My absence for the last few days hasn’t so much been a byproduct of business as it’s been a complete suspension of my personal gustatory reality. This week, I ate vegetarian sandwiches that tasted like meat, drank wines with the aromas of flowers, barnyards, and musk, and willingly downed not one, but nearly two large portions of tender, chewy woodear mushrooms, my own personal Kryptonite, in ecstasy and without any pretense of betting. This last fact alone proves that Chef Wylie Dufresne of wd~50 isn’t so much mad scientist, as diners have noted, so much as he is a benevolent wizard of cuisine. But I’ll get back to that.
This has been on my bucket list for a while. When Miss Love offered to treat me to dinner, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. As we drove to the restaurant, situated on Clinton street across a check cashing kiosk and Mexican grocery store, I was kind of wondering if I’d be hitting the end of that bucket list sooner than I thought. wd~50 looks completely different on the inside, and from the throngs of well-dressed people and scarily attractive clientele milling around the restaurant, it’s clear that the restaurant has many admirers despite its location. On a balmy evening, we started off our night with a few cocktails.
We ordered two specialty cocktails from their list- a wd~50 classic, the Green Hornet, with celery gin and tonic, and a seasonal selection, the aptly named ¿Qué Pasa, Calabaza? with tequila, squash, yuzu, and black salt. The Green Hornet was an excellent interpretation on an old standard. Drinking it becomes apparent that this is not the place where sticking a stalk of celery in a G ‘n’ T passes for a quality libation. It infuses all the sweet brininess of a celery stick into a drink with none of the pesky starchy xylem, working impeccably with the spices in the gin.
The ¿Qué Pasa, Calabaza? was a perfect play off the weather outside, with a very Halloweeny black and orange color scheme and a light, fruity flavor and fragrant nose. The yuzu crept in at the end of each sip, its subtle influence rendering a citrusy zest without the tartness that a lemon would typically impart. The richness of the squash was beautiful with the naturally yogurty flavor of the tequila. If there was any one element I was somewhat on the fence about, it would have been the salt. While a little was welcomed, there was quite a bit on the rim of the drink. Consuming too much salt in one sip overpowered the more delicate flavors.
While drinking, we enjoyed a box of crisp sesame flatbread in lieu of a bread basket. These had a buttery flavor and delicate texture of the crunch of popcorn husks without the annoying tooth-sticking quality. They provided a good neutrality in between dishes.
Here at Foodette, we go big and go home sloshed, so we went for the full tasting menu with the wine pairings. We started off with an amuse bouche of fluke, black garlic paste, grapefruit, toasted squash seeds, and pomegranate zest. This was an excellent way to start the meal, with a light texture yet bold flavors with the tobacco-like sweetness of fall. The crunch from the squash seeds and silky garlic sauce offset the acidity of the grapefruit and gave depth to the mild fish.
This was paired with a sparkling sake from Yamagata, Japan, which our server explained was basically regular sake made with unpolished rice, made using the méthode champenoise with a light petillance and familiar sake neutrality. It allowed the flavors of the amuse bouche and second course to shine without clashing and was a great way to ease into the meal.
Our second course was the driving force behind my desire to come here, Dufresne’s famous everything bagel ice cream with crispy cream cheese, fuzzy smoked salmon threads, and pickled onions. The presentation was stunning, from the matte sheen on the brittle shard of cream cheese to the airbrushed baking marks on the bagel and precisely placed sesame and poppy seeds. It was beautiful, if ephemeral, and had a sweet, bready quality and silky texture.
Next, we waited for our third course while enjoying our second wine, a 2008 Austrian “Trie” Triebaumer from Burgenland. It is worth noting that if you’re friendly to your server, you’ll leave with a slew of new facts about the fascinating library of wines wd~50 pairs, as well as a fairly generous pour with each new glass. This particular wine was a combination of unoaked Chardonnay, Yellow Muscat, and Muskat Ottonel, three wines that made me cringe inwardly in anticipation of the sugar shock that never came. For a trio of typically unctuous wines, this was a fairly restrained example, with a cloudy color and floral heavy, bone dry flavor that played nicely with the next course.
This was another curiosity, Wylie Dufresne’s play on a falafel, taking the “fa” and replacing it with “foie” in a melty, buttery ball of joy nestled inside a thick, chewy pita bread. The foie-lafel consisted of foie gras balls rolled in chickpeas and sesame seeds, fried inside a pita with kimchi tahini and a tabouleh salad underneath. While absolutely delightful to hold and eat, the two unusual elements, kimchi and foie gras, were buried under the pungency of the Middle Eastern spices and showed only their most basic forms in a slight piquancy for the former and fatty, rich quality for the latter. A clever interpretation, and a delicious one, but one that unfortunately missed the mark as far as idiosyncrasy went.
Our next wine followed a similar suit with the 2009 Palmina “Subida” from the Saint Ynez Valley of California. This wine was created in a similar style to red wines from the same producer, and had a beautiful basil and nut flavor with a dusty nose and a yellow hue rivaled only by the luxurious center of our next course, Dufresne’s interpretation of a Caesar Salad with a perfectly soft-boiled egg orbited by dried pumpernickel crisps, lily bulb, caesar dressing, and its own shell, recreated out of edible kaolin clay and brown butter. Flavor-wise, not the most outgoing, but the texture was seamlessly similar to an actual solid egg shell.
