I have been fascinated by the idea of molecular gastronomy for a few years now, ever since I started watching Top Chef. The basic idea of the cuisine is to apply scientific principles to the art of cooking in order to make food better, and chefs who explore molecular gastronomy tend to like creating playful dishes with high-quality ingredients presented in challenging ways. Wylie Dufresne, one of the leaders in the movement, has been on Top Chef many times as a guest judge, and he’s also competed in Top Chef Masters, and when I learned that he has a restaurant in NYC (wd-50), I knew that I wanted an excuse to go there. Yesterday, I turned thirty, and I invited three friends to take a road trip with me for what turned out to be the best meal of my life.
To set the scene a bit more, I have to say that I was a little apprehensive about the experience at first. New Yorkers have a reputation for being mean and snooty, and I was going to enter the restaurant as a total molecular gastronomy virgin. I knew that I wanted to experience the 12-course tasting menu, but one member of my party can’t eat gluten, and I recognized wheat in a few of the courses listed on the website. When a woman called from the restaurant the day before the dinner, though, to confirm the reservation, she assured me that there is a gluten-free tasting menu, and she really sounded happy to give us a meal that everyone could fully enjoy. And she wasn’t the only nice person on the staff. My group reached the restaurant almost an hour early, and when we stepped in the door and offered to come back at our reservation time, three or four people insisted that they could adapt and find seats for us right away. Which they did, with big smiles. There was no self-conscious pretentiousness; every single staff person I saw all night was smiling and friendly and excited to see guests experiencing the food. At my table, we kept remarking to each other that over the course of about three hours, we never once had to ask for a refill of our water glasses. The servers were attentive without being intrusive, and they were very much a part of our party as they stopped by to explain what we were eating. Speaking of the food, let’s get to each course.
This was a fish served with a banana-sweet potato puree and some pickled crosnes (whatever they are). It was a little understated for a first impression dish, and I wasn’t wild about the pickled bits, but the puree brought up good memories of my mom’s banana pudding (but somehow updated for adults), and the pairing of bananas with fish made me think of one of my favorite J.D. Salinger stories. I enjoyed eating the dish, with the surprising flavor combinations, but if the entire meal had been along the same lines, then I would have been a little disappointed.
This was the first dish of the night to make me laugh out loud. We were presented with what appeared to be a mini-bagel with sesame seeds, then an orange powder, then a swirl of pink fibers topped with a paper-thin white wafer (“crispy cream cheese”). I scooped up the bagel with my fork and popped it into my mouth – at which point I learned that IT WAS MADE OF ICE CREAM. I’m not even joking, it was this little mouthful of cold crunchiness that tasted just like a savory bagel. The rest of the dish was not something I would want to eat on a regular basis since I’ve never really enjoyed bagels and lox, but for people who do like bagels and lox, this was a thoroughly magical way to take the best aspects of that dish and combine them in a new way. And it has a bagel made of ice cream!
(Gluten-free option: A cute little bowl full of perfect little cubes, some of which were cuttlefish and some of which were jiggly root beer gels. I tasted the cuttlefish, and it was marvelous, clean and crisp and a little salty and perfectly chewy. I didn’t taste the root beer cubes, but they gave my friend the same kind of giggly joy that the rest of us found in the ice cream bagels.)
I had never had foie gras before this dinner. I know it’s a staple at fine dining restaurants, that it can be offensive for animal rights activists (who are themselves, then, offensive to chefs like Anthony Bourdain who will basically excoriate any chef cowardly enough to remove the dish from his menu), and I know it’s liver (I think of a duck? Maybe a goose?). From the preview menu online, this was the dish I was most excited to try. I was not disappointed at all. My plate arrived with a grayish-pink disc on it, standing on its edge like a bass drum. It rested on a bed of something green, and it had some slivers of Chinese celery on top like a head of unruly hair. When I cut into it, though, it had a hollow place that poured out a passion fruit paste like an egg yolk. And it was delicious. I don’t know that I could identify foie gras in a blind taste test since the passion fruit flavor was so strong, but passion fruit is one of my favorite tastes in the world, so this is not a complaint. The foie gras had an amazing texture, silky and firm and luxurious, and the celery made for a really satisfying contrast.
