wd~50 is one of the first restaurants my boyfriend and I visited once we agreed that while some couples exercise together and some couples vacation together, we were going to be a couple who ate really fantastically over-the-top meals together. We celebrated our second anniversary with a few savory courses and the five-course dessert tasting and then went back for the full tasting menu, which included dishes that we still talk about years later as iconic examples of molecular gastronomy.
When we heard that the menu format had changed to celebrate wd-50′s ninth anniversary, we knew it was time to go back again. The “From the Vault” menu is five of the most memorable courses from the restaurant’s past for $75, but we opted for the new twelve-course tasting menu for $155 with wine pairings:
NIGIRI, SALSIFY, SEAWEED, SESAME
Salsify, the root of a plant, as rice? It wasn’t unconvincing, and knowing that salsify is said to taste like oysters, using it as the base of a seafood dish is so clever. There was a heavy lime component to this, and the crisp texture of the sesame paired well with the springier fish and “rice”.
LOBSTER ROE, CHARRED LEMON, GREEN GRAPE, CORIANDER-BROWN BUTTER
It seems like a bit of a cop-out to hide the lobster roe in the dough, but no one would mistake this for plain old pasta. Not only because of the color (lobster roe is called “coral” for a reason), but also it was funky–not just salty like fish roe is but a little organy. Sweet, light grapes and sour pickled onion cut the richness of the buttery lobster coins nestled below.
Pho, the Vietnamese soup, has never been of any interest to me despite my boyfriend’s attempts at tempting me with it whenever we order Vietnamese takeout, because a) soup in general is dumb, and b) drowning good beef in water is dumb. Plus, pho–this one included–is so cumbersome to eat between slurping the noodles and spilling the broth and losing the meat at the bottom of the bowl. But this one was worth it. The broth was so wonderfully belly-warming and anise-flavored that I suddenly wished it was cold winter night in front of the space heater (not quite as romantic as a fireplace, but good luck finding that in NYC). The dwarf bush basil added so much to the dish that any bite without it seemed wasted. We loved the spicy lime-hoisin sauce under the puffed tendon on the side of the plate, but the real star was the tendon itself, which was like eating a really buttery packing peanut. The foie fell apart under my fork and made the broth richer and creamier than any traditional pho’s.
AMARO YOLK, CHICKEN CONFIT, PEAS ‘N’ CARROTS
The New York Times tells me that the “amaro” portion of this dish is the “yolk of a duck egg that’s been bathed in amaro, the strident Italian spirit, after having been cured for six hours in salt and sugar so that its texture thickens”. But that’s not important. What’s important is that the thick, gelatinous yolk at the center of this nest of carrot shavings mixes with the fatty chicken confit to make the richest, most flavorful chicken. The peas–made of compressed carrot covered in “pea powder”–were firm, almost crunchy, while the carrot “pasta” was tender and sweet.
VEAL BRISKET, ZA’ATAR, PLUM, MUSTARD
If you’ve ever tasted honey mustard pretzels, you know what it’s like to eat mustard meringue. Meringue cookies are one of the least-satisfying desserts I can think of, but savory meringue cookies are an extra-interesting way to condiment a pile of lunch meat. The mustard was the perfect spicy compliment to the herbaceous za’tar and its sumac flavor that my boyfriend recognized from his family’s Persian cooking. The sweet plum added great texture, but all of the flavors of the dish muted the veal, which I wanted to have an even punchier, pastrami-like flavor.
CRAB TOAST, SAFFRON, KAFFIR-YOGURT, ARARE
Chilled crab made for such a nice contrast to the crisp saffron cake, which brought to mind the warmer climates the kaffir lime also suggested. Crab lovers may find the saffron overpowering, but saffron lovers will be salivating uncontrollably.
SOLE, BLACK LICORICE PIL PIL, FRIED GREEN TOMATO, FENNEL
To be absolutely fair, this dish made me appreciate black licorice in a way I never have with Easter jelly beans. To be absolutely honest, I only remember this dish because of how unremarkable it was. The fish had been poached and was basically flavorless; I’m really not sure why it hadn’t been at least grilled. It became nothing more than a vessel for transporting the pil pil sauce, which was luckily very balanced and not at all overwhelmingly bitter. The fried green tomato mostly tasted like its breading, which was quite a relief to this tomato-hater. This was an unfortunate misstep in a restaurant we associate with bold flavors (foie gras with a passion fruit center!).
