[Pigging by Wilfrid: June 11, 2012]
I've been a fan of WD-50 since Wylie and Dewey Dufresne opened it, astonishingly almost ten years ago. From the foie gras with sardines and cocoa nibs, I've been an ardent support. I even forgave them the ramp soup.
I've written about it often enough too -- and I won't repeat all the background and context I gave in this 2007 post. I hadn't visited in a while; but then Wylie went ahead and did precisely the right thing to bring me back. He threw out his tried and trusted menu and started all over again.
Well, no, not quite. He kept some of his greatest hits on a $75 "From the Vault" menu -- the pickled beef tongue, the lamb loin with black garlic romesco -- but introduced with a flourish a completely new $155 tasting. Out went the carte, but lest anyone thinks this is an exercise in envy, provoked by the plethora of high-priced tastings appearing around town, reflect that the dining room now expects to turn far fewer tables.
There is one easy way to access Wylie's wonderful new food. Sit at the bar and order from either the new menu or the Vault: two courses for $25, each additional course $15. These are still, of course, tasting portions -- don't imagine two or three courses will stuff you. But it remains a notable bargain, given the excellence of the cuisine.
Wylie remains the Rauschenberg of plating. He seems to want to hang his art anywhere except on the wall. These tiny amuses almost fell off the plate. Some sort of rye crispbread with a topping which recalled the kitchen's repeated experiments in pairing honey and caviar.
The welcome at the bar each time I dined there was warm -- but be warned. No matter how empty the bar, when you ask to eat there the host will mysteriously mutter "I need to check with the manager." Why? And no, it wasn't just aimed at me.
You might get luckier than the tiny crispbreads and win marinated fluke as your gift from the chef. The fluke was, I thought, a little gamy, but the sweetly pickled radish slices cleaned the palate. Best eaten with the radish, with a quick dip in the icy soy flakes, and a dab of the lemon-coffee purée. Yes, this is all happening in an amuse, and the radish blossoms were pretty too.
"Lobster roe" was one of many Wylie dishes which has made me laugh out loud. (I think the last was the cold-fried-chicken-from-the-fridge take on chicken terrine). Where's the roe? It's transformed into rich, lobstery "pasta," unusually paired with slivers of green grape.
The dusting of charred lemon added a smoky touch. I could eat huge bowls of this very happily.
But I forgot about it when the phở gras arrived. Yes, pronounce it "phuh" for maximum punning fun.
With chicharron-ish beef tendon balanced on the side, this might be my dish of 2012 so far. And that's in the face of been serious competition from Empellón Cocina.
Disarmingly simple too, by Wylie's standards. A slice of creamy foie torchon sits in a beef and foie broth. But what a broth. Silky, sweet, and staggeringly sweet in flavor. Clean-looking too. For a change of pace, add a little of the fierce sriracha sauce from the rim of the bowl. A thundering ace served from the classic cuisine playbook.
The only dish which didn't knock me out was the crab toast. Peektoe crab, impeccable fresh, served as a chilled salad over some sweet toast, a textural context provided by puffed, milled rice -- like grown-up popcorn. There was just an odd, slightly medicinal flavor to the crab -- perhaps I don't like kaffir lime juice.
Thoughts are swept aside again by another hilarious, delicious construction. Those aren't peas: they're carrots re-shaped as peas and dusted with pea powder. Almost satirical, but a great surprise to the taste buds.
Lurking inside the curls of thin sliced (quibble: underseasoned) carrot, the slow-cooked yolk of a duck egg. Chunks of tender braised chicken too. Wylie tests your taste memory again, and the answer which comes up is...Campbell's Cream of Chicken soup. Really. The texture of the rich yolk with the chicken pieces, the vegetable garnish; it's like a flashback, but tastes much, much better than the original.
Veal brisket is another startling trompe de goût. Sounds like a hearty, wintery stew, right? Nope: Wylie reconstructs the veal as the ham of your dreams. Yes, this is ham on rye with mustard.
Little pieces of crispbread, a mustardy z'atar sauce, and slices of sour plum for contrast.
The veal is thin-sliced, translucent, streaked with soft white fat. It's Platonic ham, but from the wrong animal.
Sole with licorice sounds unpromising. The sole filets are just barely cooked, rolled into little batons with sprigs of fennel, and surrounded with dabs of black licorice sauce and a savory white sauce made from the fish's skin. Dill as the final note.
Wylie's kitchen could always fry -- remember the fried mayonnaise cubes? -- and a very precisely breadcrumbed disc of green tomato mash contrasts with the exceptional delicacy of the fish.
There was a time you had to go somewhere like La Côte Basque to find sweetbreads in New York. Anyone who lived here prior to the '00s knows we somehow found our way to an unexpected offal paradise. Sweetbreads are everywhere now: ah, but, those are veal sweetbreads.
Wylie prepares lamb's sweetbreads -- smaller, tauter in texture, earthier -- and serves them well caramelised on a nasturtium-buttermilk sauce, with a garnish of zucchini and nasturtium leaves, and a fine dusting of pistachio powder.
Can anything be better than that foie gras soup? Here's a contender, and another smart piece of culinary legerdemain. The best smoked pork hock in the city? Maybe.
Or maybe it's what Wylie does with beef short ribs, turning them into the best possible smoked ham, right down to the charred, rubbery bits. This is sensationally good cooking, even if it does raise a smile. Root beer is mentioned in the menu description, so I guess that's what makes them sweeter (I dislike root beer, but the offensively chemical flavor wasn't apparent). The almost figgy apricot relish enhances the sweetness, but you can calm your palate with some robust, sticky curls of rye spätzle.
This dish was...beyond barbecue.
So I'm still a WD-50 lover, hugely encouraged by the spectacle of its reinvention at age nine (the dining room remains the same -- calm, neat, suprisingly formal). The only thing really showing its age is the big, wooden, front door, now showing some battle scars.
These dapper essays in the wit and wisdom of gastronomy should command the attention of everyone interesting in both the traditions and the future of restaurant dining.