They always say that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, you’ll only be disappointed. Wylie Dufresne, & his restaurant WD50 on the Lower East Side, has long been held in high regard by myself, probably ever since he did the ‘5Questions‘ in 2010. It was one of the first places on the shortlist, when my wife & I decided the destination for our honeymoon. Getting a reservation was relatively easy (via opentable) & was the only eatery during our stay in NYC, which asked for a card to secure the booking, this despite it being relatively empty on a Sunday night.
WD50 is open for business Wednesday to Sunday, 6pm – 10pm; and Dufresne is dividing his time between here &, his latest venture, Alder. Dufresne has been at 50 Clinton street for just over eleven years now, and whilst many describe the area as ‘up & coming’, the reality is that it’s at the more affordable end of the spectrum, but don’t let this put you off.
The charming & welcoming staff greeted us at the door, and after checking our coats, we were seated at our table within ear shot of the semi open plan kitchen. We settled into browsing the menus, when our drinks & the ever so moorish crispbread arrived.
The Negroni has been enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, so I thought it was about time I should see what the fuss is all about. I have to say it’s now the drink of choice, and you’d think in a place where flavour is paramount, that you’d be getting a prime example. I’ve since had the same drink in several bars in NYC & back in the UK, and it just wasn’t. The prime reason was far too much pith on the orange peel, giving the drink a some what unwanted zing of pithiness.
My Negroni aside, the wife was enjoying her drink of a Lil Orphan Ornery (cocktail of champagne, vodka, ginger & pomegranate). we went on to choose the longer $155 tasting menu as it was new dishes over the cheaper $90 shorter menu, which is archived & favourite dishes.
With a slight change to the menu, neither of us being fans of oysters, we plowed straight on. First up was a slice of raw red snapper with a beef tendon puffed crisp and tarragon oil. A playful take on ‘surf & turf’? Despite it being a Sunday (and probably no Fish markets being open), the snapper was beautifully fresh, coupled with the acidity from the tarragon, it really was simplicity in its rawest form. To my mind the beef tendon puff added little to the dish, other than a ‘look at what we can do’ type of moment.
With the alternative course swiftly dispatched, we were back on the straight & narrow. Next up, ‘Sea scallop, coffee, cauliflower & orange’. When the dishes were presented to us, the waitress gave us a quick run through of the component parts, including the cauliflower marshmallow. This is the sort of stuff that you’d come to WD50 for, techniques which take ordinary ingredients & with a little bit of culinary wizardry, turn them into something that you’d question. Why does a marshmallow have to be sweet? Sadly, it didn’t, if fact the main question I was asking was ‘who thought it was a good idea to call it a cauliflower marshmallow?’. It was too dense to resemble anything that might have a passing resemblance to confectionery, if anything a bavarois would have been closer to the mark. After this disappointment more was to come.
Scallops are wonderful items to have on a menu, they require very little doing to them to extract the best. Pre-cooking them & serving them fridge cold is not the way forward in any context.
By this stage now, you’d hope the kitchen would be getting into its stride, and sure enough it looked to be on the up. The ‘Squash roasted peanut soup, cockscomb & fig tobacco’ sound a little bit more mainstream. The soup was silky smooth & the peanut – squash combination a surprisingly good effort. The garnish on the rim of the plate actually added the extra dimensions which had been missing previously. Whilst the peanut brittle was a tad clumsy, it was pickled mushrooms which really made the most impact, scything through the richness.
This is one of those dishes, that like a joke, if you have to explain it, nobody will laugh. Injera is an Ethiopian flatbread made with sourdough, please, where in the above picture is that visible? The brown squiggle from one side of the plate to the other is a rather dense version of a chicken liver parfait. The semi pickled & compressed melon, and leaves of the onions went some way to relieving the tedium of the dish, but it just wasn’t good enough.
Knowing that I would be coming to the US, I drew up a list of foods that are particularly unique there. Grits is one such food, so it was a ‘2Birds – 1stone’ moment when I saw it on the menu, after all, where better to taste a prime example, but in a Michelin starred restaurant? Sadly, this was not to be. The technical wizardry afforded to the WD50 kitchen, had managed to turn the shrimp themselves into an intense flavoured type of savoury porridge. It really was excellent, but yet again the kitchen added that extra level with the pickled jalapeño, transcending the dish into the realms of the Fat Duck’s ‘Red cabbage gazpacho’.