LAMB SWEET BREADS, NASTURTIUM-BUTTERMILK, ZUCCHINI, PISTACHIO
It was Chef Wylie Dufresne who first made me like sweetbreads back in 2008 with his fried version paired with beets, so I was expecting a lot going into this dish and truthfully wasn’t all that in love. I liked the sauce the sweetbreads were rolled in, but their texture was not only not what I’ve come to expect from them but also just not that pleasant. When I think sweetbreads, I think of the ones from Momofuku Ssam Bar, which I described as “sweet and creamy inside, spicy and crispy on the outside, with a kick from the lemon segments arranged on top . . . like fried chicken, if chicken had the texture of custard”. These were more like little pellets of dry, chalky meat substitute, smooshed together to form what looked like owl upchuck. The pistachio brittle and zucchini were a relief after that, as were the very peppery nasturtium leaves.
ROOT BEER RIBS, RYE SPAETZLE, APRICOT
Thank god this dish arrived next and canceled out any disappointment I had about the previous two courses (and oh, just wait for the desserts!). We were expecting ribs: you know, meat still on the bone, sauce all over our hands and mouths, not enough wetnaps in the world to clean us. But this was bacony, smoky pork deboned, cooked overnight, and formed into this lovely little slab fit for fine dining. The root beer was evident in the sauce, its flavors highlighted by the spice in the apricot spread. The rye really tasted bitter and wheaty and desperately needed the sweetness of the spread; together, they were complex and hearty. The filling, homey components of this dish made for such a nice contrast to the lighter dishes earlier in the progression.
JASMINE, CUCUMBER, HONEYDEW, CHARTREUSE
You know how people always say, “This dish was a revelation,” when they mean, “I’m too lazy to describe to why this dish was good”? This dish was actually a revelation for me. I only started eating cucumbers a few years ago, and I only started liking them even more recently, so the idea that I would not just like a cucumber dessert but love it and love it even more than the chocolate-marshmallow dessert is astounding. And in fact, I loved this more than I’ve ever loved any of the Per Se palate cleansers. There were little cubes of the sweetest honeydew under that thick, salty, frozen cucumber disc, mixed into a creamy Chartreuse custard. Tapping through the disc with my spoon was like cracking the top of a creme brulee. The celery leaves made the cucumber taste sweet, and the cucumber made the honeydew taste sweet, and I’ve never liked any of them more than in this dish.
wd~50 has taken away its a la carte menu option but is serving two dishes for $25 and every additional dish for $15 at the bar, so you can bet I’m going to see if I can order this there.
YUZU MILK ICE, HAZELNUT, RHUBARB, BASIL
This beautiful cloud-like puff of ice milk deflated under my fork like a sponge cake would and melted into the crunchy crust underneath. Seeing yuzu on any menu perks me up, and its sour citrus flavor was such a complement to these sweet, sweet ripe berries. The basil puree, something I’d usually salivate at the idea of, was so salty that I almost found it too savory; I probably would’ve preferred some boring basil leaves.
S’MORES, BITTER COCOA, MERINGUE, BLACK CURRANT
With a smoky flavor throughout, especially in the edible cocoa stick, this was authentic as a s’more could be while still remaining totally frou-frou. The crispy chocolate wafer absorbed the rich ganache underneath, the thin ice cream melted and became a glaze for the browned marshmallow, and the very intense currant became another element of richness. It was playful, artful, and just plain delicious.
WHITE CHOCOLATE, GJETOST
Tart raspberry, an element of crunch, and the taste of burned bread. Gjetost is a brown cheese made of caramelized cow and goat milk, and I’d seen pictures of the stuff, but I didn’t put two and two together as I was eating this. I also dropped it down my dress and had to fish it out while our server politely looked the other way, so . . . not a very successful end to the meal on my part.
Our impression leaving wd~50 is that the tasting menu just didn’t seem all that molecularly gastronomical. (I read an article recently where a critic said New Yorkers don’t embrace the really avant-garde culinary arts like Chicagoans do and wondered if Chef Dufresne was trying to cater to our stodgy tastes.) But then we started thinking about the menu and said, “Hey, but there was something special about that egg,” and “Remember those little yogurt drops on the crab?” Perhaps the newest techniques are still being used but in a more restrained, less showy way.
It seems that while wd~50 was busy growing up, so were my boyfriend and I. When we visited the restaurant in 2008 and then again in 2010, we had what were some of the most inventive, composed dishes we’d ever seen. Since then, we’ve been to all but one of the three Michelin star restaurants and most of the two stars. We’d never been to Per Se, and now we’ve been there three times. This weekend, we’re going to Momofuku Ko for the fifth time. After all of that, eating at wd~50 was like visiting an old friend, but it wasn’t as palate-inspiring as those places are. Even newcomer Atera was more playful, more can’t-wait-to-see-what-they-come-up-with-next. There were enough wow moments on this menu, though, that I’ll continue to be sentimental about wd~50.
50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002 (map)