Friday, February 24, 2012

wd~50 Restaurant serves Magic

Yes, yes, wd~50 is a restaurant located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Yes, there are all the standard clues of an established, star-studded, Michelin-sparkly culinary castle: a welcoming hostess, a bar, and happy diners fronting a semi-open kitchen in the back.
So you will be forgiven for thinking this will be “just” a fantastic, outstanding, Gotham dining experience.

But the galaxy is upturned once the food is served. 
It is nothing less than alchemy that delights, enchants, and surprises. 
It is at times, frothy, silky, and architectural in ways that whisper, “Impossible.” 

This is why one dines at top-tier restaurants.

To be honest, I've never been a fan of what can be commonly referred to as “tortured” food that is deconstructed, emulsified and whipped -- as advanced by Ferran Adria at El Bulli and Grant Achatz at Alinea. 
wd~50’s Chef Wylie Dufresne is revered in that very Molecular Gastronomy constellation.   

While there’s no getting away from the fact that in the macro sense, I firmly believe science is a revered holy grail.  And for all the world I worship at the alter that says food is considered an art unto itself. 
Farm to Table and Fin to Table could be tattooed on my mixing muscle. 

And yet…. There was that undeniable seduction at wd~50 wooing the dining table. 
It was like falling for the bad boy.

The table of natural and some vegan food enthusiasts: Leila Dylla and her Southhampton cousin Nicole: in from out of town to help open the new yoga studio around the corner, “Stanton Street Yoga” ( were undeniably over the moon about each and every dish, working up from the foreplay of appetizers to the final throes of romantic titillation brought on by the out-of-this-world culmination from dessert-heaven or some other celestial land: the desserts.

The meal was a tour de force.

There is an undeniable frisson where wd~50 ‘s menu is accessorized with lots of adjectives before the ingredients, such as “compressed mango” and “aerated foie” and “liquid churro.” 
It is another world that is nonetheless filled with fresh and local food fare that plays well in the sandbox with the kitchen wall of jarred and bottled items that are used in a cooking genre referred to as chef Wylie’s “melting pot of techniques.” 

The game-changing dining love affair began with a Mardi Gras martini – the last imbibing of the nightly cocktail hour drink – until Lent is over…
I lament the fact I ever started doing penance by giving up martinis for Lent but I do appreciate them so and now I'd feel weak if I didn't muster the courage to continue to deny myself this treat.

The cocktail list on the wine menu at the restaurant included a formal New Orleans-styled cocktail and lots of other creations. 
The wine list at wd~50 is extensive too, but most are pricey.  The Italian red Papa Celso we enjoyed was robust and just right.

In contrast to the pages of wine choices, the food menu, labeled “To Eat” is simple, spare and straightforward – not unlike the décor, which looks rather midcentury with Caribbean Sea azure blue walls and a fireplace in one corner and seating that is both neat tables and booths.

With five to eight offerings to choose from within the three categories on the menu, it would seem easy enough to select what to eat.
But it is not easy. The menu items are complex and unique and curious.  And so much more fun to read and talk about…

Menu items have no monikers (like Organic Spicy Chicken, or Lobster Roll).
This menu defies common categorization.  Savory is mixed with sweet.

Off on a culinary adventure, tablemates are set to buzzing.  “What is the aerated foie?” (with pickled beet, mashad plum brioche)
Or, “Eggs Benedict for an appetizer?  What do you think?”
Even the Peekytoe crab roll, salt ‘n vinegar chips, celery mayonnaise, while appearing to touch a familiar chord, sparks gastro talk.

Andrew, the friendly and confident waiter-as-sherpa helped when asked, peppering the table talk with his favorite foods from the menu. 
Once we mastered the “Appetizers,” he suggested we order everything at the same time so it was back to the magnificent “Mains.” 

Sesame Flat Bread!
After more gastro-talking, and marveling at the thin-as-gossamer, glistening, sesame crisp flat bread sensations, it is soon settled. 

Not knowing how the listed ingredients might ever marry up – the ingredients are like the United Nations of the kitchen (the bubble in your head will be forgiven for asking, “Did the chef really mean for these things to go together?”),
the selections were: Mediterranean bass, artichokes, white chocolate-green olive and Forbidden Rice  -- that item alone, in turn, led to some exotic wink, wink-talk while ordering but was, in fact, according to Andrew, a favorite of the Chinese emperors.  
Apocryphal or not, legend has it those guys didn’t like to share.  Worse than the “Soup Nazi – they kept it all to themselves: ergo the Forbidden element.
The skate, sunflower seed, sunchoke and giardiniera and corned duck, rye crisp, purple mustard, and horseradish cream and scallops completed the palette of inspired selections.

