttermilk-Ricotta, Tabasco, Caviar” were served up and where I compare the Benedict to Adria’s Spherical Olives in terms of being a novelty if nothing ‘new’ in terms of flavor, this riff on Buffalo Wings was superb as the compressed sous-vide terrine of both light and dark meat was subsequently coated with crispy fried chicken skin to form what is essentially a far more dense chicken tender and then topped with briny sturgeon caviar, dollops of ricotta laced with tangy buttermilk, and finally tobacco infused honey and chervil to finish. Sweet and hot, briny yet balanced, if only this existed during 50 cent wings night at the local sports bar.
At this point quite impressed by nearly every aspect of the evening so far, Andrew would stop by to chat while our main courses were being prepared and proving to be not only a great waiter but also a fount of knowledge about the workings of the kitchen, the sourcing of the ingredients, and the New York food scene in general it would not be long before he would briefly disappear only to return with our main courses, four in total, with the first (not photographed by myself) entitled “Smoked Char – Bearnaise Spaetzle, Broccoli Rabe, Pork Sausage.” Sourced from Canada and served along with the aforementioned accoutrements plus crumbled tarragon cake and rolls of Swiss chard I really don’t remember much about this dish and I may not have even tasted it, but to the best of my knowledge it was enjoyed by those who did.
Moving next to a dish I’d have definitely not had the opportunity to taste were I dining with the majority of my friends and family, the gentleman of the table ordered the “Wagyu Chuck Steak – Black-eyed Peas, Fig, Rutabaga” and arriving just shy of medium in a sizable portion unexpected from a ‘molecular’ restaurant this dish was another outstanding and relatively simple preparation focused much more on quality products and preparation than ‘tricks.’ Beginning first with the Wagyu, Australian sourced and prepared sous-vide before being seared, I was surprised at how tender the meat was – a bit ‘steaky’ for my palate but still quite good. Moving on to the rest of the plate, the most interesting aspect was the use of each listed ingredient in two forms – the chickpeas both simply boiled and candied, the fig in the form of a puree and used to sweeten the beef jus, and the rutabaga a rich puree with a few thin slices of the stems to garnish.
Moving on to the only dish I didn’t care for on the evening – surprisingly it was the duck ordered by one of my companions. Denoted on the menu as “Duck Breast – Black Sesame Dumplings, Red Cabbage, Parsnip Consommé” and served in a large, deep bowl I’ll qualify my statement by saying that both the duck itself and the dumplings, packed with black sesame and duck leg confit, were both well prepared, tender, and flavorful – it was the consommé and cabbage that (at least for myself) did not work; too bitter, too earthy, and simply overpowering the rest of the dish.
As my friend favored to fowl I opted for the pig and although I had no idea when we placed the order this turned out to be a very fortuitous circumstance not only because of my feelings about the duck, but also because “Pork Ribs – Hush Puppies, Spaghetti Squash, Red-Eye Gravy” was outstanding – an overhead smash or rich flavors that embraced the dishes southern roots and held nothing back. Starting first with the ‘ribs’ – rich, fatty, and compressed before a trip to the water bath the flavor and texture were something akin to ham and stacked in cubes with the spicy hush puppies atop each bite was briny, bitey, and bold – something the smoky coffee spiked gravy did not attempt to attenuate, instead deferring this responsibility to tender spaghetti squash poached in powdered collard greens.
With the meal mostly exceptional to this point a glitch in the program would arise as we approached dessert; for three of us Malcolm Livingston II’s dessert tasting was an obvious choice but for one this was simply not an acceptable option – a problem as (like many tasting menus) the participation of the whole table was required. Understanding the situation, I give Andrew all the credit in the world for double checking with the kitchen (and for offering his sympathies when he was told an exception would not be made) and even agreeing with my proposed alternative to eat one dessert at the table, settle the tab, and then move to the bar for more, but in the end our fourth member became frustrated, paid her bill, and left…an unfortunate end…and unfortunately her loss as what would follow was an experience I’ll not soon forget. **
Told that the tasting would consist of five courses we were a bit surprised when a “pre-dessert” arrived that was every bit as large as the composed desserts at Per Se or Eleven Madison Park – a dessert described as “Mango – Sake, Vanilla, Lemon Balm” consisting of an capsule of compressed mango resting atop mango mousse and filled with sake spiked caramel. Sweet and salty with the sake laying low the plate could have stopped here and been an inspired palate cleanser, but as we would see going forward Chef Livingston’s inspiration is not nearly that limited – he instead finished off the composition with cashew crumble, lemon sauce, and sheep’s milk yogurt…and unfortunately I’ll never be satisfied with a ball of sorbet again.
Officially beginning the tasting, “Menthol – Ginger, Pomelo, Chamomile” looked like something from a sci-fi film and given the listed ingredients I was a bit perplexed – I’d never mint so early on – but as it turns out, there is a reason I sit at the table and don’t work in the kitchen. Appearing something like styrofoam but with the texture of meringue the menthol bubble was piped full of ginger sorbet with the overall effect something like an effervescent candy. Virtually weightless and resting atop sour frozen/shattered pomelo cells with airy chamomile cake adding just a bit of heft this dish was as much an exploration of textures as it was a blending of seemingly disparate flavors into an almost indescribable essence on the palate.