(Gluten-free option: A mound of delicate aerated foie, with pickled beets. It looked kind of like the meringue on a really good pie, but more pink, and the bold colors of the beets made for an impressive plate. I didn’t taste it, but I’m sure it was good.)
This was another belly laugh of a meal. The main component was a perfect yellow pillowy cube, which turned out to be a thin layer of egg (think about when you make scrambled eggs, and the very edges have a slightly leathery texture. This was like those edges, but a hundred times more delicious than the kind you make.) around a filling of scrambled eggs and cream cheese. They were rich and creamy and intoxicating. The other components of the dish were a small cylinder of charred avocado paste, a twist of something called “kindai kampachi” (fish, possibly uncooked?), and a mound of almost microscopically diced fried potatoes. Everything worked together perfectly – the dish was mostly creamy, but the potato crumbs gave it crunch, and the fish added a perfect amount of salt and chewiness without distracting from the eggs. Probably my favorite savory dish of the night. Basically, this is the breakfast you get every day in heaven.
HOMAGE TO LEFTOVERS
When our server dropped off these plates, he made himself laugh a little about the concept of the dish. It had a rectangle of fried chicken, about the size of a credit card but maybe an inch thick, sliced in half and served cold. Next was a buttermilk-ricotta puree like the best mashed potatoes you have ever eaten, topped with a little caviar and a big flake of fried chicken skin. The chef had also drizzled a honey-Tabasco sauce around the plate. I need to confess some food snobbiness here. I don’t like fried chicken. I appreciate the crispy skin and juicy meat, but I don’t like the mess on my fingers, I hate the sensation of my teeth grinding against a bone, and I just feel disappointed when I eat it (it’s OK, you can stop liking me if you want). Also, I don’t like Tabasco. I find the vinegar flavor to be too pungent, and the heat of it is just obnoxious and shows a complete disrespect for a dish. I love spice, but I hate Tabasco. This dish, though, was a comfort food revelation. With as thrilled as I was, I can’t even imagine the tearful rapture that would be experienced by someone who already likes fried chicken and Tabasco. It was amazing. I loved the fried chicken, I loved the “mashed potatoes,” I loved the smooth caviar, and I even ran my fork along my empty plate to draw up the last drop of the honey-Tabasco sauce. Each component of the dish was delicious on its own, and when I could assemble a forkful with a bit of each, it was like the best comfort food dinner that I’ve ever had.
(Gluten-free option: I don’t remember what the protein was, but it looked almost like a pink fettuccine dish, and it had some chopped dried olives and little chunks of honeydew. I didn’t taste it, but my friend enjoyed it, especially the combination of salty olives with sweet melon.)
I don’t have a great palate for fish. I know the special flavors of salmon and tuna, but I can’t really tell any other fish apart by taste and texture. I’m learning that bass may not be for me, though. I’ve had Chilean sea bass a few times (yes, even though it’s politically incorrect), and it’s a little rich for me. It has a beautiful oily savoriness about it, but I’m generally satisfied by just a forkful or two. For the black bass dish at wd-50, I could tell that it was perfectly done, but it just wasn’t for me. The presentation was elegant, with two discs of perfectly cooked fish, topped with some chorizo ground almost to powder, with a few cubes of charred pineapple topped with powdered dried lime, tied together with a popcorn puree. The pineapple with lime was explosive and vibrant, and I could have eaten a whole plate of it. I also liked the relatively subtle popcorn flavor of the puree and the saltiness of the chorizo. I even liked the way that the chorizo crumbles were too small to pick up on a fork, so I had to really study the dish like a puzzle to figure out that you have to get some fish on your fork, then press that into the sausage, sometimes with some puree to make it all stick. I was completely engaged, I had a great time eating the dish, but it wasn’t quite enough to make me like bass. Anyone who likes bass should experience this, though.
