Saturday, June 7, 2008

wd~50, Wylie Dufresne, New York City

Molecular in Manhattan

During my trip to New York City last month I finally achieved something I've been planning for a long time - a meal at chef Wylie Dufresne's wd~50, one of the most critically acclaimed, talked-about, blogged-about and hotly debated restaurants in the world today.

My friends and I had the 12 course tasting menu ( US$ 125 per person without wine), but before I get into the meal, a few words about chef Dufresne and his " mad science"

Molecular gastronomy, pioneered by superstar chefs like Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain and Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck in UK, delves into food chemistry and uses creative techniques to alter and enhance ingredients, textures and flavours. While other molecular gastronomists use liquid nitrogen and lasers to do their thing, Wylie Dufresne makes use of hydrocolloids - proteins and starches that basically turn liquids into gels.

Cornstarch thickener is an everyday example of a hydrocolloid; so is gelatin. The hydrocolloids chef Dufresne uses are a little more exotic - things like xanthan gum and agar-agar. An entire wall of his hi-tech kitchen is lined with little white bottles that would not look out of place in a chemistry lab.

Xanthan Gum ( C35H49O29 )

Combine the wonders of chemistry with endless hours of experimentation, add extraordinary creative flair and large doses of imagination, the curiosity and courage to push the boundaries and a certain indifference to critical opinion... and you get Wylie Dufresne's cutting-edge, whimsical take on food. Diners either love it passionately or hate it with a vengeance - there's no middle ground of reactions here.

For example take wd~50's Eggs Benedict. It contains all the elements of the classic dish - poached egg, hollandaise sauce, English muffin, bacon. But deconstructed and then put back together into a neat minimalist hypermodern form that has become chef Dufresne's most famous creation. The poached egg is presented as concentrated columns of egg yolk, the hollandaise sauce is deep-fried with the help of hydrocolloids and shaped into cubes and coated with English muffin crumbs. The accompanying Canadian bacon is wafer-thin and super crisp. A tongue-in-cheek dinner interpretation of a breakfast classic.

The science behind this dish - that apparently took almost a year to perfect - is impressive. So is the thought that goes behind creating something that is extraordinarily different yet retains the essence of the original. Does everyone love it ? No. Does it fill your stomach like the classic eggs Benedict does ? No, but it is not meant to. Remember it is part of a twelve course tasting menu. It is also indicative of the direction chef Dufresne has taken, a direction that not everyone can or should follow.

The ingredients of the Eggs Benedict (top) and the finished dish (below). Pic courtesy New York Times

Now, to our much anticipated meal. Twelve courses eaten for over two hours in a dimly lit and relatively spare interior, at a table looking directly into the kitchen. Dishes timed perfectly, and served and explained expertly.

Pic courtesy Foodplow
Sweetbreads, rhubarb, roiboos, hazelnut

Tiny sweetbreads served with a scrape of rhubarb sauce. An amuse-bouche. Gone in 5 seconds leaving a slight tart taste in the mouth. Incidentally 'roiboos' is an African tea herb. Who knew ?

Pizza pebbles, pepperoni, shitake
Droplets of shitake mushroom and a pepperoni paste in between tiny 'pebbles' of pizza dough. You get the dough, sauce and toppings, all the ingredients of a pizza, repackaged in a pranksterish wd-style. You can almost see the chef winking through this dish. I found the pebbles very dry and 'dough-y' but then I generally don't like pizza or the taste of dough. I learnt later that this dish is almost universally disliked by both fans and foe.

Knot Foie

This is where the meal starts getting interesting. A slab of foie gras is turned into an elastic strand with the help of hydrocolloids like xanthan gum and konjac flour, and then tied into knots. Served with rice krispies which make a crunchy counterfoil to the foie paste and is also, I think, the chef's whimsical way of making us eat an expensive delicacy with something as basic as a breakfast cereal. Oh and the rice krispies were alternated with golden raisins for sweetness and kimchi puree for a little kick.

Hamachi tartare, wakame, sake lees tahini, grapefruit-shallot sauce

A tuna sashimi that looks a bit like tuna sashimi but doesn't quite taste like tuna sashimi. It has somehow taken on dimensions and texture that tuna sashimi does not have. That's because chef Dufresne has played with it, first grinding the hamachi coarsely and then putting it back together with meat glue ( transglutaminase). He's served it with a sweet-tart marmalade'y grapefruit sauce and a tahini made of sake lees, which is a left-over of the sake filtration process. SASHIMI WITH SAKE , of course.

