Since we have bunches of new readers as of late, we’ve decided to bring forward some of our favorite meals that bear repeating. Apologies if you already read this. Dana and I have lots of exciting stuff coming down the pike. A bunch of us are heading to New York City in a few weeks and WD~50 is on our itinerary so it seemed fitting to bring forward this vintage tastingmenu account.
Before we get into the details of this meal, I think a short discourse on the current state of food and innovation is in order.
Here are some things I believe: a) good food requires focus, b) removing variables usually drives creativity and innovation, c) almost always, the best way to have focus and fewer variables means cooking food within a regional/traditional framework that’s evolved over decades or centuries. And while I believe A and B are always true, I admit that there are exceptions to C. The exceptions essentially fall into two categories: 99.99% (or more) in this category are random restaurants that claim to have an eclectic mix with a little of everything when in fact they are just all over the place; a tiny fraction (the remainder) are considered the most cutting edge restaurants on the planet. These include: El Bulli, Fat Duck (for which I haven’t yet posted my write-up), and wd~50. I have never eaten at the first, but I have eaten at Trio when the Chef was Grant Achatz who I believe was also cooking in this vein.
Staying focused and removing variables without cooking based on a traditional framework is only for the very talented. Because basically it means that a) there’s nothing for the chef to rely on in terms of a basic value system. It also means that there’s no obvious touchstone for the diner. Or more accurately in the case of these restaurants there are multiple touchstones. With Trio and Fat Duck not only was there a tour of different culinary traditions, but there was cleverness, humor, and sometimes shtick. Most of the time at these meals these elements were innovative, interesting, challenging, and enjoyable. But sometimes I admit they seemed overly clever, and honestly not something I’d really like to eat on a regular basis. The smoke geleé from Trio and the parsnip cereal (basically a box of frosted flakes made from parsnip, and served with a small pitcher of parsnip milk) from Fat Duck are cases in point. These are the exceptions and not the rule, and in both cases I really quite loved my meals at Trio and Fat Duck.
Some people put wd~50 in the same category of innovative cooking as the others. And certainly Wylie Dufresne’s cooking is interesting, challenging, innovative, and enjoyable. But I separate him from the others. His innovation is never a lark. It’s not that he has no sense of humor, it’s just that cleverness isn’t the right metric for his food. There are no combinations that seem only interesting to me; instead I’d want to eat each one again. And while you may not recognize the framework from which his food comes, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. His food is reductionist and beautiful. Ingredients are combined in new and interesting ways not because they are trendy, uncommon, or clever, but because Dufresne believes they will taste great together. In fact, what I’ve found is that the “depth of field” in his dishes is relatively narrow, but perfect when in focus. What I mean is, it’s always best to carefully assemble forkfuls that have little bits of every item on a plate as the ingredients are so carefully balanced that missing even one can result in a completely different experience. Luckily the number of ingredients on each plate are few, not to mention beautiful to behold. Is every dish a home run? No. But many of them are not only super successful but delivered in such a special and interesting way that they’re unforgettable. I’m lucky enough to get to eat in New York 2-3 times a year, but I must confess that I probably think about (and crave) going back to wd~50 more than any restaurant I know of in New York City. And to be clear, I’ve been to quite a few restaurants in New York City. It’s not that I didn’t love the meals I had at those other innovative restaurants. I did. It’s just that in a select group of restaurants that are trying to do something new, from my experience, the food at wd~50 is unique. Given how much I like to eat out, finding something truly one-of-a-kind is a singular pleasure for me. OK. Onto the meal.
Things started off with Sesame Flat Bread. It was super crispy, and very flavorful in a warm and unobtrusive way. Next up was Duck Breast, Beet Juice, and Olive Soil. It was warm, savory with the beet flavor foundation underneath and then olive on the finish. Definitely yummy. (I’m embarrassed to say that we ripped into this so quickly that I didn’t get a picture until most of it was eaten. Oops!)
The next dish was Foie Gras, Grapefruit-Basil Crumble, and Nori Caramel. It was wild. This dish almost defied description. Inky nori caramel, bitter and thin seeps onto the plate from a disc-shaped cavity in center of perfect cylinder of foie gras pate. The key was to eat everything together in one bite to get the effect. The salty croutons and acidic grapefruit combined with the foie and nori filled your mouth with an explosive collection of flavors. Alone the pieces were unremarkable. Together the ingredients were simply exciting!
After the foie explosion we had Rainbow Trout, Pork Belly, Cider Meringue, and Miso Paper. This dish was a touch subtle for me except for the chip with its concentrated shoyu flavor. The meringue was like an apple cloud. I was excited to eat these two dishes, Michael and Anh were not thrilled by them. However, Debbie and Anh’s brother agreed with me though.
