Sunday, 28 July 2013

New York Series - WD-50


There are few restaurants around the world that excite me as much as WD-50.  I love experimental chefs and restaurants that push the boundaries of food and one's perception of dining.  Of course there have been the better known restaurants that are seen as the absolute pinnacle of experimental dining, such as elBulli, Fat Duck and Noma, but I personally put Wylie Dufrense's self named restaurant, WD-50, in the same category.

Located in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the restaurant is named WD-50 after Wylie's initials and the street number, 50 Clinton Street.  It's not a huge restaurant, seating around 65 people, but it is a very intimate restaurant that is only open for dinner, seven days a week.  There is an exciting vibe in the area that feels gritty and real, with narrow streets and lots of action occurring at all times of the day and night in any of the great restaurants or bars and clubs.

I had always planned to visit WD-50 and early on in our trip to Manhattan, we had scoped out the restaurant when were were checking out the Lower East Side.  There is so much to explore, I was pretty stoked when we first 'found' WD-50.  It's very unassuming from the street with an exposed brown stone facade with the only clue that this was one of the cities best restaurants, a small neon sign that barely lights up in the daytime (but as I would find out, was like a beacon when the sun finally set).


Chef Wylie at the Pass 
WD-50 is another degustation only restaurant, however like Esquire & Esq in Brisbane, there is the option of ordering any of the degustation items from the bar.  There are two options for degustation as well, a 12 course tasting menu and a smaller tasting menu of classics from the WD-50 'vault'.  As tempting as getting some WD-50 classic was, we decided to go with the 12 course tasting menu.

One of the reasons why I was so keen to check out the Wylie Dufrense tasting menu, and one of the key reasons why the thought of eating at WD-50 was so exciting, is the approach that Wylie takes to food.  Chef Dufrense has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of food.  Sure he is an experimental chef and uses all sorts of 'potions' and tricks (otherwise know an molecular gastronomy) to produce food, but he is a genius when it comes to reconstructing known flavour combinations in different ways and creating food combinations that shouldn't work, but do.

The 13 course degustation menu was a pretty interesting read, with just a list of ingredients that gave you no idea about how and what would be presented.  I love this approach, it keeps you guessing as to what you will see.  I knew we were in for an interesting ride when were were presented with sesame flat bread instead of traditional bread.  The flat bread had been worked over and looked amazing in sheets of thin crispy sesame flavoured 'bread'.  It wasn't overly salty  and was a great way to whet the appetite for the journey that was about to begin.


Saffron coconut ice cream, caviar and poppy seed was the first course and was simplicity and elegance on a plate, looking like a small ice cream sandwich standing on end.  It was small and bite sized, so the idea was to pick it up and pop it into your mouth in one bite.  There was an interesting balance of sweet and savoury with the dish, with the sweetness from the saffron ice cream offset  by the saltiness of the caviar.  I was expecting there to be more crunch from the poppyseed, but the casing of ice cream sandwich was also quite soft, but was warm against the very cold saffron coconut ice cream.  It was a delightful way to start the meal


Tilefish, parsnip 'pringle', sweetflag and tofu was the next dish and again I had no concept of what the dish would look like from the description.  The combination of flavours with the dish were amazing, the tilefish was quite subtle with the sweetflag (like a grass root) had a slightly bitter taste to it, but once you combined all of the ingredients on the parsnip pringle, the flavours balanced out really well.  I didn't notice the tofu so much, but there seemed to be a parsnip puree underneath the dish that also helped bind the dish and add some extra texture.


The next dish had the most intense flavours of the night and had the most interesting ingredients, which were really strong individually but sublime when combined.  The chilled egg drop soup, sea urchin, mushroom and radish looked really interesting on the plate with the mustard coloured sea urchin standing out.  Sea urchin has an interesting and slimy texture and is very salty, but when you added it to the sumptuous egg soup, some of the saltiness reduced.  This was interesting, because on its own the egg soup was also very salty.  I'm not exactly sure how this was achieved, but it was excellent cooking and a very tasty plate of food.  


Sweetbread have a way of polarising people, with many not really liking the concept of using the odd cuts of meat.  I don't usually love sweetbreads but the sweetbreads, cucumber-lychee,  tonic and fermented black bean dish was possibly my favourite of the night.  We never found out what part of the animal the sweetbreads were, but they were cooked to absolute perfection and were extremely tasty especially when you added the cucumber-lychee puree.  The texture of the sweetbread was quite firm and the puree was sticky and sweet, with a really fresh flavour.  It was presented wonderfully on a circular wooden plate, so the colours of the lightly coated sweetbreads matched the plate but contrasted the puree.


The sea scallop, berber granola, carrot and marcona was another spectacular looking dish that defied my expectations of what it would look like on the plate.  The scallop was ceviche and diced quite small with textre coming from the crunchy granola.  There was a carrot ravioli that once cut leaked out a wonderfully sweet carrot sauce that could be used to contrast the dryness of the granola.  This was a dish where taste, texture and smell combined to produce a lovely plate of food that was delicious.


I didn't know what to expect when I saw the pig tail, artichoke, olive oil jam and hazelnut listed on our menu run sheet.  I had visions of curly looking pieces of pork, but the very refined looking dish that was presented was anything but.  The pig tail was put into a terrine and then covered in crumbs and then hidden away with the rest of the ingredients on the plate.  The pig tail had a lovely salty flavour and there was dehydrated artichoke and hazelnut on the plate that would have mixed nicely with the olive oil jam, however, the jam was a bit salty for me and reminded me too much of a tapenade (which I don't like).  I also thought the dish was well balanced without the olive oil jam and the little bit that I tried made the overall dish too salty.  Luckily the dish was presented in a way that allowed you to add the jam to taste.


