Thursday, October 13, 2005

Just Desserts New York City Entry #22

The relationship between a head chef and a pastry chef is rarely between equals. That we speak of "chef" and "pastry chef" displays a hierarchy by virtue of the extra descriptor alone. Virtuous diners skip dessert, seeing the denouement as a needless excrescence, and because desserts are typically served cold, they are often seen as less a performance than the hot dishes they follow. In my observations, pastry chefs, even if they prepare far more than pastries, pies, and cakes, do not work during the evening, preparing their morsels earlier in the day, home to sup quietly with the family. Not laboring in the kitchen inferno, they are not truly part of the trade. All too many restaurants, even some who advertise their stars, outsource the production of sweets. Made in Bangalore.

The relatively low status of the masters of dessert is evident by a simple thought experiment in this age of celebrity chefs. Most food savvy New Yorkers can rattle off the names of a dozen or more great chefs, but how many of these are pastry chefs? (Chicagoans may justly name Gale Gand whose magic outshines that of her husband Rick Tramonto at Tru). How many pastry chefs have restaurants named after them with the entree chef as second fiddle? Someone will certainly come up with such an example to which I will smugly add the line on which every mistaken loser relies, "That's the exception that proves the rule."

And yet the brilliant pastry chef can rescue a meal from the muddle that the chef has left.

In entering WD-50 I expected that my task would be to compare this outpost of "agape cuisine" with those standouts that have made the Second City the First City of cutting-edge dining. Leaving I knew that my story was of sweet closings.

WD-50 is a restaurant that is often compared to Alinea, Moto, and Avenues in Chicago (and El Bulli and the Fat Duck in Europe). This 60 seat Lower East Side "eclectic new American" has received much buzz, but a fair measure of disappointment. In considering my twelve course tasting menu ($95), it is not hard to see why. Wylie Dufresne seems to lack a sense of harmony that Chefs Achatz, Cantu, and Bowles share at their best, even while teasing and tormenting. These men are former students at the stoves of Charlie Trotter, and his academy left its mark. Trotter insists that his cooks and his diners think about their meals, and each chef has adopted this view in various ways, treating each food as an exercise in philosophy.

Chef Dufresne comes to his craft from other stoves, trained by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose cuisine is characterized by powerful flavors and challenging combinations, but not by a challenge to ideas of dining. Chef Dufresne carries this style one step further, but eating at WD-50, one feels that one is attending to a working cook, not a theorist.

It is appropriate (and surely desirable) when that cook has a palate that surprises and delights, melding different tastes into one. Others can write with words, while chefs must write with herbs, spices, meat, and mash: the poetry of the plate. However, in the eight dishes selected by Chef Dufresne for the Tasting Menu the tones were off. (The chef was not in the kitchen the night that we dined at WD-50, but the problems were not with the execution, but with the conceptions).

The problem in almost every Dufresne dish was that one flavor - and a jarring one - dominated the plate. The fact that the taste is unsettling, coupled with some instances of technocuisine, allows WD-50 to be classed under the El Bulli umbrella. The trick to have a satisfying meal at WD-50 is to take charge of one's plate, exiling the offending ingredient. Chef Dufresne needs to tame his creative urges, tasting his dishes as his customers might. Only then will he distinguish harmony from dissonance.

We began with a lovely pistachio soup with sour cherries, and a touch of garlic and lemon thyme. This would have been an ethereal starter. The cherries and thyme were quite sufficient to add the spark to the mild soup. Chef, drop that skillet. Yet, sitting in this innocent soup was a lump of marinated sardine. I have nothing against sardines - and used to eat them from the can and enjoyed a treatment on this workingman's fish at Prune. Dufresne's marinated sardine was well-prepared, it just belonged in an alternative universe. No pistachio, cherry, or thyme can win a battle with marinated fish. The answer was of course triage, creating two dishes from one.

This opening seemed an eccentricity of the chef, and diners find quirks in other temples of agape. However, the second dish had a similar problem. We were presented with a glowing pink puck of foie gras mousse, huddled at the edge of a large plate, perched on shamrock pixie dust, described as dehydrated green pea "soil." Our server advised use to cut the cylinder. Shades of Moto! Out spilled crimson beet liquor: Lucifer's boiled egg. This was Chef Dufresne's most explicit bow to Chicago's gang of three. I felt that the beet jus didn't fully bring out the flavor of the mousse (the candied olives helped). Here the problem was the soil. Let us give the chef points for cute, but deduct for a mix that was more salt than sweet pea. Pushing the soil to the side, the remainder could be savored, but, unless this represented an error of preparation, someone should have noticed the clash.

Third was Dufresne's canonical "Shrimp cannelloni," neighboring a bright orange chorizo smear and selected micro Thai basil. Shrimp cannelloni is "pasta" of extruded shrimp. Although cleverness can get wearying, the shrimp, basil and chorizo made a disarming match. The problem here was a hidden ingredient: preserved lemon. Once again, this one ingredient so dominated the plate that one had to rely upon the childish technique of making sure that different foods didn't touch. Without that preserved lemon - or by eating it as a mid-course amuse - I could come to appreciate the conception that went into a Mexican mix of sausage and prawn.

