Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wylie Dufresne, Mad Scientist

Last September, as a full-time student at the Institute for Culinary Education, I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the 1st Annual International Chef's Congress in NYC. Specifically, I was supposed to be helping out backstage in the staging area for the various chefs' demonstrations. It turned out that my most important job as a volunteer was to stay out of the way (every chef brought their own assistants). I didn't mind, though, since I did get to meet some really cool chefs and watch all their demos. Susur Lee was there—he was only one to engage me in conversation. And so was Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. I got a photo with him even though I hesitate to show it off since my culinary school uniform was an unflattering eight sizes too big for me. (Shaq could probably fit into it...) Among many other chefs that I got to meet was Wylie Dufresne, Chef/Owner of WD-50. And that is where I had dinner last night.

After Dufresne's name came up during a freelance project I was working on recently, my editor and I decided to try the restaurant's tasting menu since neither of us had been to the hot spot before. The tasting menu consisted of a dozen courses: eight savory and four sweet, but I'll spare you the play-by-play and stick to what was truly memorable a day later:

Pizza pebbles, pepperoni, shiitake
"These taste like Combos," said one of my dinner companions mere seconds after the plate was set down and before our server had left the table. "Many people say that," he admitted. Well, I wasn't about to argue. They did have a taste very reminiscent of the not-so-healthy, guilty-pleasure, gas station fare. Nevermind that the "pepperoni" component of the dish was a few small dollops of sauce, the "pizza pebbles" were loosely held-together spheres of bread and cheese flavored powder, and the shiitakes were paper-thin slices of dehydrated mushroom. A couple oregano leaves added a green touch to the plate which was resembled nothing even close to an actual pizza.

Knot Foie
This had to be my least favorite dish of the night. Now, I love foie gras and I don't plan on ever caving in to the claims that PETA and other save-the-animals types make about the "inhumane" treatment involved in foie gras production, but PLEASE don't reduce foie gras to something that could pass as the love child of bologna and Spam. I don't care if you have managed to take the normally fragile offal and shape it into a clean knot. Unfortunately this interpretation of foie gras smelled like "cat food" according to others at my table and, in my opinion, hardly had any of the rich flavor that I normally associate with the delicacy. Not even the quince sauce or cilantro stems could rescue the dish. Sorry, Wylie, but this one earns an F from me.

Beef tongue, fried mayo, tomato molasses
Again not a favorite of mine and it had nothing to do with the fact that I was eating pickled beef tongue. Those of you who know me, know that I have an aversion to mayonnaise. Plain and simple, I'll avoid it given the option. Now, I could have told our server that I didn't eat mayo or I could have left it untouched on my plate, but—if for no reason other than to satisfy my curiosity—I ate the fried mayo. I can happily report that the process of deep frying can make almost any food delicious. So, while I still may not care for cold, gloppy mayo from a jar or squeeze bottle, I am a fan of warm, fried mayo. Even if it does contain a secret ingredient or two from WD-50's famed wall of food-grade chemicals.

Lamb belly, black chickpea, cherried cucumber
Did you know that "lamb belly" is just a confusing way of saying "bacon"? Granted at least one of my many food reference books probably defines "bacon" as something uniquely porcine, but, for the sake of argument, if you take the fatty belly of an animal, cure it, slice it thinly and then fry it, it's going to resemble bacon. And bacon makes me happy. End of story.

Fried butterscotch pudding, mango, taro, smoked macadamia
Again with the frying. Frying, if done well, takes anything up at least one notch. (Several in the case of mayo.)

Soft chocolate, avocado, licorice, lime
Chocolate isn't my favorite (unless it's a nice piece of unadultered dark chocolate) and I tend to find it boring, but there's a photo of this dish on the restaurant's Web site, so I thought I'd include it so you can get a taste of how the various dishes are presented.

In such an experimental place, it's no surprise that even the restrooms are worth mentioning. We were lucky (smart?) enough to ask about them before embarking on an exploratory jaunt around the restaurant. The conversation went something like this: "Where is the women's room?" "Oh, they're downstairs." "They? There's more than one women's room?" "Well, just go downstairs and push on the wood panels." "OK..."

Turns out, the restroom is a set of unisex restrooms with communal sinks nestled in a basement nook. The doors to the stalls are flush with the wall and, aside from seams in the wood paneling, more or less hidden. Nice touch.

That's all folks. I've already rambled on for far too long.


brendabee said...

well, i think you've tried more strange food than i ever have. Next time i'm intown, let's leave that one off of my plate of things to do. brenda

MJ said...

You should make a point to eat at Alinea (I'm sure you've heard of it). I sent my parents there for their anniversary when it opened two years ago... they were enormously impressed to say the least.

Jamie said...

Actually, mj, I'm headed there this Friday. I'll be sure to give my review of the meal!

mj said...

I guess I'm now a mind reader, or something...