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Mar 22, 2007 10:05 PM

WD-50 Review (long)

It was with some trepidation that I dragged my SO to WD-50 last Saturday (St. Patrick's Day): Was he—the sort who finds fish heads in miso soup “weird” and frightening—going to run out the door screaming when confronted with Wylie Dufresne’s weirder than weird concoctions? Was he going to walk out of the two-hour meal haggard and seeking the first pizza counter he could find?

To be fair, the SO is not the most egregiously anti-adventurous eater who ever lived. (That honor would belong to his father.) But it tells you something about his palate that his two favorite childhood foods were plain macaroni and sliced, cold hot dogs straight out of the plastic package—which he still loves. Passionately. We don’t even bother with the “Vienna sausages” or “salchichones” euphemisms.

Luckily for both of us, the descriptions of the nine-course tasting menu gave little away. They were either coyly non-descriptive or contained words we didn’t understand and therefore couldn’t fear. For instance, the first course was a dish of Kokotyas, smoked cashews, celery, risotto broth. We had no idea what Kokotyas are, and still don’t, actually, though they appeared to be some sort of bivalve.

The food was thoughtful and sensory on so many different levels. The smoky, warm, liquid Kokotyas were a wonderful way to begin the meal, awakening every tastebud on the tongue and bringing them to sharp attention. The smokiness of the cashews, mellow celery broth and soft, warm goodness of the Kokotyas slid down in an effortless, friendly, non-threatening glide. It was strange only because we’d never had anything like it before, but it was also surprisingly welcoming. And anyway, it only lasted for one bite, so the risks were low. Between that and the accompanying cava (Cava Avinyo Brut NV Reserva), he began to relax.

The macaroons were not the sticky sweet, dense monstrosities commonly associated with the word at all. WD’s reinterpretation was light as air, more meringue than macaroon, but with the subtlest of coconut scents. Part Chinese / Thai shrimp crisp—the kind that expand from a disk to an airy crisp thing in hot oil—and part coconut air, the macaroons were enormously fun. They came three to a plate—two eyeballs and a mouth—in halved spheres with a daub of ever so slightly bitter tarragon sauce to hold the halves together, and another daub to keep the eyeballs from rolling around. The sensation of them melting on the tongue mirrored the bubbly wash of cava.

The foie gras in the round was actually one of the SO’s favorites in part because he couldn’t tell what parts were actually foie gras. It suggested cereal, a cocoa-pebble mixture of pale yellow foie gras, dark chocolate, an herbaceous bright green sauce, and a medium brown balsamic vinegar. The foie gras itself was bland and tasteless, without the buttery goodness that defines this ingredient. But it proved a nice foil to the chocolate and balsamic and worked especially well with the wine pairing (Riesling Kabinett ‘Saarburger Rausch’ Zilliken 1994 from Mosel, Germany).

The fourth dish, sweetbreads, cabbage-kaffir, and water chestnuts, was a great—even brilliant—play on texture. The sweetbreads (two pieces) were fried to a lovely golden crisp, but non-greasy, and delectably soft and juicy on the inside, served with tiny slivers of fried water chestnuts. The water chestnuts were an interesting play on crispiness, crisply fried on the outside, but still crisply vegetal on the inside. The cabbage kefir was a nice condiment whose mild green taste cut nicely through the fried items. This was served with Santorini Domaine Sigalas, a simple, flat, but easy-drinking Greek wine. The blandness of the wine actually offered a nice background to the fried, the crispy, and the green.

The corned duck, rye crisp, purple mustard and horseradish cream was probably the most traditional and recognizable of the plates, a nod to our St. Patrick’s Day dinner. Ingredients were very good, the duck perfectly tender, the mustard and horseradish a good jolt for tastebuds that were becoming somnolent. The Santorini was again the accompanying wine. I thought it worked less well, here, since the mustard actually brought out the slight, but present, sour and bitter elements of the wine in an unpleasant way.

The next course was miso soup with sesame noodles, which has been amply described elsewhere, since it is one of the most consistently available offerings on the menu. Verdict: interesting and—I’m still making up my mind about it, but I think—good. The broth was made from high quality ingredients, the sesame tofu “noodles,” a liquid you squeeze from a small bottle into the broth itself, where it hardens immediately, was an interesting tender/solid texture. The sesame was mute. This went with a Poulsard Stephane Tissot 2004, which I did not much like.

By this time, I’d begun to lose track of the dishes since, sadly, the wine was starting to go to my head, But I do remember that the next dish, langoustine, popcorn, hibiscus and endive was surprising and interesting for the popcorn. It came as a creamy, corny sauce. Delicious. Langoustine were slightly—by seconds—overcooked, but their flavor was still good and the ingredients fresh. Same wine as the previous course.