In between time was the amuse bouche of fresh fennel fronds cut into diminutive cubes and puree, cured black bay tamarind, and walnut olive that was by turns somehow both light and salty, textury and citrusy.
Sesame Fennel Fronds

There was also a circus happy chef creation of compressed mango mousse and a caramel, a Lady Luck sake lees or sake kasu, (rice mash paste left at the end of sake-making.  (See video explanation and demonstration here produced by Gourmet Magazine:
and a cashew caramel nicotine lemon sauce. It was rich and refreshing all at the same time. The bottom was less than tasty though, but the others liked the texture even though it seemed a tad tough or stringy and superfluous given the overall out-of-the-park flavor of the dish and its marmalade like mango consistency.  

Mango Photo courtesy of Leila Dylla

The corned duck was a playful mix of pink meat, micro celery on rye crisps, horseradish cream and garlic pickled in horseradish.

Duck is finger food swirled on a toast point 

The foie gras was aerated into dessert-looking puffs accompanied by crispy brioche and a pureed plum “sauce.”  The foie puff clouds were light and salty. It is magically surreal and heavenly tasting! 
Aerated foie!  

Peekytoe Crab & world's teeniest chips!
The peekytoe crab was juicy and light – their version of a lobster roll. 
Jiminy Cricket must’ve made the potato chips.  They are darling and should win the Guinness Book of world records for the teeniest chips anywhere. They brought smiles all round – when not oohing and ahhing about the crab taste.  

The skate entrée was served like strudel – a beautiful presentation, topped only by the artful bass laid languidly on the plate like a sunning fashion diva.  
Both were textured with flavorful sauces.
The artichoke buttons accompanying the skate were meaty and tasty.

The desserts were the final act in this new-found, capricious affair.
They brought down the house. And the diners to their knees.

Pastry chef Malcolm Livingston II plays second fiddle to no one. 
His pedigree is Per Se and Le Cirque and was chef Alex Stupak’s pastry sous chef at wd~50. (This reporter’s May ’11 review of Stupak’s Empellon
However, his creations are uniquely Malcolm’s. He owns this denouement.
The in-your-face presentations and out-of-this-world flavors and ingredients using spices and savory items are at once startling, provocative and sensual and seem to belie chef Malcolm’s reserved countenance. 

Warm Spice Cake!
The warm spice cake, coconut tamarind, coriander and pineapple hinted of a French toast kind of long-lost relation – it was elegant, subtle, with ying and yang temperatures  -- and is crazy good.  

The soft meringue, passionfruit, banana and star anise combination was silky and yet proud on the tongue with the fruit caressing the aftertastes.
Passionfruit dessert Photo courtesy: Leila Dylla

Passionfruit treasure revealed

The chocolate, beet, long pepper and ricotta was the Carmen Miranda of the night. 
She came to the table fiery red –- a full frontal come-hither flirt demanding to be noticed. 
How could anyone miss the splash of Pollack-like red beet “paint” splayed gored and bleeding around the plate and the ricotta nubs drenched in the heat of its passion punctuated by chocolate mousse?

Artful Food Explosion

If I smoked, I would’ve needed a cigarette!

We were spent.  But not before some frothy, foamy cappuccino to bring us back round to earth.

OK, so manipulating the food maybe too strong an objection to this type of food preparation. 
The fact is, it is not contrived for contrarian’s sake.  Rather it is an artful expression.  And bottom line? The food is excellent, delicious, and exciting. 
The ingredients are locally sourced from Greenmarkets, too.
Hmmm, maybe a dedicated culinary enthusiast can have it all…

If food like this can make even experienced cooks and foodies clap their hands with pure, unabashed joy and delight – then this is the reason to experience dining out:  at wd~50.

A quick tour of the kitchen by the gracious manager, Timothy Mustard demonstrated chef Wylie’s commitment to creativity. 
OK, must do quick aside here. 
This reporter loves the idea that three are those who seem drawn to professions where their names are currency—to whit, besides Mustard and the condiment connection are Todd Forrest at the New York Botanical Garden, who was the curator of the Forest (now is Vice President of Horticulture), Blossom at NYBG, Jeff Bright from NYC lighting company… Michael Pollan said he collects these “name magnets” where people are inextricably linked to their craft.  And when you think about it, the name pollan and gardens (hint: pollinators and pollen) are not too far off the mark.

Back to the accommodating, hospitable and elegant Mr. Mustard. He knows his stuff – about the restaurant’s mission, history and food talent. He possesses great stories and is keen to share them.

He told the group the open kitchen at wd~50 was designed by chef Wylie, to allow each cook to work in their own station.  Every cook has his or her own space for oven and prep work.  Chef Wylie also designed the kitchen’s infiltration system. 
That is thoughtful and smart and forward thinking. 
This is a chef who clearly respects his cooking team.

Good luck at the Miami Food & Wine Festival, Chef Wylie - where he was on the night of this exciting dinner experience.


wd~50 Restaurant is located at:
50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10022

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