Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Restaurant 1: WD-50 (Infinite Feast XV)

LOCATION: 50 Clinton St., Lower East Side
DATE: April 2, 2005
FOOD AND BEVERAGE: Tasting Menu with Wine Pairings - Hamachi, freeze-dried corn, marjoram (paired with Cava Brut, Avinyo, Non-Vintage (Spain)); Foie gras, grapefruit-basil crumble, nori caramel (paired with same Cava Brut); Rainbow trout, pork belly, cider meringue, miso paper (paired with Sauvignon Blanc, Groom 2004 (South Australia, Australia)); Venison Tartare, Edamame Ice Cream, Pear (paired with same Sauvignon Blanc); Mackerel, smoked banana, parsley, juniper (paired with Semillon, Sileni Estates 2000 (Hawkes Bay, New Zealand)); Slow poached egg, parmesan broth, tomato (paired with Langhe 'Verbeia' Gatti Piero 2001 (Piedmont, Italy); Lamb belly, green daikon, black bean, chocolate powder (paired with same Langhe); Duck breast, pickled leg, parsnip pudding, rye berry (paired with Garnacha, Artazuri 2003 (Navarra, Spain); Grapefruit in grapefruit; Carrot-lime ravioli, coconut tapioca (paired with Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Domaine de Fenouillet 2003 (Rhone, France)); French toast with brown butter ice cream (Commanderia St. John NV (Lemesos, Cyprus)); Royal Blush (vodka, Cava Brut, lime juice, cherry puree)
PRICE: $202.00

A quick SAT review question:

John Barth : LITERATURE :: ________ : FOOD

The answer: Wyle Dufresne.

How do you match a cuisine to the avant-garde experimentalism of John Barth’s literary genius? WD-50, that’s how. One look at the WD-50 online menu, and you quickly realize, you ain’t going to be getting hamburgers and French fries. Pumpernickel cocoa, fried mayonnaise, smoked yogurt: this is laboratory food, the culinary quixotic, the gourmet equivalent of a science experiment. And as such, sometimes the results are amazing in their challenging innovations, while at other times, as the Levitra ads say, individual results may vary.

Throughout our nine-course tasting, Danny and I saw Dufresne frequently, standing outside of his kitchen, surveying his restaurant. His attention to detail is just as evident in the food. Surprisingly, the most brilliant courses of the evening were the non-entrees. I ate in awe of Dufresne’s genius as I sliced into foie gras from which a unique nori caramel erupted, pooling on the plate like a Rorschach blot (though I’m still guessing as to what I was supposed to see). The grapefruit-basil crumble accompaniment made the dish damn near perfect, a spectrum of tastes best when eaten together. The venison tartare with edamame(!) ice cream was just as distinctly memorable, the saltiness of the raw meat blending into the smooth and not overly sweet ice cream to create a sensation on my tongue that I had never experienced. At this point and others in the meal, I felt more like I was in an art museum than at a restaurant, my food biases and mind being engaged just as much as my palate.

Dufresne also made paper flavorable and the combination of mackerel and smoked banana in a later course, was tremendous. However, the imagination of these beginning courses, led to a let down during the entrĂ©e courses. Both Danny and I felt the entrees were too conventional for WD-50’s reputation. While the lamb belly and the duck certainly weren’t bad, they were disappointing, not demanding nearly as much as the rest of the menu. And the grapefruit and grapefruit, a grapefruit puree surrounded by a grapefruit sorbet, was my least favorite dish of the night. It was something I could have had anywhere. Perhaps it was unfair to expect every course to flaunt convention and maybe Dufresne should be allowed to cook “normal” things every now and again. But, to stay in line with the Barth focus of the book club, to have had those first courses before the entrees is like letting someone read Barth and then telling them they must go back to Hemingway.

But Wyle made it up to me, as my favorite two dishes of the night came later. The first, a soft-boiled egg, which a sous chef informed us had been cooked at exactly 147 degrees for over an hour, came in a parmesan broth and was transcendent. Having an egg at a nice restaurant was strange enough, but the runniness of the yolk, the cheese and a small pile of Indian noodles formed such an astounding combination. Once I punctured the egg, the dish became more like a thick soup, with each ingredient losing it’s identity for the greater good. The lime-carrot ravioli with coconut tapioca followed and was probably the only dish that could have lived up to its predecessor. Again, Dufresne brought seemingly disparate items together in a creamy utopia.

In addition to the food, the staff was courteous and had no problem meeting two substitutions requests I made – the venison instead of the beef tongue (I generally don’t eat beef), French toast for the chocolate dessert. I also loved the bathroom, which ranks right behind Schiller’s as the best I’ve seen in the city. The wine pairings were excellent, though Danny’s suggestion that WD-50 should perhaps do something more innovative with beverages was dead on. But by the end of the meal, I knew I had found the perfect culinary companion to Barth’s prose. This food made me think and like Lost in the Funhouse, certainly isn’t for everyone. The portions are small and Dufresne’s experiments aren’t successful 100% of the time. But food can be art and great art pushes boundaries and attacks assumptions. WD-50 does all this and still manages to find a way to taste pretty damn good.

RATING: 8.5/10

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