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Below is an account of my haute dining experience in New York. It contains pretentious food writing from a person grossly unqualified to do so. There are more adjectives here than are deserved, tempered with some unfortunate analogies which likely should not appear on the internet in any form. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Wylie Dufresne is one of the wacky molecular gastronomers who everyone is talking about (from time to time, at least). Molecular Gastronomy is the movement which says "food additives aren't just for never-refrigerate salad dressing; by taking advantage of modern advances in food chemistry, we can create taste/texture combinations which were barely imagined in the times of the classical chefs". This tends to mean a lot of gimmicky dishes. You'll see one below, if you're having trouble imagining what I'm talking about.

Ejwu and I wanted a restaurant in New York with a Michelin star and a casual dress code. (I got by for an entire week on sneakers and blue jeans; he was dressed appropriately for any establishment where a jacket wasn't required and I'm sure he could have found a jacket if he really needed one.) Fortunately, there were still times open at wd~50; unfortunately, not until 9:30 at night. This meant that we had some time to kill, meaning a lot of walking outside in the cold through Chinatown and the Lower East Side. We had a pre-dinner palate cleanser of chai at a local Starbucks while we waited for our reservation time to come up. It was worth the wait.

We sat down to their inventive idea of bread, a bunch of thin sesame crackers put in an open-topped wooden box in the center of the table. These were delicious. In fact, we went through an entire box and about half of a second one. It was exceptionally thin and light and crunchy, like balsa wood if it were covered in sesame seeds and delicious instead of wood-flavored. If it were marketed as crackers, it would sell a million boxes.

We ordered a bottle of Gewurtztreminer (guh-vurst-truh-mee-ner, as I've almost surely misspelled it). I wanted a wine which was light and sweet, with fruity flavors. Their wine menu was exceptionally pretentious and they listed three flavors you should be able to taste in each wine. My favorite was one which included "wet rock", meaning they probably got it as well.

I was going to write an approach-to-understanding-food paragraph here, but it was all a long way of saying this: the plates at wd~50 were weird as someone who is new to haute cuisine. I'm used to very utilitarian plating, where you put the stuff in a bowl or on a plate and make it not look messy and that's it. There were some plates which were round with inset bits and plates that were tall and a couple tiny bowls and odd shapes. I don't remember all of them, but for the couple I do, I'll not it.

Crab, fried potato dashi, pickled mushrooms, mint
I couldn't have named the majority of the ingredients in this dish and to be honest, I thought I was in for a lousy evening after eating this dish. Imagine a glob of tasteless compressed crab the size and shape of a pencil eraser sitting on "a bed" of Israeli cous-cous in a fancy white porcelain bowl. It felt snooty just to be snooty, and was tasteless. Next.

Everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, crispy cream cheese
This dish was brilliant. The plate had a sunken bit on the left, a circle offset from the center. There was a tiny bagel with poppy seeds and sesame seeds laying on top of an orange mountain range (like a mastodon's spine) of stringy bits with a thin film of white and a tiny stack of carmelized red onions on the other side of the plate. The surprise is that this bagel, which from looking at it, I'd swear was straight out of the oven, was made of dressed ice cream. The ice cream was made by taking everything bagels, soaking them in milk overnight, sifting out the solids, and making ice cream from the liquids. The orange ridges were dried smoked salmon, in thin threads. If anything, the white film (the cream cheese) and the onions were redundant. My biggest issue with the meal as a whole is that the thin-film dehydration appeared at least three times over the course of the night. Every time it was extraneous, and two of the three times, it was nearly tasteless. The onion looked like some poor commis had to peel onions so that it was a single long strip of onion. Does not change that it was *delicious*, salty and sweet.

Foie gras, passion fruit, chinese celery
Ejwu's story of foie gras desserts aside, when I think of foie gras, I think of it as a rich and savory ingredient. Like if you wanted to use a whole stick of butter in the dish, but instead you decided to put fatty liver in. It doesn't make the dish sweeter, but more creamy, more flavorful. When I went to my friend Ashley's family's house for Thanksgiving in college, they stunned me by serving the cranberry sauce as one giant translucent purple can-shaped lump. You then took cranberry sauce by cutting off a portion of the cylinder and transferring it to your plate. Imagine, instead of cranberry sauce, that the cylinder you were cutting into were foie gras. Take a piece of this around a half inch thick, put it on top of a celery root puree and below celery strands (closer to sprouts than US standard issue green celery sticks) and that was the initial appearance of this dish. We were told before eating this dish to cut open this solid piece of foie, and it was filled with a bright orange passion fruit liquid. The sweet and the savory mixed together beautifully, though I would have liked the passion fruit flavor to linger longer in my mouth and not fade away below the foie gras.