The final savory dish of the meal was squab breast, beets, sorrel, and coconut pebbles. By this point, I was pretty full already, so was very disappointed I couldn’t finish the dish. The squab was very tender and pleasantly dark, a nice, well-thought-out foil to the coconut pebbles, which looked like white truffles (of the chocolate sort, not the mushroom sort) and had the same, lovely, cream, and slightly crumbly consistency of truffles. This came with a slightly surprising choice of Shiraz, “Billi Billi” Mount Langi Ghiran 2003, a full bodied, fruity, and spicy Australian wine with—was I imagining this?—a dab of pineapple. I’ve never heard of pineapple scents in a red wine before, so hallucination or wine-impaired taste buds could be to blame.

Thankfully, they gave us a brief break before our four dessert courses: black currant parfait with green tea and elderflower; soft chocolate, avocado, licorice and lime; coffee cake, ricotta, maraschino and chicory ice cream; and finally, juniper marshmallow with lime sugar.

The second dessert course was my favorite, its strong but complementary flavors kick starting the tasting process all over again. To a lesser extent, the green tea from the first dessert course, in the form of matcha, served a similar function. Its mild astringency worked nicely with the sweetness of the elderberry and elderflower. The coffee cake I don’t remember well, since it was somewhat overshadowed by its proximate neighbors. The last course of juniper marshmallows was a final call to attention. They were a simple concoction of large marshmallows rolled in green sugar (another St. Patrick’s Day nod) and were not unlike Peeps.

I’ve always thought that sweet wine with sweet dessert was a bit of overkill, but the wines would have been wonderful on their own: Albana Passito “Frutto Proibito” Fattoria Paradiso 2003 with the chocolate and Commanderia St. John NV with the coffee cake.

Overall, WD-50 certainly makes one rethink one's own, comparatively paltry efforts at dinner. There isn’t much on that menu I could really attempt, much less attempt successfully, but for a while, at least, I’m inspired to play around in my own kitchen much more. It’s a profoundly thought provoking place to dine. Even my hot-dog and macaroni eating SO could appreciate it.

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  1. Great review, cimui. Thanks for taking the time to write all that!

    1 Reply
    1. re: gina

      Thanks for the thanks, gina. That's really nice of you!

    2. Oh no... were you really full by the squab? I read a couple of posts from people stating they weren't full by the end of the tasting menu, and I was kind of counting on that to help me fit in four dinners in two nights on my next trip to NYC (6pm Degustation/8pm Prune, 6pm WD-50/late night Momofuku Ssam Bar). I suppose I'll have to skip lunch.

      7 Replies
      1. re: daveena

        Yeah, but to be fair, I'm pretty scrawny (a 90 pounder). And I had a snack at 6 p.m. to tide me over until our 10 p.m. dinner. I think you'll be fine!! Don't skip lunch. Skipping meals is bad for you. =)


        1. re: cimui

          I'm not that scrawny (haha), and I was full enough after the tasting menu I'd had a while back. I think this type of meal hits your brain first, and the stomach follows--the 'outside the box' creativity and interactive quality is ultimately very satisfying.

          1. re: gina

            there is definitely plenty of food, in my opinion. However, I didn't *feel* full by the squab. I started to get full by the 4th course, or so, and then I kept plugging away and got a second wind. It's kind of like running a marathon...except not quite.

        2. re: daveena

          Oh, one more thing: Why don't you schedule one of the dinners for lunch, or are you not free, then? Or try and do Prune for brunch? They have a good one.

          The WD 50 dinner will be esp. manageable, if you order entrees and appetizers rather than doing the tasting menu.

          1. re: cimui

            Degustation and WD-50 are only open for dinner, and I want the late night menu from Momofuku - Prune doesn't seem to have the monkfish liver on its lunch or brunch menus. Of the four, it's the only one I've been to before, and the main reason I'm going back is the monkfish liver.

            I'm relieved to hear you're only 90 pounds - this plan sounds doable after all : )
            Thanks for the input!

            1. re: daveena

              Wow, daveena, hard core! I think you can definitely do Momofuku Ssam bar as a second meal, especially if you stay clear of the enormous, tasty but unremarkable ssam. A lot of the extraordinary stuff--I loved the apple salad, the roast mushroom salad, and the mochi dessert--won't stuff you too much.

              cimui, thanks for such a lovely review. I'm astonished you remembered so much. I've only been to WD50 for the 5 course dessert menu, and there were so many little details to focus on that it's all a blur in my head now. In any case, it was a pleasure experiencing it all vicariously, thanks.

          2. Nice review! I haven't been to WD 50 for a couple of years now and your review reminded me that I am definitely due for another encounter.

            BTW, if you're that into molecular gastronomy, I'd suggest stopping by Varietal for dessert sometime. Sadly, their dinner does not rise to the level of intrigue, but their desserts were exceptional - foams, gels, and cellophane abound.

            6 Replies
            1. re: kayonyc

              Hey kayonyc, thanks so much for the rec. The menu posted on menupages looks intriguing. (Cherry wood ice cream? Chrysanthemum cream with white beer? I'm there.)

              I don't know if I'm really that into molecular gastronomy, though (is that what WD 50's food is?), since a lot of times, the foams, gels and creams I'm come across seem sort of silly and flavorless to me. I like flavors and textures and interesting flavor / texture combinations. If it happens to be in the form of foams and gels, I won't balk. But I'm really just as happy to settle down for a nice, (literally) solid meal somewhere.