And, seriously? This was only the halfway point of the meal. I had a great time through this whole meal, waiting for quiet spaces in conversation while we digested each course and stared off into nowhere (the timing really was perfect all evening, with each course arriving after we had been given time to digest and discuss the previous course, but never so long afterwards that we felt forgotten), and giggling, “We’re not even halfway!” or, “We still have four more courses!” I was like an enthusiastic child all evening.
BEEF AND BEARNAISE
I confess, I don’t actually know what béarnaise is. I know it’s a French sauce, and I think it’s creamy if I remember the right Top Chef dishes, but I don’t actually understand it. That didn’t matter for this dish, though, because it was a playful inversion of beef with a béarnaise. We received small but deep bowls with three small spheres, like hush puppies the size of gumballs, resting in a beautiful rich brown liquid. The liquid was a beef consommé (think about when you have a roast that takes all day to cook, and there’s some liquid left over that gives everything a savory umami flavor, like a natural gravy. This was like that, but better – one of my friends said he could eat a whole bowl of it), and the spheres were béarnaise gnocchi. I love gnocchi (a potato pasta that tends to be very dense), and these were phenomenal. They were lighter than I expected, with a creamy texture and a pungent flavor that was almost like blue cheese. This was a dish that looked simple but was actually very complicated, and I loved it.
(Gluten-free option: Arctic char belly, served over fried yucca and topped with a puree of cherries and fermented black beans. I think this was my gluten-free friend’s favorite dish of the night. I tasted a little of the puree and was rendered nearly speechless with joy. It was a little sweet and a little tart and very strong and almost like great chocolate, and I hope I never find out how to make it myself because then I will be doomed to a life of cooking dish after dish just to find more excuses to use it.)
This was a very seasonally appropriate dish, with a little breaded squab, a spicy pumpkin puree (don’t think pumpkin pie spice, think of some spice that punches you in the face and makes you find pumpkin interesting and demands that you eat more of it, which you are happy to do), some impossibly delicate razor-thin cornbread wafers, and cranberries pickled in rum. I drink alcohol from time to time, but there isn’t very much that I really enjoy drinking for the flavor. I mostly drink because, eh, that’s what grown-ups do, and I don’t really enjoy the experience. The exception is rum, which brings me to a place where I’m a pirate or dozing in the sun on the Gulf Coast, and the combination of rum and cranberries made this plate the best Thanksgiving ever. The squab was aggressively rare, glaring up at the diners in its bold redness and daring us to keep going, but I loved the softness of it. I’m not generally a fan of fall flavors, which were showcased well in this dish, so I would not be as excited to return to this dish as I would be for most of the others, but it was creative and exciting and would be a last-meal request for those people who can’t wait for Thanksgiving every year.
(Gluten-free option: Venison chops, very thick and rare, with some kind of a thin savory sauce. I grew up eating venison on a regular basis – Mom and Dad would shoot deer all season, then we would eat very little beef for the rest of the year – and this was spectacular. Juicy, tender, just a hint of seasoning to enhance the natural flavor of the deer. Of all the dishes of the night, this was the one that I most wished my mom could have tasted before she died because it so perfectly expressed a simple country protein in an upscale and challenging way, and she would have loved it and spent weeks at home trying to recreate it perfectly.)
That was the last of the savory courses. Which, of course, means that it was time for FOUR COURSES of dessert. I have never in my life been as drunk on joy and food as I was at this point of the evening, knowing we were only 2/3 of the way through the experience.