The next dish was a very interesting looking plate that in no way gave any clues as to what it was and it was only the description from the waiter and the menu run sheet that gave any clues as to its content.  It was walleye pike, celery, macadamia and grapefruit with the fish completely hidden away under a wrap of reconstructed celery.  The pike was perfectly cooked and a wonderful mix with the macadamia and little bits of the grapefruit puree.  There were some powerful flavours coming from the puree and I found the a bit overpowering and detracting from the subtly flavoured pike, but that was just me.  SC really enjoyed adding all of the puree to the dish and liked the strong flavours.  Again, the dish was designed so you could add the strong flavours to taste.


One of our waiters confessed that the rabbit, spring onion, hibiscus and thai basil 'nori' was his favourite dish.  The rabbit was cooked as a ballotine and was wrapped in crispy chicken skin, which not only added some great crunch texture but some saltiness.  The thai basi; 'nori' not only added some colour to the plate, but along with the richly coloured spring onion, added some contrasting flavours to the subtle rabbit.  The ballotine was cooked really well and held together nicely when mopping up the hibiscus flavoured jus on the plate.  I didn't share the same enthusiasm as our waiter for the dish, but it was still lovely.


The other dish that competed for the title as my favourite on the night was the wagyu flat iron, mushroom jerky, grape and verjus.  This was the most creative dish on the night and also looked spectacular with its rich dark red colour and colourful accompaniments of grapes, mushrooms and micro-herbs.  There were two standouts on the plate, the incredibly cooked wagyu and the jerky mushroom.  There was an intense flavour to the mushroom that was came from the process of turning it into jerky, which also gave it a very meaty texture, it really did feel like you were eating a meat jerky.  The wagyu was incredibly tender and well cooked and was very much the centrepiece of the dish.  The dish was lovely, creative and full of flavour and I really enjoyed it.


The first of the desserts was a study in subtlety with a lovely combination of rice wine sorbet, honey-milk crisp and tarragon.  There were some great textures on the plate, with the soft sorbet and the crunchy milk crisp on top, which you had to break up and then mix into the dessert.  The rice wine sorbet was creamy and married perfectly with the tarragon sauce underneath.


While the first dessert was a study in subtlety, the second dessert was much more 'in-your-face' with the popcorn vacherin, strawberry, kaffir lime and watermelon being an interesting and beautiful dish.  There was popcorn and candied popcorn set amongst chewy vacherin (which was a little like meringue) and sautéed strawberries.  There was a wonderful watermelon sorbet that provided a really fresh flavour to the dessert and when all elements were combined, it was a real treat.


The last dessert was a real assault on the senses, with your expectations turned on their head.  The menu described a key lime pie, ritz cracker and cherry and what was delivered looked nothing like a pie.  I love deconstructed food, but I had no direct comparison as I had never had key lime pie.  Once I go over my disappointment of not actually having a key lime pie, I could see the natural beauty in the dish.  There was a pie of sorts, with a soft meringue covering a condensed milk centre, which was very, very sweet and had to be offset by some dehydrated cherries and the sour cream smeared on the plate.  It was a delicious dessert when you added all of the components, but boy was it sweet if you didn't get some of the sour cream.  I was glad that there was some crunch from the 'ritz cracker' which was a lovely crumbly biscuit. 


The last item on the menu perhaps sums up WD-50 best and was a complete juxtaposition from its name, visual look and taste.  Called beer, malt and pretzel, it just looked like a crushed up ball of pretzels but once you popped it into your mouth, the whole meal came together.  It was like having a mouthful of cold beer, then taking a bite of a pretzel, it was simply incredible and a lesson in your senses being thrown out.  I mean, eating a cold beer?  Crazy


We had finished our meal but the night was not over yet.  We got into a conversation with our main waitress for the night about food and restaurants and discovered she had worked in Australia in Quay.  One thing led to another but we were invited to take a tour of the kitchen.  We were taken by the maitre'd out to the kitchen and given a rundown on how it was all put together.  The kitchen itself is made to Wylie's specifications and is purpose built to fit his 6'2" frame, with the height of the benches being perfect for his frame.  The kitchen was also purpose built off site and required the restaurant walls come down to allow the kitchen to be installed!

The best part about visiting the kitchen was meeting Wylie himself and having a brief conversation about his kitchen and food philosophy (as well as a little bit of gushing from yours truly!).  It was great watching Wylie at the pass and inspecting dishes as they went out and it was great to know that the head chef was in the kitchen looking after our meals on the night.  WD-50 has had a Michelin star ever since the Michelin guide started in the US and it's Wylie's exacting requirements and creative flare that has kept the Michelin star.

We had a fabulous time at WD-50 and while the food journey made up a significant part of the enjoyment it was equally due to the fantastic wait staff on the night.  They were extremely knowledgeable about the food at WD-50 and were prepared to tell us which were their favourites and seemed to really dig working there.  While this was a different experience to our Eleven Madison Park meal, I actually found the food to be a little more exciting and cutting edge, which appeals to my sense of adventure!

There are certain traits that lead to truly memorable meals.  Creativity - check.  Flavour - check.  Location - check.  X-factor - check.  For me the WD-50 visit checked all the right boxes and provided a meal I will never forget!


A dark and funky restaurant.  It filled up pretty quickly and was packed with a great vibe by the time we left
There is a bar at the front and side area for non degustation meals
Chef Wylie in action at the pass making sure each meal is exact to his standards
The team inaction at the kitchen centrepiece.  Made to Chef Wylie's specifications
The wall of magic potions that are crucial in molecular gastronomy
That kitchen again!
wd-50 on Urbanspoon

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