              I should figure out what molecular gastronomy is before I deny the charge, tho, huh? =) Thanks again for the rec!

              1. re: cimui

                Hi cimui,

                Love your review! Just like kayonyc, it has been more than a year since I last visited WD 50, and your review totally set off my trigger to revisit this place. While I enjoy the inventive dishes in WD 50, I must admit that I am not a big molecular gastronomy fan, and too much foams and sheets usually appall me more than appeal to me ^_^" I have also heard a great deal (positives and negatives) on the desserts by Varietals, and was planning to try. But recently Frank Bruni gave a negative review on Varietal's desserts, and I now I am somewhat hesitant to try it out:

                I found molecular gastronomy to be somewhat similar to fusion food - the good ones (or better say the ones that do it right) can be sinfully delicious, but there are so many bad ones out there (and usually charging you at an expensive price) that I become a bit risk averse in trying out molecular gastronomy...

                1. re: kobetobiko

                  kobetobiko, you nail my sentiments exactly. i even had the same analogy to fusion food in my original post before I edited it out, thinking it probably wouldn't make sense to anyone outside of my own head. (the several people in there understand quite well... ;)

                  as for varietal--sounds like i'll "have" to take one for the team and try it, huh? I'll report back!

                  1. re: kobetobiko

                    This was the dessert I sampled on my visit to Varietal - and unlike the weirdish pairings that Bruni wrote about, I found this one to be quite palatable. No mushroomy weird aftertaste, but a celebration of sweet, tarty and texture. Also quite beautiful to look at.


                    I quite I agree that molecular gastronomy can potentially be a nightmare, but having dined at Moto in Chicago, and also WD-50, I am a huge fan. I found it to be enjoyable, tasty, and always an experience.

                    1. re: kayonyc

                      Heh! I love the reference to milk left over after you eat Fruity Pebbles. Looks almost too pretty to eat. I've a reservation this coming Sat., so hopefully I'll get me some of that.

                      1. re: cimui

                        Hi cimui,

                        Did you get to try out Varietal's desserts by Chef Kahn? He just quit, so if you have not you may want to try his desserts before he officially leaves the restaurant....


              2. Cimui
                MY mom, SO and I ate at WD-50 the very same night and also had the tasting menu.
                I agree with virtually all your comments. It was my first time at WD-50, but had been advised not to take the wine pairings as you get slushed by meals end - sounds like thats good advice based on your experience.
                Would suggest foodies ask for a kitchen tour from the very nice staff, a very unusual set-up, with Willy himself cooking and platting some dishes.

                8 Replies
                1. re: edelmanj


                  What was the final price of the meal with the wine pairing?

                  1. re: princeofpork

                    The tasting menu and wine pairing are $180 per person. Our tab came out to be slightly higher since we have an extra glass of wine apiece while we waited for our table, and my SO had tea with his desserts. Pricey, but I consider the entertainment value on par with a good opera at the Met--and really worth it to me, on occasion.

                  2. re: edelmanj

                    When I went to WD-50 in the fall (first time), I elected not to get the wine pairings, because of the danger of getting totally hammered (which is what happened to me in a similar scenario at Blue Hill). That said, I'm not sure the pairing isn't the way to go. At WD, friend and I split a bottle of wine, and it wasn't enough to drink, and not enough variety or thought put into the combos. So maybe the pairing with restraint?

                    1. re: Mandymac

                      That's a great idea. I plan on trying to share the wine pairing with someone next time.

                      1. re: cimui


                        when you say share the wine pairings do you mean splitting a glass between two people or would the restaurant divide the wine between two glasses. I am going next month and I actually feel that wine pairings are also too much, but I would not want to share one glass throughout the night.

                        1. re: raw

                          I haven't actually tried to do either, so I don't know what the restaurant would accommodate. Since my dining partner and I share germs in lots of other circumstances, sharing a single glass wouldn't be so terrible for us. It seems like a lot of extra work to divide the wines between two glasses since they change glasses with each change of wine--but you can always try your luck with sweet talking the waiter. Our guy was extremely nice.

                          Another option is just to get a bottle or, perhaps, two half-bottles for the meal. Some of the wines were pretty reasonably priced.

                          1. re: cimui

                            I was not so much concerned about the germs as I was about having to pass a glass back and forth. I do like the idea of getting half bottles, which was what I did the last time I did a tasting menu at Jean Georges. While my partner did the wine pairing, I was very happy by starting with a cocktail, then moving onto a wonderful half bottle of white and then ending with a very full and rich glass of red for my last tasting which was beef. I felt I was able to concentrate on the flavors presented on each plate without having the introduction of a new glass of wine each time.

                    2. re: edelmanj

                      My mother, an organic farm manager, and I got a kitchen tour, too--but it was the end of the night, and everyone was pretty much done by then, so we didn't see much 'action.' We did get to talk to Chef Dufresne for quite a while, though, which was a treat. Extremely nice, down-to-earth guy, who's very interested in new ideas (obviously!).