Course two of the dessert quintet would prove to be my ‘least favorite,’ but like being asked to name the worst member of your favorite band this is hardly a slight – its just that passionfruit is not my thing. Titled “Soft Meringue – Passionfruit, Banana, Star Anise” and featuring a disc approximating the size of hockey puck flanked by two bananas compressed with lime this spongy and moist meringue appeared simple enough at first, but on cutting into it with the spoon a surprise was revealed inside in the form of a passionfruit panna cotta. Light, flavorfful, and well tempered by the anise glaze, a dash of red peppercorn, and the bananas I will admit that this passionfruit was slightly less overwhelming than most, but in the end I’d have liked it much with nearly any other fruit.
Moving rather quickly, though not uncomfortably so, course three would more than make up for the passionfruit and to date it is the best dessert I’ve had in 2012 (having been to Chicago and through Eastern Canada since.) Titled “Warm Spice Cake – Coconut, Tamarind, Coriander, Pineapple” and featuring a tempura coated and fried pound cake loaded with aromatic spices and a coconut mousse center as its base, Malcolm took this already delicious cake to a whole different level with the addition of potent tamarind ice cream, coriander foam, freeze dried coconut powder, freeze dried corn, and finally a micro arugula salad. Featured on the ‘standard’ dessert menu (and still there when I looked today) I’d have never guessed based on the description how much I would love this dish and I likely would have never ordered it a la carte, but from top to bottom, sweet to savory, warm to cold, and crunchy to creamy it touched every aspect of the palate. It blew me away, and that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.
Still raving (there were witnesses) about the spice cake, “Chocolate & Beet – Long Pepper, Ricotta” really didn’t stand a fair chance, but admitting an affinity for both the primary constituents this dazzling dish held its own quite admirably. Served on a large plate and falling somewhere between Pollock and “Psycho” in its visual arrangement the flavor focus of the dessert was clearly on the now commonplace Flexible Dark Chocolate Ganache made famous by Voltaggio and Stupak yet serving this constituent furthest from the diner I was intrigued to see the team at wd~50 instead force the rest of the plate into consideration as well; a combination of ricotta sorbet, Longpepper shortbread, frozen beet mousse, candied cocoa nibs, and caramelized granola with the overall effect harkening a deconstructed red velvet cake. Dense, rich, bitter, sweet, crunchy, creamy – like the rest of the evening an exploration of tastes, textures, and techniques that kept things interesting with each bite.
Having started with mint and serving chocolate at course four it was really anyone’s guess as to where Malcolm would go next and with the chef occasionally peaking out around the corner of the kitchen to gauge our progress the final dish to arrive would be quite unlike anything I’ve experienced to date – a dish simply called “Root Beer Float” that arrived as what I can only describe as mountain at the center of the plate. With my co-diners starring at the large mass while Andrew described it at length even I thought this was a substantial amount of food at such a late stage, but on taking my first bite I quickly realized that much of what we were looking at was air – specifically “aerated root beer ice cream.” Taking the idea of a float and literally turning it on its head, what was presented was actually the ethereal ice cream on top, whipped cream and milk foam at its base, and balsamic infused root beer sauce, root beer rehydrated candied cherries, crushed root beer candy, and a sprig micro anise to finish it off – the overall effect sort of like a giant marshmallow but otherwise nearly indescribable.
At this point more than content with nearly every aspect of the evening Andrew would return to our table one last time to drop off a pair of mignardises along with the check – the first a Deep-fried Rice Ball consisting of Fried Rice Pudding filled with Kalmansi Lime cream, and the second a Frozen Rice Crispy Treat with an almond milk center…like everything else they were excellent, particularly the former which could easily be upscaled into a full blown dessert with great success.
Deferring coffee given the late hour (and copious refills at DBGB) Andrew returned again with the tab – a relatively modest amount given the quality and quantity of the food and drink – and with the bill paid we were offered – no, strongly suggested – a visit to the kitchen, a suggestion we gladly accepted largely so I could offer my thanks to Chef Livingston, and although Wylie was not present that evening Chef Bignelli played the role of host quite well showing us the wall of spices, gums, transglutaminases, and more before bidding us farewell. With the kitchen much smaller than expected but everyone humble, smiling, and happy I understood right away why Andrew and all the other servers seemed to be doing the same throughout service and why I’d be doing the same as I rode the subway back to Brooklyn; while certainly a serious restaurant, wd~50 is also a whole lot of fun.
Having waited so long to visit 50 Clinton Street I now look back on my preconceptions with some regrets – part because I missed out on Alex Stupak’s tenure there…a damned shame if his desserts were even more impressive than Malcolm Livingston II’s, but also because I’d had some rather lackluster meals both during this trip and trips prior that could have been spent in a place where the food is good, the desserts are great, and everything about the environment seems directed at making sure the diner has a good time – in my case even coincidentally timing the start of Kid A with our dessert tasting. Everything in it’s Right Place, indeed.
**While one can debate the pros/cons of the ‘all diners must participate’ tasting menu until the proverbial cows come home, I will say here that I have no problem with wd~50’s decision to enforce this rule – particularly as Andrew went out of his way to help us circumvent the issue. In a city where David Chang can charge $175, use an obscure reservations system, and ban photos while forcing you to sit on hard stools listening to NWA and Caesar Ramirez can go so far as to forbid note taking I don’t think a rule embraced by hundreds of restaurants on both coasts (and around the world) is out of line