Scallops, tendon, endive, parsley, hazelnut oil
I'm a relative newcomer to seafood, beyond the fish and chips variety. In particular, aside from a particularly good outing to Legal Seafood in Boston, I've never had a well prepared scallop. They're spongy mush infused with the flavor of the sea rather than a protein in their own right. This dish turned me around. More likely, the reason I've never had good scallops is that I've never been to a place that did scallops well. :-) The dominant visual features of this dish were a broad stripe of green curving across the center of the plate and two crunchy and brittle (you could tell from looking at them) white puffed things around the size of your fist (but much more erratic) on either side. The dish was tendon done two ways: there was a piece of tendon atop a scallop sitting at the base of the green stripe like the dot at the top of a Spanish language question mark and two pieces of tendon fried like pork rinds (I swear, this is what the waiter said; I've never had a pork rind) on either side. For those of you who also don't know what a pork rind is like, it's a pure airy crunch. The flavor is there, but there's no moisture, no substance to it. They dressed up the tendon with so much salt that there was nothing to it but salt and an underlying hint of umami. The scallop came partially pre-cut into slices around an eighth of an inch thick, like you'd pre-cut pancakes for little kids, where it's bite-size but allowed them to do the last step. I don't know if the scallops were nearly raw or what, but the texture reminded me of a seared ahi. The inside was meaty but yielding like tuna, undeniably moist. The tendon was again flavorless. Why this dish was presented as about tendon is beyond me.

Truffled Carbonara
This dish was one of the highlights of the evening. In some ways, all the fantastical plating earlier in the evening seemed like eccentricity. If you'd put it on a plate like you put a steak and mashed potatoes and gravy, it was basically the same. This dish was different. There was an intricate maze of lattice work of yellow liquid, like the gel frosting I used to make the gobblers for my chocolate turkeys, spread across the plates. One side had brown shavings like coffee grounds. The middle had something that looked like Rice Krispies. The left had something that looked like those lumps that you get in restaurant salt shakers when you don't clean them out, but the color of matzo meal. The dish is based on carbonara, which apparently is a classic Italian sauce, but it was stunning in the effect of trying to put as much taste on the plate in as little food as possible. The yellow gel was concentrated egg whites, the coffee grounds were black truffles, the Rice Krispies were puffed orzo, and the salt clumps were cheese. But each of these tiny pieces packed a powerful punch. Even a drop of the egg on the tines of your fork sent the flavor of egg through your taste buds. The cheese (described by the waiter as "Goldfish" in a move that I hope the makers of Goldfish don't find out about) was like filling your mouth with grated parmesan. The orzo was pure starch, and I can't speak for Ejwu, but I thought the truffle was a joke that they were using this fantastically expensive ingredient and you couldn't taste it at all in the tiny quantities they put it out. Maybe my taste buds are too unsophisticated to understand that one. The point is, the entire contents of this plate could have fit into an instant oatmeal packet, and yet it was flavor all the way down. This is the reason people go to gourmet restaurants.

Lobster legs, brussel sprouts, lily bulb, banana kimchee
I had to ask Ejwu as we got to this course "Are lobster legs a Thing?" I don't know from lobster, the legs seem tiny and not like the best part of the lobster. Should I be proud to be getting lobster legs? This one was served in a tiny bowl like the amuse bouche. The lobster legs were at the bottom, glowing an ominous red and looking kind of like a radioactive spider had crawled onto my plate. They were covered with brussel sprout leaves, like someone had peeled a brussel sprout to put the leaves in a salad, which were in turn covered with a dusting of, if I'm remembering right, almond shavings. The lily bulb was mixed in with the lobster legs, dehydrated and sweet like postage stamp sized banana chips. On the other side of the dish was banana kimchee, which reminded me of strawberry banana smoothies (no ice, no added liquid) I used to make in Platt, both in color and in texture. The banana kimchee was surprisingly good. There was a moment of sweet followed by a pang of sour vinegar that made your eyebrows raise. That was the part of this dish I would have again. Actually, I'd make it again. The table next to us was drunk. No dancing around it. They sat down well after we'd started and managed to beat us through a bottle of wine. One of the guys, a pescatarian, was a real wise-ass and started hassling the waiter about where the garlic was from. The guy on the other side of the table was just egging him on "yeah, he's a real garlic expert". Well, he asked the waiter about the preparation of the banana kimchee, and the waiter responded "Sir, that's one of the most simple preparations on the menu. You just blend bananas and kimchee. The only thing that's complicated is the proportions." I just about died laughing. Keep in mind that we had a ring of ice cream made out of putting a particular variety of bagels in milk. The banana kimchee was made out of bananas and kimchee in a blender, and this drunk guy came away looking like an idiot. Anyway, that's the story of this dish.

Rabbit, wild rice polenta, cassis, kale, black olive
Another instance of "they can't all be winners". The rabbit was turned into a sausage, which was about the size and length of your thumb and entirely white. It looked more like an exotic animal's droppings than something you'd eat at a restaurant. This wasn't helped by the wild rice polenta, which was a mushy black-brown mound the size of a matchbox, also unfortunately scatalogical. I couldn't have named another component of this dish. Not redeemed by taste.

Refreshing my mind on this further, there was a totally extraneous cassis thin film. It was cloyingly sweet.