The udon dish completely turned my world upside down. Completely. Granted, I had my chance to pussy out at the start when the server asked about food allergies, but I decided that if I took my chances and ate mushrooms, it would be at the hands of one of America’s most talented magicians of morsels, and I would go down like a champ. Turns out I didn’t have to go anywhere. In a rare feat of bravery, this was so delicious that I ate all of mine and most of Keepitcoming’s. At its simplest, this dish mimics the textures and flavors of crispy General Tso’s chicken on a bed of chow mein. At its most daring, this was a melange of beautiful moist textures and sweet flavors. Surprisingly, mushrooms make pretty damned good noodles, sopping up the gingery sauce yet remaining firm. This was topped with soft morsels of crispy fried sweetbread. The only element that I felt could have been richer and more pervasive was the banana molasses, reduced to a mere glaze atop the sweetbread and lacking the smokiness I typically associate with the sauce.
We were absolutely smitten with the 2010 Gamay “Mon Cher” Noella Moratin. It had the gamey, rustic qualities of its varietal, with a persistent and strong lily nose, with floral top notes and a deep, bretty, almost human-like base scent, of barnyards and wet leather. It reminded us of vintage French perfumes with an old-fashioned set of scents and flavors. It added a svelte layer of grassy sweetness to the udon that the molasses lacked.
A tender, perfect piece of salmon was paired with a root beer oatmeal, sour cherry mash, and carrot. The oatmeal absorbed the snappier, minty essences of sassafras with a firm bite from the kernels and tasted fine against the mild flavor of the salmon, but both had very separate flavors and never really met in the middle. The cherry mash electrified the salmon and really boosted its natural sweetness better than the oatmeal. The carrot’s flavor was nowhere to be found.
We drank a 2010 Pinot Noir from Wilson Daniels with this as well as our next course, though I must confess that at this stage, the generous pours were getting to me and if the wine wasn’t off the charts exceptional and memorable, it didn’t really stick in my head. This was one of the more generic selections of the pairing, with a mild licorice and cherry flavor and scent.
Our next savory course consisted of a tender filleted duck breast dotted with blobs of nasturtium yogurt, roasted turnips, and nutmeg. The nasturtium yogurt was the most unique part of the dish, with a thick, pasty texture and tang similar to hot Chinese mustard but no heat. On top of the duck and countered by the rooty turnips, it was delicious, if a little rich for us at that point.
The final savory course of the evening, (which, at that point, had passed the two and a half hour mark) was a riff off rice and beans with lamb and chayote squash. A very Southwestern vibe emitted from the spices on the “rice and beans,” which were really soft, soaked pine nuts and a rice crisp. The lamb was cooked to perfection, but had a little too much fat left on. I liked the sweet, apple-like flavor the chayote lent to each bite. Cut in translucent strips, it curled around the fork, wrapping the fillings up like a nouveau American sushi roll.
We transitioned to the dessert portion of the menu with a strange little palate cleanser of candied egg yolk, brown buttermilk ice cream, jackfruit, and crushed hazelnut pieces. The dish toed the line delicately between savory and neutral, with a hint of sweetness and rush of acidity from the jackfruit. The egg yolk and jackfruit were both bright yellow in hue and the yolk had a milky, creamy flavor but was difficult to discern in each bite. The crunch of the toasted hazelnuts gave a good structural depth to the otherwise dairy-heavy dessert.
And then, we were in full-throttle sugar mode. It was awesome. The apricot, buckwheat, quince, and green tea dessert lent a range of flavors to the plate, at first resembling a set of components not unlike certain Rieslings, but with more colorful flair and less balance on the whole. The apricot pudding had an excellent texture, but its tartness mirrored that of the quince and pushed the subtle salinity of buckwheat to the back burner. The green tea powder was piled and squiggled in a way that made each bite somewhat inconsistent. Some had a mere whiff of bitterness, some, overly chalky as a result of too much powder.
Our wine with that was a beautiful Vermont ice cider, a “Honeycrisp” from Champlain Orchards. It was beautiful and smooth, with a honeyed, brown sugar flavor and ripeness of a baked apple.
We followed that wine with our final dessert and dessert wine, a Californian NV Port, the “Lot Number Three” Marietta. This was a beautiful and lush selection with a chocolatey, sundried flavor that reminded me of liquified Raisinettes.
I drank both our ports with our final dessert.
This last dessert was another Dufresne favorite, the beet, ricotta, chocolate, and long pepper Pollack-inspired edible painting. I could have eaten the ricotta ice cream by the gallon, it was so tangy and delicious, with a flavor similar to, but wholly different than yogurt and cheese. It definitely had the silky, salty bite of ricotta. The beets imparted less of a flavoral difference than I expected, but accentuated the saltiness of the ice cream and provided a gorgeous color palate. For me, the chocolate was the highlight of the dish, with a fluid, semisolid texture and elastic smoothness in the mouth. A perfect way to finish the meal.
With our check came balls of ice cream coated in Rice Krispies and fried balls of a lemony rice pudding. Poppable and sweet, they helped soak up a good deal of booze for the ride back.
I got the sense that wd~50 didn’t rest all its deconstructed eggs in one basket. Their food was delicious, and their service was impeccable. Each element of the meal felt like it was executed and timed well. Considering that the meal lasted for a little around three and a half hours, it never felt like it was dragging or like we were forgotten. While I can’t say that the meal was perfect- a few of the dishes did feel like they were presented for shock value with less regard for flavor than expected, it was certainly memorable and beautiful. I’ll definitely be coming back to check out the dessert tasting and to try a few more of those cocktails.