Then the Beef Tongue, Fried Mayo, and Tomato Molasses arrived. This dish was simply beautiful. The cubes of fried mayo were still hot. Yes, fried mayo. I’m still not exactly sure you fry mayo but I’m glad they did. The tomato molasses had a really deep flavor. The super thin shavings of tongue tasted as great as they looked.
As I recount the meal I’m reminded of just how composed everything feels on every plate. The next dish was no exception – Spanish Mackerel, Smoked Banana, Juniper, and Pickled Parsley. I want to be clear, some might jump to the conclusion that these ingredients were put together here to be different. And there’s no doubt that some chefs confuse being different with being interesting. All I can tell you is that it wasn’t the difference that I walked away with after eating this dish, it was how the fish was like a awarm tasty tiny pillow that perfectly balanced with all the other flavors and textures in the dish including the crispy crispy puffed rice and the crunchy saba skin.
Next up was Slow Poached Egg, Parmesan Broth, and Tomato. It was certainly neat that the egg was poached for an hour at exactly 176 degrees to get it to this great soft-boiled state. But that’s not why I loved this dish. The soup was a gorgeous and crystal clear with the absolute “chewy” essence of parmigiana reggiano. The egg in the soup gets split and leaks thick yolk throughout. The dish ends up being almost some form of almost an eggdrop soup with crunchy bits throughout. This dish was wildly superlative.
After the egg we were treated to Lamb Belly, Green Daikon, Black Bean, and Chocolate Powder. The lamb belly was super fatty and lamby but when combined with the smokey eggplant garlic flavors that came from the rest of the components the dish was simply excellent and well balanced.
Next up was the Braised Short Ribs, Smoked Flatiron Beef, Kimchee Spaetzle, and Papaya. This was one of the best dishes of beef I have ever had… ever. The rectangle of short rib had a crispy outside and a flaky inside and the flavor was fantastic – deep and dark in a good way. The combination with the savoriness of the spaetzle, the sweet tart of the papaya, and the (what I think was) dried kimchee’s spicy qualities, was extraordinary. The addition of the flat iron beef took it over the top with its bright savory juiciness. I tore through it as this dish was a whirlwind of flavor. A juicy savory base filled with gentle bright sparks of acid and heat.
Dessert began with Raisin Consommé, Banana, and Rum Ice Cream. Even though Michael had not deigned to try the egg dish, I had to conquer my own fears and try this one filled with raisin. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised that eating the ingredients separately instead of together yielded completely different tastes. The raisins really were not a factor until I ate a spoonful of the consommé alone that tasted raisiny (and as raisins go, it wasn’t bad). But before that moment the consommé was like a tangy plum liqueur foundation for the bananas which were unusually bright. Quite good altogether.
The only dish that bore some resemblance to a dish we’d had the last time at wd~50 was the Carrot-Lime Ravioli with Coconut Tapioca. (I must have been so distracted during this meal as I spaced on this picture too, which is a shame because the ravioli were beautiful to behold.) The lime flavor was quite sweet in a good way. Anh loved the coconut tapioca. Altogether the dish was tart, crunchy, and even spicy. These are Anh’s favorite qualities in food as well as (I think) in people.
The Tonka Bean Panna Cotta, with Chocolate Sorbet and Basil was like the Good Humor strawberry shortcake on a stick – but chocolate. The cofee soil didn’t bother me or Deb strangely enough. And the apricot added a special quality. Nice.
Winding these down were the Mulled Apple Cider, and the Ginger Cotton Candy. The cotton candy tasted traditional but with a subtle ginger fire on the finish. Michael had never had cotton candy at a restaurant. To close we had a bowl of Chocolate Curried Almonds. These were cold, cinnamony, and calmed down and rounded out our palates.
The combinations of ingredients we had were definitely new and interesting in many cases. Some people find some key experiences in life enjoyable early on and spend their days trying to repeat and perfect those experiences. To some extent I think everyone has some capacity for that. For Debbie I think it’s pizza. For me (at least lately) it’s Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches. But there are a subset of people in the world (I think) that also enjoy trying new things. And while new experiences only sometimes match up to old favorites, to a certain extent it’s the journey itself that’s exciting. Luckily, with wd~50 the journey and the destination are rewarding.
If you’re not into trying new things, or if you are but have never eaten his food, it might be easy to dismiss it as a bunch of odd combinations. There was a time however when for each of us some ethnic food was an “odd” combination simply because we didn’t grow up with it. And at least from my perspective, the food at wd~50 is anything but randomly thrown together. It’s delicate, deliberate, composed, and exciting. The balance between the ingredients feels measured to the millimeter to me. And ultimately even though I deeply respect and appreciate the innovation and willingness to try new things, none of these are the why I enjoy eating so much at wd~50. The reason? The food tastes great.