It was my birthday on Sunday and as a present to myself I went to WD-50 on Clinton Street.
Let me back up slightly.
Last year, the first week of May was shaping up to be Best Week Ever. I had tickets to see New Order at the Hammerstein, a pass to the press screening of Revenge of the Sith and, most awesome of all, was going to attend a taping of Iron Chef.
The battle, which Food Network finally got around to airing last week (a mere eight months later) was Mario Batali VS. Wylie Dufresne.
What a great match-up: both chefs are around the same age, have a wild streak, and ponytails. Batali, the rock star (if this description sounds off, watch Iconoclasts) with a love of offal and orange clogs; Dufresne, the science nerd armed with immersion calculators and xantham gum. Too bad the secret ingredient was something as dull as Tilapia.
Attending the taping was interesting in a behind-the-scenes sort of way, but the audience is an afterthought in the whole scheme of things. Most of us were delegated to the shadows along the walls of the Chelsea Market soundstage, with no monitors to see the action on both sides of Kitchen Stadium (I was closest to Mark Ladner, Batali’s right-hand man who is also now running the kitchen at Del Posto). There was also no PA, making it hard to hear commentator Alton Brown, and near impossible to hear the judges (including condescending but very funny Jeffrey Steingarten).
Because things were running so late, they excused the audience before judging, so I had no idea who won until last week. Wylie got more points for originality (Nina Lali [whose picture of IC I swiped] has a funny recap of the event in the Village Voice) but Batali crushed him on taste. There was some discussion on Egullet as to whether the judges "got" Wylie’s high concept dishes Karine Bakhoum, a restaurant flack, didn’t seem to — she said she hadn’t even had tilapia before (how is that possible?). But surely Steingarten did, and I bet Ted Allen did to. They just weren’t as good as Batali’s.
After eating at WD-50, Dufresne’s Clinton Street lab/restaurant, I think I know how the judges felt.
This is clever food, very cerebral. There was nothing bad on the nine course tasting menu ($105) my friend
Kate and I sampled. Some of it was very good, in fact.
The pasta in the
"Shrimp Cannelloni" was made from shrimp, and filled with more shrimp.
It came with a delicious "chorizo emulsion" and the whole dish was
inspired in every way.
A sole langostine, barely cooked, was sweet, unctuous perfection on a
tiny bed of cooked greens, served with a tiny celery root monolith and banana
mustard sauce. Banana and mustard, by the way, taste great together.
But half the savory courses were more like clever for clever’s sake. When the menu says coconut, carrot, "sunnyside up" you get an "egg" where the white is made of coconut
and the yolk is carrot. And it’s just like an egg. The texture is
exact. The "yolk" breaks when you cut it. It’s fun, and very, very cool.
But it didn’t taste like much of anything.
Then there was the soup course. It was a cocoa dashi broth that came with a little bottle (looked like Elmers Glue) filled with lemon yogurt that, when squeezed into the broth, instantly turned into noodles. (More food additive wizardry.) We laughed — it’s fun to play with your food. But you want it to taste good too. The noodles had no real flavor or even texture.
And thus the problem, for me, with WD-50. It reminded me of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Whimsical, intelligent, mostly entertaining, and at times brilliant, but ultimately unsatisfying and hollow. It’s fine to be clever, but being tasty should still be Job Number One.
Deserts, however, were nothing short of a revelation, working in the way I wished the rest of the meal had. Pastry chef Sam Mason is pretty much a genius, hitting all three courses out of the park. The first was celery sorbet with peanut butter powder and macerated raisins. Two bites into it, Kate said, "It’s Ants on a Log," which it was, and we both cracked up. What a clever idea. Take something you loved as a kid (celery filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins) and deconstruct it into something fancy. But it was also delicious.
As were the other two, which included an amazing butternut squash sorbet with a little square of pumpkin bread and a stripe of mole sauce, and an apple tart with cumin ice cream. We also got some tiny red pepper muffins that were tasty and quite moist given the size. The deserts almost redeemed the rest of the meal. Almost. Maybe if we hadn’t left three hours later just as hungry as when we arrived.
WD-50’s tasting menu is a lot of fun. We had a great time. But as a meal, it was a failure. An expensive failure. I recommend that everyone should try it once… but maybe only if you can get someone else to pay. Or, it should be considered Entertainment, like going to see a Broadway show or a Nicks game. It costs about the same and lasts as long. Just know you’ll probably want to get dinner right after.
You can, however, just go for the great stuff. A three-course desert tasting is $25; for ten bucks more you can do five courses. It’s worth it.
-pictures swiped from the WD-50 website.