Our first meat dish was "picked beef tongue, fried mayo, onion streusel, and tomato molasses." The tongue was thinly sliced, an amiable lunchmeat, lacking the meatiness that I expected. The fried mayo, little dice of breaded Hellman's - another bow to adorable cuisine - nicely paired with the tongue. My disappointment here was a tomato molasses that smacked of prune and coffee aromas. Once again - my repetitions are becoming tiring - by exiling the molasses, the tongue could be enjoyed. (WD-50 does not serve bread, only crackly sesame flatbread, but I would have appreciated a roll to mop the piquant sauce).

A second dish that captures a sense of amazement was the "carrot-coconut sunnyside up." Here Chef Dufresne pays homage to the humble fried egg. A carrot yolk, seasoned with olive oil, is surrounded by cardamon coconut milk albumen. This dish is primarily notable for its trompe l'oiel texture (trompe les doigt?). Poking the creation one might imagine breakfast at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The dish tasted less impressive than it looked. The carrot dominated, although neither component was memorable. That the chef imaged the dish was sufficient without having to consume more than a bite or two.

"Hamachi with sausage flakes, plantain gnocchi, nasturtium smear, coffee-infused water chestnuts" was a more satisfying main course. While the intense coffee could have dominated, the Hamachi fillet held up well. The plantain was too mild, but eating the gnocchi as a separate mouthful allowed an appreciation of the tropics.

The carrot confit, hibiscus sorbet, and crispy lamb belly was a strange selection. Chef Dufresne prepared the lamb as bacon. What might have been an original and amusing encounter with a novel taste was lost in its preparation, less impressive than Alinea's bacon on a trapeze. A so-what moment. Here a too-sour hibiscus sorbet that destroyed the sweet-savory flavor that the carrot confit might have added to the belly. With the belly unimpressive and the hibiscus in its own world, I was left to commiserate with the finely-made confit.

Our final main course was a beautifully presented plate squab breast, crispy squab skin, sweet potato jus, and golden beets encrusted in ruby beet chips. The jutting crispy squab skin paid tribute to Albert Portale's architectural cuisine without requiring a building permit. While I found the beet in beet a little precious (although the contrasting textures of sharp and smooth were pleasing), the squab was succulent, and the potato jus added to the gamy flavor, sweetening without losing wildness. This was a dishes that I endorse without qualification.

At this moment, despite the success of the squab I was troubled. The meal did not compare with meals at Moto, Alinea, and Avenues. Would my Gotham friends see me as a hopeless Second City rube? Perhaps the New York Department of Health doesn't permit philosophers in the kitchen.

The miracle of Pastry Chef Sam Mason squelched a well-honed prairie suspicion. The quintet of desserts proved that some startling unions are blessed. (Four desserts are usually served, after pleading caffeine sensitivity, I was sent an alternative).

Often the more creative a chef, the more s/he hopes to capture the flavors of childhood. Some succeed, but occasionally one is glad that our toys have been put aside. Chef Mason served a plate of celery sorbet, peanut butter crispies, and pickled raisons. Ants on a log: a stalk of celery, smeared with Jif, plumbed with raisons. This is every mother's healthy snack. Mason transformed each ingredient, everything but the memory. And how they were transformed: the celery became sorbet, the peanut butter, cereal, and the raisons, pickles. What was a childhood compromise becomes an ageless delight.

When one sees "rice and beans" on a contemporary menu, one knows that the rice and beans will be steeped in irony. Here rice was a luscious, light, luxurious sorbet surrounded by an azuki bean jelly and lines of emerald bright cilantro puree. Both the beans and the cilantro deepened the cool, mild rice. This is how tastes should be combined: the sweet starch of the azukis played off the herbaceous coriander. Bravo.

I begged for Chef Mason's parsnip cake, served with carrot cream and carrot paper (a crispy carrot skin or the thinnest vegetable flatbread imaginable). Every cake deserves a scoop, and the chef's choice was a luscious coconut cream cheese sorbet. Although most non-chocolate desserts have a puckery fruit base, this wily cake was constructed in tones of dairy and roots. It was not the most colorful dish on the menu; its color was in its taste.

My companion was served the milk-chocolate-hazelnut parfait cake with an orange reduction. Once again I begged (I'm rather good at this), and was rewarded with a forkful of mastery. Chocolate, nuts, and orange are made for each other, and this pastry proved the rule.

As we reached the end of the meal, we wondered about the "cocoa cotton balls." WD-50 is not Moto, so our closing amuse was not a Mississippi boll (with weevil sprinkles?), but a delicious truffle filled with what was a cross between cotton candy and a malted milk ball. It was the fitting end to a string of desserts that I wryly dub my favorite recent meal.

Chef Dufresne is a cook with guts. I admire that. He is willing to stretch boundaries, to puzzle, and to offend. And his style of presentation with separated ingredients and not stewed together permits diners to work with and around his presumptions. Perhaps his cuisine will provoke glorious amazement if he can imagine his meals on his diner's tongues.

Chef Mason, a native Floridian, is an artist of another sphere. Should I be offered the opportunity to invest in an imagined hotspot - Mason's Dixie? - I would sell a kidney, confident that he could whip up another on pain perdu.

WD-50
50 Clinton Street
Manhattan (Lower East Side)
212-477-2900

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