WD-50: A long review with photos
My SO and I recently returned from our NYC trip and we went to several restaurants after doing much research on Chowhound. We had narrowed the list down to the following:
2) Jean Georges (for lunch)
4) Nougatine (for breakfast)
(please see some of my other posts for reviews of the other restaurants with pictures)
We were only there for 5 days, so that was about all we could fit in given the tight timeline. If I had to rank the meals, I would do as such:
2) Nougatine for breakfast (OK this is relative to all other breakfasts I have ever had, and this was quite the experience. I will be entering a post for it as well)
3) Jean Georges
The reasoning behind this is NOT that I found it to be a bad meal - it's just that the novelty was just that - a novelty. The food was not particularly mind-blowing in any way. It was slightly disappointing just because that was our most expensive meal by far (we had the taster menu) in NYC, but ranked lowest on our list in terms of food. Overall, the experience was mediocre at best. One thing my SO noted was the casual atmosphere of the restaurant. For $150 a head, one generally expects a more polished atmosphere and serving staff. We were fortunate that our waiter was well informed of all the dishes and preparation methods. I could not say so for the poor unfortunate diners that sat around us that had to suffer through misrepresented wine pairings, colourful explanations of the dishes (this is the duck...), or complete silence. When one orders a taster menu, one feels that part of the experience is the outlining of each dish with a background on what the chef was trying to achieve. One waiter just plopped the dish infront of us and ran off. Luckily, we called over our knowledgeable waiter and he described everything in minute detail (Unfortunately, I forgot his name even though I had specifically asked for it for this posting. I do remember, though, that it was quite unique and short - my SO recalls it as "Mars" - and I think that was what I remember as well).
My main issue lies with Chef Wiley's obsession with doing things differently - if only for the purpose of doing it differently. Sure, I had never had my foie gras nicely tied into a knot, but did that necessarily enhance my dining experience? I would have to say no. The foie had a tougher texture necessary to execute the knot-tying, which removes one of the finer qualities I find about foie - the silky smooth texture that just melts in your mouth. In this case, the mad-scientist in him actually made him create a worse-off dish. Another example would be the Chicken Liver Spaetzle. I would have to say this was not the most mouth-watering-inducing dish I have ever seen. You would have had to have seen it to understand fully what I meant by that. We learned the reason for this ‘shape’ was that the liver was forced through a colander into boiling water. So picture brown, misshapen tube-like pieces, with a mushy texture, and you’ll see what I’m getting at. The boiling removed much of the flavour of the liver, and actually made the liver chewy – in a bad way. Another dish that fell flat was the Yuzu Ice Cream dish with the black condiment ‘packets’. I did not get this dish at all – the package, though told it was edible, tasted inedible. Sure, it was quite a novelty (look Honey! I’m eating the ketchup packet!), I quickly regretted actually trying to eat it. It was bland and had a gummy texture. And don’t get me started on the pizza pebbles. I felt like I was eating those “Nibs” pizza bites from the 80s, but at a much elevated price.
However, in order to offset the cons, there were several solid dishes in which science complimented the food and elevated the experience. The winners included:
1) Crab tail, soybean noodles in a cinnamon dashi,
2) Hamachi tartare, wakame, sake lees tahini, grapefruit-shallot,
3) Yogurt, olive oil jam, rhubarb; and the
4) Beef tounge, cherry-miso, fried quinoa, palm seeds.
Hamchi tartare: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775...
Toasted Walnut Cake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775...
Eggs Benedict: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775...
Beef Tongue: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775...
Crab tail: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775...
The tartare perfectly showcased how science can enhance a dish. The tartare was chopped and this allowed the marinade to better penetrate the fish. After marinating, the pieces were ‘glued’ back together with a binding agent. This permeation created a great tartare, with even flavouring throughout. The Crab tail had excellent chewy bite to it, a texture I’m not accustomed to when eating crab, and was a welcome contrast to the smooth dashi-based broth it swam in. The yogurt was an unexpected cylindrical shape that afforded a beautiful presentation and created a texture contrast to the condiments that accompanied it. Finally, the beef tongue. Excellent as it wasn’t overcooked, as I find at many other restaurants. This allowed the natural texture of the tongue to come through, as well as the delicate, sweet taste.
