You’ve probably seen him on Top Chef, Iron Chef and After Hours with Daniel. Wylie Dufresne’s traits more accurately depict a scientist than a typical chef. Blame his quiet demeanor, wire rimmed glasses and shoulder-length straight hair. At wd~50, you may not see him running around the kitchen, calling orders or getting his hands dirty during service, but Dufresne is unquestionably the force behind one of NYC’s most inventive restaurants. One that, just like its chef, proves that appearances can be deceiving but also remarkably surprising.
Located in the lower east side, a neighborhood once occupied solely by immigrants and lower-class workers, wd~50’s facade stands out as a sign of modern gentrification. Surrounded by an endless number of cheap nail salons and graffiti covered garage doors. Its $140 prix fixe menu contrasting with the $6 meals offered down the street; while its bright sign–glowing in red and blue neon light, asks permission to fit in. The name, often confused with the all-American oil spray, is the combination of the chef’s initials and its street address, 50 Clinton St.
Inside, in the colorful, modern dining room, 14 tables are illuminated by blown glass lamps and spotlights. A long, comfortable leather banquette splits the room giving the 4 booths behind it additional privacy. Two small tables and the bar counter offer casual seating for walk ins. Dufresne’s silhouette can often be seen at the end of the room, standing tall against the bright kitchen light. Like a commander-in-chief, arms crossed overlooking the front of the house, telling his manager where important patrons should sit.
The ambiance is intimate but unfussy. Solid wood tables are set with woven vinyl placemats and standard flatware. The wait staff dressed casually in jeans, burgundy shirts and black aprons.
In another contrasting play on appearances, wd~50’s fine dining menu is presented in a cheap plastic portfolio, its pages inserted into removable transparent pockets. First, a good selection of à la carte appetizers and mains, described only by their ingredients. On the last page, the popular 12-course tasting menu–the best way to experience the restaurant’s inventive cuisine.
The classically trained Wylie Dufresne is a disciple of Ferran Àdria. His pastry chef, Alex Stupak, was recruited from Alinea in Chicago, which together with wd~50 are in the forefront of molecular gastronomy in America.
Dufresne’s cuisine is marked by stunning presentations and inventive plays on ingredients’ textures and flavors. All possible through relentless research and experimentation of techniques (the restaurant’s kitchen is filled with countless pots of emulsifiers, gelifiers and other altering substances). The result is a dining experience in which the only predictability is that you’ll be surprised.
To start, paper thin, crunchy sesame flat bread served on a bamboo tray.
First course, Ocean trout, goat cheese, tamarind, celery root. The fish is cured in green tea and rolled around a dollop of goat cheese spread. The sweet tamarind is presented as a “paper” and purée.
Second, Grilled corn pebbles, lime mayo, scallion. The sweet and smoky hazelnut-size pebbles are deliciously flavorful. They have a light, dry, doughy texture that dissolves in your mouth. A delicate dish that honestly deserved to be served with smaller flatware instead of a disproportional standard size tablespoon.
Third, Knot foie. A creamy foie paste is made into a long knotted strand and topped with rice puffs that add a crunchy texture. Served with sweet raisin purée and chili to complement the subtle foie paste flavor.
Forth, Hamachi tartare, wakame, sake lees tahini, grapefruit-shallot. The fresh hamachi is diced, put back together as a terrine then lightly seared with a blowtorch. Served with pears tossed in sake tahini sauce and topped with seaweed. A nice combination of bitter, sweet flavors and textures.
Fifth, Eggs benedict. Dufresne’s famous reinterpretation of the classic brunch dish is simply put, extraordinary. From the eggs, only yolks are used to make a slowly cooked cylinder of strong color and taste. The hollandaise sauce is frozen in small cubes and breaded with ground-up English muffins then deep-fried. The result is a fine croquette crust around the warm liquid sauce. Served with paper-thin Canadian bacon.
Sixth, Crab tail, soybean noodles, cinnamon dashi. In this dish, sea salt and Thai basil top a delicate sheet of soybean noodle that covers fried yellow lentils and crab. Only one problem, the cinnamon broth aroma is overpowering and takes over all other flavors.
Seventh, Chicken liver spaetzle, pine needle, radish, cocoa nib. Dufresne’s take on the classic German dish. Made with lightly seared chicken liver dumplings and served over spinach and bean sprouts. A light green pine needle emulsion dusted with cocoa nibs covers the inside of the bowl. Its brisk aroma, although not overpowering, is too strong when smelled up close.
Eight, Beef tongue, cherry-miso, fried quinoa, palm seeds. This deeply flavorful dish brings together a nice combination of tastes and textures. The thin slices of tender sous vide braised tongue are served with sweet cherry miso, salty soft king oyster mushroom and crispy quinoa. A great dish.
Ninth, Blackberry, honey, sour cream, green tea. The first dessert is pleasantly fresh. The lightly gelatinized orange blossom honey is served hot with lime zest, fresh and frozen blackberries.
Tenth, Jasmine custard, black tea, banana. A tasty and fun dessert with flavorful banana ice cream and milk foam.
Eleventh, Toasted coconut cake, carob, smoked cashew, brown butter sorbet. Quite possibly one of the best desserts I ever had. The coconut cake is light and soft; the brown butter sorbet, creamy and decadent.
Twelfth, Yuzu ice cream-marcona almond. The last dessert is a play on the Japanese ice cream served with a chocolate packet filled crunchy chocolate crisp. Good, but probably unnecessary. I would have been happy ending on the coconut cake.
As a side note, on my Tasting NY tour, Wd~50 was the only restaurant that didn’t give out a coffee cake to go as part of their tasting menu.
Wylie Dufresne’s cuisine challenges conventional expectations. His inventive combinations of flavors and textures are artfully presented in a tasting menu that never ceases to surprise. Even when eventually science wins over soul as his complex techniques at times overshadow flavors. It is unfortunate that the restaurant doesn’t take its perfectionism much beyond the food. Dufresne’s creations deserve a more polished mise en scène. And that could easily be accomplished without compromising the restaurant’s welcoming unfussiness. Think custom flatware. All in all, wd~50 is unquestionably one of the most interesting restaurants in the United States. Jackets are not required, but preconceptions are better left at home.
wd~50 is at 50 Clinton St.