Being presented with a piece of Black pudding & being told it’s bloodless, could be seen by some as some as a form of sacrilege. Yet some how it just seemed so right; the texture, smell & taste, were all as you’d expect. Again, the kitchen seemed intent on pulling my taste buds in several directions at once: sweetness & smoke from marcona almonds; earthiness from the mushrooms & acidity from the lily bulb. Taken in its stride this dish was challenging, & you really wouldn’t want much more than was offered.
For the second time in the evening, red snapper made an appearance. This time, casually garnished with extensions of more conventional flavour combinations. In relation to previous dishes it wasn’t a particular ‘look at me’ dish, but then again it didn’t have to be. The fish was nicely cooked, with the slight rawness you’d expect, and as a dish it was nicely rounded. The surprise was the wine gum-esque textured swipe under the fish. Despite the flavour not being really identifiable, it added a level of fruitiness, countering the slightly bitter leaves.
So at this point we’re just over half way, and I’d suppose this would be one of the main courses. I like pork collar, it’s a real salt of the earth joint which takes love & attention to extract the best from it. The kitchen have excelled with this, I’m not entirely sure what the benefits of braising a joint in milk are, but I like it. Unfortunately that is where the adulation stops. The entire dish was ruined by a course smear of kaffir lime leaf purée that was so unnecessary. It dominated the entire plate with its floral citrus perfume, but also as a purée it was poor; they’re supposed to be smooth, so they can bind & add moisture to a dish. This did none of those things, instead destroying everything in its path. It actually made me wonder, at what point did anybody taste that dish before putting it on a menu, because my retort would be somewhere along the lines of, NEVER!
After the abomination of the ruined pork collar, the kitchen seem to be back on track with an interesting combination of Cured duck breast, curds-n-whey, sweet potato & rice noodles. All in all quite a balanced dish, with the interesting concept of using the whey as the sauce. The cure was minimal, but effective enough not to overpower the dish, with the sweet potato adding nice balance to proceedings.
The kitchen now seem to be on a serious upward spiral after some of the previous dishes. With effectively only four component parts to this pre-dessert, I was intrigued as to how the combinations would pan out, as tarragon & pear don’t seem to natural bedfellows. Thankfully they were the least of my concerns, the ambush came from a granular frozen substance (at the top of the bowl in the picture). I’m suspecting liquid nitrogen may have been involved due to the aggressive reaction on my tongue, imagine crackle crystals with intense acidity, and you’re somewhere close. Which is a real shame, because the rest of the dish was really quite good.
On paper this looked to be the most grounded of all the dishes, you could see why individual parts were there & what their purpose was. When the dessert arrived how ever it was a different tale. All of a sudden random grapes had appeared for no reason I could think of, & the sorrel which would have supplied some acidity to counter the richness of the pistachio ice cream, was missing. Whilst the tart was warm on the outside, again it was fridge cold inside, making it dense. This could have been an excellent dish, but it appears, yet again, that the kitchen have taken their eyes off the ball.
I have to say, with our meal drawing to a close, it was mixed emotions. Not before yet another dessert was bestowed upon us. Ovaltine isn’t something that I’d natural associate with our trans-Atlantic cousins, yet WD50 have harnessed the OAP’s bedtime drink of choice into a wonderful sponge, twisting it with the delicate spicing of cardamom.
One of the advantages when you sit in a restaurant where the tables are quite close together, is that you get to see what other people are eating. At this stage in proceedings, we’d been a couple of courses behind our neighbour, but when his petit fours arrived, I was intrigued & looking forward to our own. Sadly, when ours arrived, the piece that had peaked my interest wasn’t there, one presumes they had run out, this being 10:30pm on a Sunday night & all. Whilst, the cookie dough ice cream was ok, the root beer jelly was far to floral to be anything other than poor.
WD50 isnt cheap; it passes cheap on the hard shoulder of the motorway whilst tearing off into the sunset with your credit cards. Including a $95 bottle of wine the total bill rocked in at a staggering $471.43 plus tip (but inclusive of tax), which should be 15% (another $71).
This puts it fiscally in the ballpark of 2&3 Michelin starred restaurants in the UK, in fact, for approximately $290, we have eaten at Gidleigh park. But what makes this worse, is the rollercoster of standards & thinking behind so many of the dishes.
It has really pained me to write this review, I wanted it to be one of the highlights of my dining out experiences. As I said at the very start of this post:
They always say that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, you’ll only be disappointed
And clearly in this case it is true. Hindsight & reflection are wonderful things, and looking back on my notes, and mulling it over with my wife, I decided to post this review. Clearly Wylie Dufrense is being stretched too far with the new outlet, & WD50 is suffering because of it, becoming a parody of what it once was.