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Hard to Get?by Adeena Sussman | Manhattan magazine | July 6, 2012
Chances are it’s been a while since you had dinner at WD-50. And who could blame you? Back when chef Wylie Dufresne opened the restaurant on Clinton Street in 2003—slyly naming it after the building’s address combined with his initials—he garnered national praise as a visionary, one of America’s first ambassadors of the molecular gastronomy movement preached by futuristic culinary gods in Spain and England.
I interviewed Dufresne around that time. In his hipster-geek glasses, mutton chops and simple black-and-white-striped apron he was ambitious and restless, with a bit of the requisite angry young man thrown in for good measure. “If people don’t get my food, there’s nothing I can do about it,” I remember him saying.
Back then a meal at WD-50 was thrilling and very different than what Americans—even the most adventurous eaters among them—had ever tried. Dufresne’s menu was tricked out with ingredients like black garlic that were still seminal at the time and included flourishes like balls of “fried mayonnaise,” maple syrup gelatin and brown-butter ice cream replacing the expected accompaniments to a French-toast dessert. Still, there’s a fine balance between intellectual titillation and appetite satisfaction, and the food, though always innovative and expertly prepared, didn’t always hit the sweet spot. Sometimes after a meal there, you still wanted a slice of pizza. WD-50 became “experience dining,” a place to try once or twice—but that might have been enough.
That’s about to change. Almost a decade later Dufresne, older, wiser and widely respected by his peers for his prescient vision, has introduced a brand-new menu to celebrate the restaurant’s ninth anniversary. At 13 courses and $155, it’s clear Dufresne isn’t messing around. And after tasting the first bite—“nigiri” made with starchy salsify “rice” topped by a pristine slice of mackerel and an understated sprinkle of sesame and seaweed—it’s clear he’s on to something. That bite is inventive and different, but also savory and substantial.
The same goes for coral-colored pasta made of lobster roe, crunchy green grapes and moist crustacean claw meat swimming in a tiny pool of coriander-infused brown butter. It’s pretty, tasty and—most importantly—something you’ll dream about when you go home.
What’s also striking about WD-50 is how young the crowd is. Under a teal wall hung with a marble triptych sit pairs of diners who grew up watching cooking-competition shows where liquid nitrogen and agar-agar were just another part of any chef’s arsenal. In an age when “spherification kits” for making liquid capsules are available online with the click of a button, these young patrons seem unfazed by chewy, gelatinous egg yolks laced with bitter amaro liqueur, paired with confit chicken and piled with thin shavings of carrot (if only the accompanying dehydrated pea powder tasted more like spring and less like desiccated astronaut food). If anything, Dufresne has more to prove to a younger generation for whom the technical bells and whistles are less of a distracting novelty. It’s all about taste.
A bowl of “pho gras” won’t disappoint them—or diners of any age. A dish almost certainly conceived for its play-on-words name, it could hold its own with any moniker. In a sly co-option of the classic Vietnamese soup, slippery rice noodles anchor a rich, meaty broth, a perfectly cooked knob of seared goose liver crowning the bowl. Next: thin slices of veal brisket shaved to look like pastrami, gorgeous slivers of yellow-fleshed plum cutting the meat’s saltiness and resting among a sort of mustard chip that’s airy and light with the texture of honeycomb candy. Then rib meat deboned, rolled and braised in root beer, sitting on top of stylish beige spaetzle and an apricot mostarda that pulls the whole dish together.
WD-50 is a restaurant that takes dessert seriously, too. Rather than feeling like a postscript, these final courses, courtesy of pastry chef Malcolm Livingston, reinforce the impact of Dufresne’s new menu. A bowl described sparingly as “jasmine, cucumber, honey, Chartreuse” undersells and over-delivers as one of the most inventive and refreshing palate-cleansers out there. Puffy clouds of tea-like jasmine sorbet and cashew bits rest atop a thin layer of cucumber ice you shatter to get to a tiny dice of melon and cukes accented with Chartreuse liqueur. The real showstopper is a s’more—a giant housemade meringue marshmallow impaled on an edible stick, the entire plate bruléed before being adorned with bitter, cayenne-laced cocoa sorbet. Overly sweet dessert can put a diner to bed. Like the rest of the meal at WD-50, it’s an eye-opener.
50 Clinton Street
Mon.-Sat., 6-10:30pm; Sun., 6-10pm
Lobster roe with charred lemon, grape and coriander butter; veal brisket with za’atar, plum and mustard; root-beer ribs; s’mores dessert
WHAT IT COSTS
New 13-course tasting menu: $155; six-course “From the Vault” tasting menu: $75
At the bar, two dishes from either tasting menu can be ordered for $25, with additional courses going for $15 a pop.
Bluegrass, ’80s covers, jazz
Dufresne pastry alumnae include Empellón’s Alex Stupak, bad-boy pastry chef Sam Mason and Momofuku Milk Bar star Christina Tosi
The final course: two little chocolate truffles infused with Norwegian goat cheese keep until the next day.