Call him an eclectic pioneer, a nonconformist chemist, a mad scientist or culinary daredevil, but Chef Wylie Dufresne has his feet firmly planted in the culinary world. This James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef in New York City is somewhat of a celebrity chef now, using the disciplines of molecular gastronomy to entertain diners with food like they’ve never imagined or seen before. He will liquify, solidify and gassify; he will deconstruct, reinterpret and transfigure. Some may not like this style of cuisine and others may not even get it, but it will always be a new experience that makes the mind question what is normal.
At Dufresne’s Lower East Side restaurant wd~50, he works with pastry chef Alex Stupak (who worked as pastry chef at Alinea in Chicago) to construct an inspirational menu where what you order will look completely different from what you expect. Pizza may turn up as pebbles, cocoa nibs may present as socium alginate and calcium chloride caviar pearls, bone marrow as dehydrated discs and shrimp as noodles. While the concepts and presentations are abstract expressionistic, the execution of these gourmet projects are a precise science.
Contrary to the whimsical menu and reputation of the restaurant as a carnival of molecular delights, the restaurant decor is disappointingly boring, reminiscent of a local pizza parlor still stuck in outdated 90’s decor. The mismatch takes away from the experience and I find myself feeling uninspired, even unexcited for this experience. I suddenly feel skeptical about ordering the tasting menu, and opt for à la carte. Yes, ambiance does matter.
Corned duck with rye crisp, purple mustard, horseradish cream
One of the most popular items on the wd~50 menu since its opening in 2003 is the corned duck, a beautifully constructed cylinder of lean but juicy duck that is gift wrapped around a tower of delicious condiments. Untangling the ring of thinly sliced smokey bird reveals a nucleus of tart horseradish cream and slivers of honey pickled garlic, a perfect power play of spicy and sweet. A smear of dark purple mustard reduced with red wine adds a luscious savor while the bouquet of microgreens adds a fresh kick to the presentation.
A must-try dish at wd~50 that represents Dufresne’s philosophy and fantasy, the deconstructed eggs benedict is a colorful surprise of culinary cubism. Crispy Canadian bacon chips are wedged in dollops of slow poached egg yolks, bright like the summer sun and made with the consistency of liquid just barely becoming solid. English muffins become minimized as delicate coatings for the warm Hollandaise cubes, its intense richness showing my palate that big flavors can come in small packages. The sprinkles of black Cyprus volcanic sea salt help to cut through some of the heavy buttery flavors while chive spears placed at skewed angles add more geometry to the edible installation. Fun, edgy and inventive, but good enough to compete against a traditional eggs benedict? Not for me.
Aerated foie, pickled beet, mashad plum, brioche
The most memorable act of the evening is a plate of aerated foie, fine reticulated columns of savory liver that resemble a loofah at first glance and a microscopic image of bone matrix upon closer inspection. The foie is light, airy and fragile, collapsing and melting into smooth liquid gold inside my mouth. The tart sweetness of the plum purée, the acidity of the pickled beet rectangles and the delfino greens that hang over the foie like ivy all elevate the flavors of the foie, but I find myself fascinated with the crispy brioche crisps, sliced so thin that it too takes on the latticed construction of the foie.
Iberico pork neck, endive, buckwheat, clove
Thick cuts of sous vide Iberico pork neck are sweet and succulent, a stellar combination with the apple cider and brown butter sauce, but those are the only good ingredients in this ambitious and busy dish. Cloved tuille tastes like the first strong puff of a clove cigarette, normally a good thing for post-meal smokes but not what I want on my pork. Fried endive is an overcooked soggy bitter mess while deep fried buckwheat has the opposite effect- not quite puffed enough that it becomes a gritty grainy nuisance that gets embedded into the sockets of my teeth.
Lemongrass mousse, brown sugar, jack fruit, whole wheat sorbet
Pastry chef Alex Stupak creates an architectural dessert using a serpentine tube of lemongrass mousse accented by flourescent yellow dots and slivers of jackfruit. Lemongrass foam on both ends of the mousse hold its height while the long rectangular strips of lemongrass ice start to slowly melt over the whole wheat sorbet and brown sugar crisp. As the ice melts and our spoons diligently work away at the dessert, the configurations of the components begin to change, and a new form of non-static abstract art is revealed with every bite.
The meal ends with chocolate shortbread-covered milk ice cream, cold balls of intensely sweet ice cream that taste like Oreo cookies.
The cocktail menu at wd~50 is interesting in concept, but poor in execution. The Bourbon Bimbo had to be sent back because it tasted like the bitter white flesh of lemon rinds, and ‘A Saltier Dog’s saltiness was overpowering, killing whatever flavor it was supposed to have.
It is difficult and unfair to rate a restaurant based on one quick visit with just a handful of dishes, and I dare not question whether wd~50 is truly worthy of a Michelin star or a place in S. Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list. All I know is that my visit didn’t excite me to return again, at least not until the interior is revamped, the mood lightened and the menu improved. Wiley Wonka’s laboratory of molecular delights is a fun exhilarating experience, one that will certainly provoke a lot of thought and conversation- but does his passion come through enough in his food, and does it have that punch that will make a diner want to come back the following week, and the week after?
50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002-2401
Random trivia: Did you know that jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, reaching 80 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter?