Dufresne’s WD 50 Greases
The Gastronomic Imagination
My Irish grandfather once dropped a live oyster into a glass of brandy to see if the two went together. He looked at the shriveled result and decided they didn’t.
Chef Wylie Dufresne is made of sterner stuff. If you order oysters at WD 50, his latest restaurant on the Lower East Side, which opened in April, you don’t get them in a glass of brandy. Instead, the waitress sets down something that looks like a tile made of mosaic marble. When you touch it with your fork, however, the tile starts to jiggle, and the pieces lift up in limp bits, as surreal as a Dalí watch. “The oysters have been pounded flat between sheets of Saran wrap and shaped into a square,” the waitress explained. What my husband had to say about this dish, however, is unprintable, even in The New York Observer .
Call me a Philistine, but I prefer eating raw oysters from the shell. I don’t even need lemon, but I did like the diced apple and dried black olive that were sprinkled on top of Mr. Dufresne’s mosaic, adding sweet, acid and salty notes to the curious mix. Mr. Dufresne’s cooking is original, modern and exciting. Sometimes it stops you in your tracks. You may not always know what to make of his food, but you always respect it.
Certainly, this chef never gets bored in the kitchen. And his customers don’t get bored either, although at times they may be content with tasting a dish just one time. The menu may have its hits and misses, but whatever the case, people all around me were mesmerized by what was on their plates.
Perhaps Mr. Dufresne’s wildest flight of fancy to date is foie gras with anchovies and small pieces of cracked cocoa beans. Like all his dishes, it’s beautiful: The anchovy fillets, which are lined up in a silver row, look like an elaborately carved lid on an antique cufflink box. Beneath them is a small, square slab of foie gras. The dish is garnished with sea salt, a dollop of citrus compote and the cocoa beans. When you mix all these tastes and textures together, the result is bizarre and unsettling, like a difficult piece of music, but admirable nevertheless. Do I want to eat it again? No.
Chef Dufresne has worked in the kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who, along with Phil Suarez and Mr. Dufresne, is a co-owner of WD 50. After a stint as chef de cuisine in Mr. Vongerichten’s Prime in the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Mr. Dufresne left to open his own highly acclaimed 71 Clinton Fresh Food in 1999, the first of a wave of trendy new restaurants on the Lower East Side. WD 50 is in a former bodega. The décor of the long room, which is bifurcated by a line of banquettes with booths on one side and tables on the other, is sparse and contemporary.
There’s a small bar at the entrance, a copper fireplace, a large piece of onyx hung on the wall like a painting, and brightly colored lamps over the booths. I wish they’d taken as much trouble with the lighting above the tables as they took with the design of the food. When you see how other people look under these harsh pinpoints, you want to reach for your hat. There’s an open kitchen at the back (where the staff can be observed noiselessly putting the plates together) over which a serene Mr. Dufresne presides, sporting thick mutton chops like a music-hall Victorian.
Mr. Dufresne’s genius is in matching unexpected tastes and textures. The emerald green pool under the red mullet is made of puréed nasturtium leaves, and the dish is garnished with cherries and Chinese sausage. The richness of the fish can stand up to all these strong flavors, and the combination is inspired. His white gazpacho is the best I’ve ever eaten-a pale, smoky blend of almonds and diced cucumber that’s decorated with a line-up of clams steamed open in their shells, red dots of smoked paprika oil and purple champagne grapes.
But while some of his dishes are miraculous, others are too conceptual. Mr. Dufresne has the eye of an artist, and his amazing visual presentations create the expectation for tastes of the same caliber. So it’s a bit of a letdown when the octopus, for example-three steamed pipes laid upon a green Shizo pesto grid-doesn’t have much taste. And corned duck with rye crisp and horseradish cream (“Our ode to Katz’s,” said the waitress) is bland.
Mr. Dufresne hits his stride with the main courses. Don’t miss the pork belly: It comes in a small slab with a crunchy top and has a full, rich flavor balanced by a garnish of soy beans, turnips and a sharp tomato sauce. I could eat this every day. Sea bass looks like a Viking ship that’s been beached on a white sand bank made of a fine cauliflower-almond purée. The texture of the fish, which is strewn with chopped long beans and dried apricots, is like silk. “Flatiron” beef is piled up in rare sliced rectangles, with twin foam sauces in the middle of the plate. What makes this dish remarkable is the tart made with smoked paprika and bone marrow and topped with sea salt.
Order chicken, and you get two packages of moist meat wrapped in their own skin alongside a poached egg under a pile of froth. “Chicken before and after,” said Dewey Dufresne, the chef’s father, who patrols the dining room and helped to put together the interesting-and very expensive-wine list with Scott Mayger, WD 50′s sommelier. The Greek, Austrian and Spanish selections in the lower price range are well worth investigating.
Pastry chef Sam Mason’s desserts are great; formerly of Atlas and Union Pacific, Mr. Mason is a Joan Miró in the kitchen. Parsnip cake, which sounds like something that would’ve been served to Oliver Twist, is a revelation: Topped with Day-Glo carrot paper, it’s not overly sweet and is perfectly moist. Caramelized banana tart comes with a zeppelin of dark chocolate ice cream and black licorice. Mango and basil ravioli the size of a thumbnail continue their Italian theme with strawberry sorbet and black olive (yes, black olive) that’s pounded in thin slivers like a tuile. It works. So does the summer minestrone, made with tiny cubes of fruits with a slab of meringue and a blackberry sorbet, and the lovely caramel panna cotta with sweet corn and coffee.
At the end of dinner, you’re offered a soft beet candy that looks like a ruby topped with micro beet greens; another night, the candy is made with passion fruit and saffron. The sweets end an audacious meal on an audacious note.
My grandfather, ever the experimenter himself, would’ve been impressed.