There are restaurants in this world that surpass the simple goal of serving a meal in order to sate the customers hunger. The Joel Robuchons, the Eleven Madison Parks. They transform the banal ritual of eating into an often world changing experience. The absolutely greatest of the great though, manage to simultaneously trick your brain into thinking it’s enjoying something familiar, while your eyes and tongue are experiencing something completely new.
A recent visit to WD-50, Wylie Dufresne’s private food lab, further showcased this phenomenon. The restaurant, situated inconspicuously on Clinton St., is warm and welcoming with a refreshingly informal atmosphere, especially considering the level of food they produce. We arrived without reservations, but there happened to be room at the bar, so we jumped at the opportunity. Our bartender/waiter got us started with some cocktails and allowed us to look over the two tasting menus.
*Pro tip* If you find yourself at an establishment like this, don’t shy away from the large tasting menu because of the daunting price. You’ll likely never get the chance to eat there again, so spring for the big’un (along with wine pairings). I guarantee you’ll never look back in 20 years regretting your decision. Memories >Money.
Taking our own advice, my father and I went with the 13 course tasting menu with wine pairings. Let the anticipation begin! The first dish to arrive was the nigiri with salsify “rice”, seaweed and sesame. It was immediately apparent that the menu only told part of the story for each dish. As a certain Autobot will tell you, there was more than met the eye. So began our journey of familiarity wrapped in enigma. Half of the fun of the meal was discussing how they accomplished what was on the plate with our waiter, and when the staff still looks impressed after seeing this food day in and day out, you know something special is afoot.
The second dish arrived to another round of excited and quizzical looks (notice a pattern?). Lobster roe “pasta”, charred lemon, green grape with a coriander brown butter sauce. This was easily one of the top three dishes we had that night. How in the world do you make pasta out of lobster roe? My dad and I have been discussing this at length since that night, to no avail.
Third, Pho Gras. Yes, that’s Pho and Foie Gras, Wylie…you’re the man. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this? Seeing as how Vietnam is so heavily influenced by France, you’d think someone would have combined a traditional foie gras terrine with a cozy bowl of pho by now. It was spot on, a little spicy with a tang of citrus which blended so well with the foie gras. I shall add a dollop of hoisin with my foie from now on, genius.
Next was amaro yolk, chicken confit and peas ‘n’ carrots. This dish snuck in there under the guise that it was simply chicken, peas and carrots with an amaro yolk (amaro is a digestif). It looked simple enough, thin ribbons of carrot, surrounded by a few peas, a pleasant lump of chicken confit at the center and the yolk serving as a subtle sauce. The “peas”, we come to find out, are actually sphered carrots in pea dust. I enjoyed this because you get all the pea flavor without the mushy texture. This felt like an old farmers dish, fresh bright veg, tender chicken confit, bursting with flavor, it hit all the right spots.
Veal brisket with za’atar, plum and mustard followed. This was most definitely tasty, but a little plain compared to what we’d already had and what was to come, so I’ll let this one slide…
To make room for the peeky-toe crab toast with saffron, kaffir-yogurt and arare. I love going to a restaurant and not knowing what 75% of the ingredients are. Arare, I’ve found, are small pellets of glutinous rice. I found it to be similar to Israeli couscous. This dish was amazing, the plump chunks of crabmeat, gingerly removed fresh from their shells as it wasn’t shredded like some cheapo lump crab cake, were tender and sweet as could be. The saffron lent an exotic aroma and the kaffir hit it with a nice sour note.
As I was following along with the menu, my heart stopped when I saw the next dish (not in a good way). Sole with black licorice pil-pil, fried green tomato and fennel. Wow, two of my least favorite ingredients on one plate. Despite my initial reaction, I calmly reminded myself that I wasn’t in some shady dive, I was in the capable hands of one of the finest chefs this country has ever spawned. Low and behold, it was licorice and fennel with sole, and it tasted like licorice and fennel and I actually liked it! Once again, my “if it’s prepared correctly, anything tastes good” mantra held up, and Wylie didn’t let me down. The sole was perfect, sweet and tender, each piece flaked away perfectly. A small shmear of licorice pil-pil and a slice of the tomato and I was in business. My mind was running in circles trying to figure out why my tongue had betrayed it’s long standing hatred of licorice and fennel, “not now brain” said the tongue, “I’m savoring”.
Phew, the scary part of the ride was over, it was nothing but pleasure from here on out, lamb sweetbreads with nasturtium buttermilk, zucchini and pistachio was on deck. There are few things better than perfectly cooked sweetbreads, tender, juicy, slightly sweet and the tiniest bit gamey. Paired with the pistachio zucchini crumble and the grassy nasturtium buttermilk, these sweetbreads gave us a whole new experience, like getting your head dragged through a grassy meadow in the early morning.
Root beer ribs with rye spaetzle and apricot. Once again, awesome. The succulent meat was cut with the apricot spread and smoothed over with the cushy spaetzle. The sauce on the plate was worthy of drinking…but I know there’s a time and place for that.
Alright, only four more dishes, and they’re all dessert! Hang in there folks it’s worth it!
Jasmine, cucumber, honeydew and chartreuse. That’s what the menu said, but it gave absolutely no clue as to what would show up. What DID show up was a bowl containing some neon green concoction. I went to get a spoonful and was rejected. What sorcery is this! It was a nitro frozen chartreuse cucumber honeydew shell which covered over a chilled fragrant soup that was so refreshing I wish I had some next to my bed each morning. Another “first time” flavor experience.
Yuzu milk ice, hazelnut, rhubarb and basil. We just laughed while we ate this one. The yuzu milk ice immediately evaporated when it hit my tongue, leaving me with a creamy coating of concentrated yuzu flavor, it was like David Copperfield transported everything but the flavor out of my mouth. How the heck do they do this stuff? Nevermind, I don’t want to peek behind the curtain, it’s too fun to go into these meals blind!
This next one was the doom-bringer of all desserts. S’mores. Obviously they aren’t just any s’mores. These included bitter cocoa, meringue and black currant. The meringue was disguised as a marshmallow, with the real marshmallow wisped around the plate with some dark chocolate sauce. Even the stick that held the “mallow” was edible. Decadent, just like I like it.
Lastly, white chocolate and gjetost. There is no such word that starts with G, J, E, T. Maybe Wylie fell asleep on the keyboard when he was writing up the menu late one night. Apparently it’s a type of cheese (pronouned yay-toast). That’s roughly what I said when I ate this thing, delicious. Little droplets of sweet cheese and chocolate rolled around in raspberry dust or something.
I think it goes without saying, this place is crazy, I couldn’t even pay attention to WHAT, exactly I was eating, I was in a food trance, enjoying every second, sharing smiles and hearty back pats with my dad. Who could ask for a better night.