Squab, butternut noodles, cream soda, carob
Start breaking out the sports metaphors, because this dish was quite possibly the best of the night. An all-star, a slam dunk, a home run, you name it. I had never had squab before. I assumed it was more like chicken breast, a white building block of a hundred different dishes. It had the appearance of liver, a deep red-purple, an amorphous anatomical shape. The rest of the dish was a cream soda colored dollop of cream soda, with a texture like ketchup and similar haphazard placement. The last component was sandy pebbles of carob and amaranth (a grain like quinoa (keen-wah) but not). The combination was phenomenal. Each of these three components on its own was fine, representative of itself but not outstanding. But together, the meaty effect of the squab was softened by the understated sweetness of the cream soda and enhanced by the hardened crunch of the carob/amaranth. I know this sounds crazy, but these flavors go together! Also on the side of the plate was a series of long thin strands of butternut squash, more like a tissue-paper butternut linguine than butternut squash itself. It felt like a very oddball side.

Ricotta, caper, frozen honey
This one had me scratching my head wondering "how on earth did they do that?" It came to the table in a tiny bowl, steaming from the effect of liquid nitrogen or dry ice. There was a ricotta ice cream, frozen honey, and caper foam (with a couple of escaped capers laying around the bottom of the bowl). The ricotta ice cream was a creamy, savory ice cream. One of the best ice creameries I've ever been to is Jeni's in Columbus, Ohio. When you go there, those of you with a reason to be in Columbus, you need to try the Salty Caramel and the Thai Chili. Ice creams are by and large not savory, but this is based on our expectations, not based on the possibilities of the technique. In this case, the ricotta ice cream was refreshing, all salt and dairy with only a glimmer of sweetness. The sweetness came from the frozen honey, which I am about to trip over myself attempting to describe. They were flakes, like dried mashed potatoes, the tiny shards of crust left when you're cutting an especially crispy pizza, or the oats that fall off of a granola bar in the bag. They were tiny, thin, translucent, and separable, but Jesus Christ did they melt in your mouth. In fact, as we were sitting there talking about the dish, savoring, you could see the honey melting. By the end, you dipped in your spoon and drew it out covered in liquid honey. It was a scientific miracle. To go with the sugar and the cream, there was salt, in the form of caper foam. I felt like I could have eaten a pint of this stuff.

Jasmine custard, black tea, banana
We've entered the desserts. The unlisted component of this dish was milk, which was put across the plate in wide zig-zags. The black tea was silt in powder form at the outside of the bends of the milk river and those two stood on their own. The jasmine custard was a Silly Putty shaped ball of frozen custard cream in a neutral color which escapes me and the banana was a yellow pencil running through the bands of white. Each one of the components was fine on its own. The tea powder and the milk were even nice together. But this dish didn't have cohesion. I couldn't understand why all these things were on a plate together and how I was supposed to combine them.

Caramelized brioche, gala apple, sage, brown butter
Give the pastry chef a raise. The caramelized brioche, which couldn't have been the size of the quarter or an inch high, was perfect. Perfect. Imagine the best bread pudding you've ever eaten, soft and moist, a tiny bit of sugar turned to caramel on the rim. You cut into it and it oozes a tiny amount of syrup onto the plate, brown like cinnamon. With the brown butter ice cream (in the only instance of Wikipedia the entire evening, we confirmed that it's butter cooked until the color changes imparting strangely a nutty flavor), it was delightful and timelessly classic. The flavor palate of this dish was traditional in a way refreshing after the wackiness of earlier in the evening. The apple was made into a substantive gel the consistency of a toothpaste which holds its shape on your brush, with slivers of cut apple and apple thin film sticking out of it.

Chocolate packets
Somewhere in here, they came to offer us coffee and tea. I still hadn't finished my wine, so I opted to finish my last glass, with the sweet notes of the dessert and the warming of the wine bringing out the drier notes of the wine. The final dish was a trio of chocolates. There was a condensed milk ice cream inside of a chocolate shell, something in the middle, and "chocolate packets". Let's focus on the chocolate packet, clearly the most interesting of the three. Imagine a thin sheet of chocoate folded over on itself and sealed on three sides making itself into a fully enclosed package with a single natural edge and three compressed ones. It was the size and shape of a ketchup packet. The outer chocolate felt plasticky too. Responding to your touch but staying together unless you exerted extreme pressure. Inside was a lumpy chocolate powder, and before I bit into mine, I toyed with it, pushing the powder from one side to the other, shaking it. It bit through like Fruit by the Foot, mildly resistant. Very good stuff.

So, aside from some of the dishes being hit and miss, the experience as a whole was positive. There were some brilliant moments, some exceptional tastes and a unique experience. Thanks for reading.

Date: 2009-01-22 03:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zixi.livejournal.com
Interesting. I'll have to try this someday.

(and, yeah, that's mostly what I was wondering about - how they deal with allergies or dietary restrictions)

Spiffy.

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June 2010

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