The “pre-dessert” was a scoop of white beer ice cream, served at the top of a small bowl filled with quince, a caramel sauce, and.. caraway seeds? Another confession: I don’t like beer. I’ll cook with it, but I won’t drink it. As soon as I had the first spoonful of this ice cream in my mouth, though, I was offended and thought to myself, “What? I like beer? No!” This was delicious. One friend at the table (with a good palate for beer) insisted that this was just like a very very good beer that I would probably never find for myself. It definitely had a subtle bitterness that I remember from college, but that was only one layer of flavor that mingled with sweetness and a number of delicate flavors I can’t even describe. It was complex and I refused to mix it at all with the caramel sauce, which I devoured separately and loved.
(Gluten-free option: Sake sorbet, served over a pear foam with a sake gelee, like a bowl of the snowballs you would throw in heaven. As soon as the bowl hit the table, I whispered to my gluten-free friend that I was jealous, and since she claimed that she just so happened to be losing a little steam by this point of the culinary marathon, she gave me half of her bowl, which I didn’t even try to be polite and share. I cook with mirin, a rice wine that is sometimes referred to as cooking sake, more regularly than people might expect, and I love the sweet and exotic notes it adds to sautéed vegetables and savory dishes. I’ve never had a bottle of sake, but I think I’m going to start now. This sorbet was amazing. I put the whole thing in my mouth at once and just froze. The taste was biting and crisp and cold, and I couldn’t bear to swallow and go for the next bite because then the experience would be over. The rest of the bowl was delicious, with the creamy pear foam – pear is also one of my favorite tastes – and the jiggly sake gelee. I’m not going to lie, when I looked mournfully at the empty bowl, I discreetly – I hope – wiped a little drool from the corner of my mouth. This was absolutely my favorite dish of the night. I’m not offering here, but if someone were to present it to me in exchange for, I don’t know, taking out a hit on somebody, I’m available.)
After I peaked with the sake sorbet, the rest of the evening was a quiet and gentle drift down to a place where I could safely walk to the car and go home. This dish was a finger-sized column of rainbow sherbet wrapped, like an egg roll, in some kind of nearly transparent brittle substance that tasted like candy. This roll was served over an olive oil sponge cake, drizzled in olive oil, with a small section of an orange, some slivers of apple, and a few dollops of some kind of cream. Sherbet always makes me think of the stuff they gave us in my elementary school cafeteria when they didn’t love us enough for ice cream, and this dish certainly highlighted the bright colors and subtle flavors of sherbet, but I was left with a bit of the “could have had ice cream” emptiness that always accompanies sherbet for me. Without question, it was good, but it suffered from following the amazing sake sorbet and white beer ice cream, and I think it would have been more impressive as the first of the dessert courses.
(Gluten-free option: Coffee ice cream with.. a pecan puree? And candied pecans? And cream? It looked beautiful, but I have never liked coffee, and I wasn’t even tempted in the slightest by this dish. My friend liked it, and I suspect that the billions of people who like coffee will love it, but it had no appeal for me.)
By this point, my group had confided to our servers that it was my birthday, so they brought a special treat just for me. It was a small bowl with what looked like a large white candle, glowing with an internal fire. The fire was a small birthday candle, like you can find at any child’s party, but the big white “candle” around it was actually a hollow tube of frozen coconut milk, and it was all anchored in a mousse of coconut and something minty. I love coconut, and this dish was delicious. The frozen coconut milk was a little awkward to break up with a spoon for sharing, but I loved the powerfully cold sensation of it melting in my mouth. It was such a nice treat, and another beautiful gesture to show how dedicated this restaurant staff was to providing the best experience possible for guests.