My SO also had to physically wrestle the bread away from me. They reminded me of popcorn skins when I was noshing on them. I must have refilled the breadbasket 4 times before it was confiscated away from me.
Overall, I would have to say that it was a great experience, just to have seen what science can do – but also to see its limitations. I am now more wary of the mad-scientist type chefs out there that push the boundaries merely for the bragging rights to say they could. I would however like to see chefs employ some of Chef Wiley’s more successful creations. And that’s what this industry needs – people like Wiley that think up these wild, and crazy ideas, just so that others can stand on their shoulders to fine-tune the preparation methods and use them sparingly to create more effective dishes. I therefore applaud Wiley, as I see what he was trying to achieve, and judging from his demeanour – you can tell the man loves playing with his food and that it has nothing at all to do with pretension. This has made me therefore leave the restaurant with a pleasant view of the restaurant, though I would have to say I would not return.
Cheers and Happy Eating!
Thanks for the detailed and very thoughtful review.
My take on WD-50 is a little different. First, you are right about the variability in the quality of the servers' presentations. On one of my visits, I was one of those less fortunate diners you mention whose servers did not seem as skilled in describing the dishes they were bringing as were the servers attending to my neighbors. (For that particular visit, I was just interested in enjoying the tastes and appearances of the dishes, so it wasn't that big a deal to me personally; yet I could very easily have been put off by that experience under other circumstances.)
On the other hand, I really like the fact that the overall tone of the restaurant is very casual. I think that's one of WD-50's major pluses. Diners can go there dressed in their best, spend a lot of money, and have a terrific meal -- or they can go much more casually dressed yet still feel right at home. One shouldn't have to assume that "casual" and "high-quality creative food" are mutually exclusive.
I would also defend the chef's prerogative of 'doing things differently, if only for the purpose of doing it differently.' It is WD's obsession with doing things differently that is what makes this place special. Why criticize the chef for not serving the same old boring rendition of a dish (in this case foie) that you can get at a 1,000 other fine-dining establishments around the city? You shouldn't go to a place like WD-50 expecting 'the usual.' That's not to say that every diner will be charmed by every dish; rather, that it's necessary to use different criteria in evaluating the success of dishes here than you would apply to similar food prepared in more conventional ways.
Neither should you go to WD-50 if price is going to be an issue for you. I think their prices are reasonable, considering the uniqueness of the cuisine they offer.
Aside from a few minor slips (for example, on one visit, I ordered the lamb cooked medium and was served meat running with red juice), my main issue with WD-50 is the portion sizes. Your photos, although you ordered the tasting menu, show quite well how small the portions are, even from the a la carte menu. Unless you are familiar with the portions sizes and order accordingly, it's just too easy to leave this restaurant bedazzled but still hungry because the portions are a bit too stingy.
re: racer x
Hi racer_x. Thanks for your thoughts on the topic. I would agree that I would not recommend going to WD-50 unless you had an open mind, as that is precisely why I went in the first place - to sample delicacies with a playful twist. My only comment was that (doing things differently - if only for the purpose of doing it differently) his experiments don't necessarily elevate the dish. I get what he was trying to achieve - to make something taste like something it's not, or play with your mind and palate with respect to more standard dishes. My suggestion to make this restaurant truly great is to take those few 'winner' dishes, and expand upon them (the tartare, that ended up tasting better than a normal tartare because he diced it and marinated them in pieces, and then glued them back together to allow for more flavour permeation). If everything was at that level, then I believe I would highly recommend WD50 for the experience alone. However, since his experiments didn't necessarily improve the dish (and in some cases made it worse-off IMO), I suggest that perhaps the menu needs a bit of fine tuning. Chef Wiley is a brilliant man, so I hope he'll filter out those few sub-par dishes. Molecular gastronomy is really exciting and I agree that I could have a normal foie somewhere else - but that doesn't necessarily mean I want to have it in a knot, and not taste good just because I am dining at WD50. Is it too much to ask that it be in a knot and taste like heaven (or at least closer to heaven)? LOL. That was all I was trying to say. I would urge Chef Wiley to keep up the good work though. I love how he challenges convention.