50 Clinton St
New York, NY 10002-2401
It was with some trepidation that I dragged Justin 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, Justin 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 muted. 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 Justin could appreciate it.