Eggs Benedict

Egg yolk 'gel', fried cubes of hollandaise sauce coated with English muffin crumbs, superfine Canadian bacon. All the flavours of Eggs Benedict in one bite. Enough said.

Crab tail, soybean noodle, cinnamon dashi

Soybean 'noodle' sheets - another product of chef Dufresne's science - resembling ravioli skin but firmer and more elastic, over a piece of crab, resting in a fragrant cinnamon dashi broth and sprinkled with basil chiffonade.

At this point, take a breather and review what we've had so far. Sweetbreads, pizza, foie gras, tuna, eggs, crab. What next, you wonder. Well, chicken !

Chicken liver spaetzle, pine needle, radish, cocoa nib

The spaetzle, which is typically a German egg noodle, was in this case a rich mixture of chicken liver, meat and skin. The cocoa nibs lining the bowl provided a bitter counterpoint and the raw radish discs helped cut the rich taste of the chicken. A marvellous dish, though where was the pine needle or what was the pine needle I do not know.

Lamb belly, black chickpea, cherried cucumber

Lamb belly is the 'meat of the moment' among New York City chefs this season. It is essentially lamb bacon, rich salty and crunchy. Here it came accompanied by black chickpeas, both toasted and pureed. And the surprise wd element - 'pickled' cherry-flavoured cucumber.

Think of that for a minute .

We coudn't think too long as it was time for dessert , created by pastry chef Alex Stupak who has worked before in the other temple of molecular gastronomy - Alinea in Chicago. Here he brings concepts learnt at Alinea and marries them to wd's cutting-edge techniques and philosophy. The results are outstanding.

Wintergreen parfait, avocado puree, chartreuse gelee, candied walnuts

A little amuse-bouche; a dessert starter.

Toasted coconut cake, carob, smoked cashew, brown butter sorbet
Warm toasty coconut-y cake with coconut foam. Caramel-ly brown butter sorbet sitting on smoked cashews. So many different textures, different temperatures, different flavours but making delicious sense together.

Soft white chocolate, white beer ice cream

White beer icecream ! Why didn't someone think of this before ? ! And with a soft elastic ( hydrocolloid again) strand of white chocolate and malt powder. A beer lover's dream turned into a dessert. Wait, it isn't malt powder but potato chips coated in malt !! And there's also some beer jam which is different from the beer ice cream but beer all the same but not quite the same. Forget it. It was fabulous.

Chicory ice cream, chocolate and coffee

The finale: The suitably hefty bill, coffee and bittersweet chicory ice cream balls covered in chocolate. And little chocolate 'pillows' that we took home.

Was this the best meal I've ever had in my life ? Possibly not. Was this the most interesting meal I've ever had ? Absolutely yes. Does it make us rethink the concept of food ? Well that depends on your point of view, on how much you are inclined to rethink the concept of food. You may not care at all, and that's fine. There are many other fabulous restaurant options in NYC and Hong Kong to choose from.
Not everything tasted great, not all the dishes made sense. Some were outlandish. But in its totality, the beautifully paced and expertly portioned twelve course dinner was outstanding in conception and execution. Add to that the pleasure of having experienced something that is very avant-garde, immensely creative and cutting-edge. That sort of thing stimulates me, so I'm glad that I had the chance.
And go back I definitely will, as I know that chef Dufresne is continuing to experiment in his 'laboratory', trying out new magic tricks and continuing to push the boundaries
My only regret: I didn't go to the restroom which I believe is as " out there" as the food !
Frank Bruni's review of wd~50 in New York Times
An illuminating article and brilliant slideshow on the science of molecular gastronomy in New York Times
wd~50 discussions on Yelp
wd~50 discussions on Chowhound
50 Clinton StreetNew York, NY 10002 Phone: 212.477.2900
In a funny way this meal compares with the other " totally out there" experience I had in New York City this time - artist Cao Guo-Ciang's exhibition of exploding cars, gunpowder art and immersive installations at The Guggenheim
Other posts on recent gourmet experiences

1 comment:

Dominique said...

Wow, I kind of wish I'd done the tasting menu too... I like your pix of every course. I have been thinking about adding some pix to my blog but I think that would make it really obvious that I'm reviewing, even more so than typing rapidly on my Blackberry while staring at the menu. :)