When I’ve heard judges on Top Chef say that a dish was intellectually challenging, I’ve generally dismissed it as pretentious food critic talk. This dish, though, taught me what it means for me to be intellectually challenged, and I loved it. The main component of the dish was a chocolate ganache, whipped up on the plate like a giant clam in an underwater cartoon, and it was served with some beautiful candied cocoa nibs and ricotta ice cream that was sweet in a way that evokes a Shakespearean tragedy – this ice cream was Ophelia in a frozen form, sweet but complicated and ethereal, and the story can’t last forever, but it’s not supposed to. The craziest parts of the plate, though, were a hard frozen beet mousse scattered on the plate like angry pink chalk, and a beet puree infused with long pepper that was splashed in beautiful patterns like spicy rose petals sprinkled over everything. I have a powerful sweet tooth, especially when it comes to desserts, and this dessert challenged me with the way that sweetness was such a small part of it. It worked because of the powerful visual drama of the bold pinks and reds and deep browns and the austere white of the plate, and it worked because of the crunch of the cocoa nibs, and it worked because of the humble earthy beet flavors wrestling with the smooth and familiar chocolate sensations. I think we each scraped our plates after this course until nothing was left, and I had more fun discussing this dish than any of the others.
For the last course of the evening, our server brought out a flat gray stone, like you would see in a walkway. On it rested three deep brown thumb-sized packets, which our server explained were made of chocolate leather (cocoa and pectins, like a fruit roll-up), and filled with crumbled chocolate cookies. We also had a small bowl with three little spheres, about the size and color of Whoppers candies, which were made of ice cream dipped in chocolate shortbread crumbs and chocolate (a play on milk and cookies). The spheres were refreshing, like a frozen Oreo, and the cocoa packets were amazing. I took a while just pushing mine with my finger, enjoying this little toy before biting into it. It was delicious, with the crunchy cookie bits and the packet that stuck to your mouth before slowly melting away as you talked, just like a fruit roll-up made of chocolate. It was a perfect final note of playful whimsy for a phenomenal meal.
(Gluten-free option: My gluten-free friend was presented with a large metal spoon that contained what seemed like little gumdrops in a variety of colors. The basic idea was that each item was a different substance – cheesecake? some kind of berry? squash? – and she was supposed to take it all in with one bite. My friend laughed as she enjoyed this treat, and she said she didn’t really notice the squash flavor, but the overall effect was like the best cheesecake ever.)
As we started looking for the bill, one of our servers approached us a bit conspiratorially. Wylie Dufresne was in the kitchen (which we had noted all night, as the restaurant has a very open kitchen and we recognized him from TV and the wd-50 website), and since we were first-time guests, we were invited to go back and meet him. I’m not going to lie, I geeked out. Couldn’t really speak, hands started shaking a little, face got hot, collar was suddenly too tight. I’m pretty sure this was my birthday wish when I blew out my candle, and I was getting it. The server gave us a little time to collect ourselves and settle the check (I should stress at this point that wd-50 is an expensive restaurant. With tip and everything for a party of four that consumed no alcohol, I charged an amount on my credit card that was slightly less than my monthly mortgage payment. I knew going in that, at my socioeconomic level, this was going to be a once in a lifetime meal that I could only justify because it was my 30th birthday), then we were led back to where Chef Dufresne was working on a plate, separating out what looked like rice noodles but secretly could have been anything. And I was not cool at all. I just grinned and kept murmuring thanks. My gluten-free friend thanked him for the many gluten-free options, and he was awesome when he stopped what he was doing and looked her in the eye and said, “Ah, that’s easy.” Because in so many restaurants and homes, it’s not easy, and when you can’t eat wheat, you get stuck with whatever someone can throw together, but tonight, she got a meal that was safe and delicious and possibly better than what the rest of us had, and it definitely meant a lot to me when Chef Dufresne was so committed to making sure everyone was included and had a great time. Near the end of our brief encounter, I did mention that it was my birthday, and Chef Dufresne wished me a happy birthday, which was awesome.
I had a great time at wd-50, and I highly recommend it to anyone who can get to NYC for a special occasion and who is willing to be a little adventurous. It’s not for picky eaters or anyone who didn’t budget for it, but it was perfect for my group, it exceeded all of my expectations, and I loved the whole experience.