Sunday, November 13, 2005

WD Redux New York City Entry #34

What kind of art is culinary art? Is cookery performance art or plastic art? Is a chef a musician or composer? Do we judge the process or the product? Both views have appeal. Any chef who oversees a staff had better develop, if not recipes, at least procedures, so that dishes night to night will taste similar. Yet, diners who return to a restaurant often discover that what is lovely one night is loopy the second and lost it the next.

On the performance side this suggests that kitchens have on and off nights. Even on a night one dish may be perfectly timed with a just balance of ingredients, whereas the next order is ignored for thirty seconds with just a bit too much salt. Cooking is not robot work. There has been no Robot Coup. Even in those establishments in which chefs play with chemistry sets, men and women are key. Performance is not that of chefs alone, but of their cooks who labor often with light oversight.

However, a product may change as well, not simply a function of performance. Put aside the fact that some dishes are better than others (to particular diners and to culinary audiences), but the materials that form the dish change. The veal, morels, or apricots delivered on Tuesday may have a different quality as those on Thursday. An August orange has a different taste from one picked in February. A product delivered on Friday may be a little off by Monday. Add to varying ingredients is that conscientious chefs keep experimenting, even if the menu hides the change: Anjou in place of Bartlett, a surprising sprig of tarragon, or chanterelles substituted for porcini.

The recognition of the restaurant as a moving target came to mind in my second visit to WD-50, about a month after the first. On that first occasion, I was mightily impressed by the Sam Mason's desserts, and was occasionally dismayed by the lack of balance in Chef Dufresne's entrees. Tonight seemed a reversal in form. How to explain? One plausible explanation is simply that of presence. While not always perfectly formed, several of Chef Dufresne's creations bid fare for his stature as one of the most creative chefs outside of the hothouse of Chicago cuisine. Chef Dufresne was absent the first night, present the second. Pastry Chef Mason was present the first, absent the second. Could oversight make that much difference. Of course, a restaurant that plays on the field of WD-50 should not be dependent on the chef's proximity, otherwise the restaurant should charge bargain rates on "Chef's Night Out."

I prefer to believe that Chef Dufresne, a culinary-mind-in-progress is learning, tasting, testing, and improving, and this was not simply a case of Cooks-Gone-Wild when the master is away.

As much as my main courses improved, I was disappointed by the amuse, which had the unbalanced tastes of the chef's earlier dishes. The sardine with freeze dried corn and whiskey caramel was a brief taste in which the whiskey overwhelmed the sardine, adding a rather bitter/sweet accent to the pungent, slightly salty fish. The sardine should have been on center stage, not the liquor.

Our first appetizer was a revised reprise of the dish I was served the first night, "Foie Gras Mousse with Beet liquor on a bed of green pea/bayleaf soil. I had not been much impressed by the saltiness of the soil my first night, but this was far milder. The dish looked quite similar, but the flabbiness of the flan seemed more silky tonight. Yet, despite the surprise of beet jus spilling from its foie gras puck, I'm not certain that this is a grand innovation, but it was a signal improvement.

Our Shrimp cous-cous, papaya, bruleed avocado, crispy kaffir lime was not beautifully presented, a somewhat dull, beige pile of faux grains (shrimp grains), but the mixture of papaya, avocado brulee and lime added pungency to the subtle shrimp pellets. As in the previous dish, Chef Dufresne plays with our expectations. I'm not persuaded that the fact that one can refashion shrimp into grains means that one gains from doing so - other than a fleeting sense of amusement - but in taste this dish succeeds in its own terms.

For our third appetizer Chef Dufresne presented his hanger tartare, peaches, bearnaise ice cream, and amaro (the last, I believe, is an Italian herb and root cordial). While the slice of steak tartare did not astonish me, the peaches with rich ice cream were excellent accompaniments. If the center of the dish was somewhat unprepossessing, these secondary flavors were harmoniously constructed.

Of the main courses, my favorite - and the best dish from Chef Dufresne's kitchen in my visits - was his Seared Cod with Smoked Mashed Potatoes, Japanese Pickled Mushrooms, and Red Bell Pepper with a Grapeseed Oil Reduction. Perhaps it was no coincidence that this was the chef's most traditional offering. It was perfectly prepared and conceived. That cod is not by itself a particularly rich or charming fish made the combination all the more impressive. The smoky flavor melded with the pickling and the biting pepper. It was a triumph, and I imagine that when some of the smoke and mirrors of Cuisine Agape are forgotten, we will be left with wonderful memories like this.

Also successful was Chef Dufresne's lamb chop (cooked souvide and then quickly roasted), with tamarind-cashew, cranberry beans, parsley root, and baby cilantro. The cranberry beans didn't impress me much, but the rest of the plate certainly did. The lamb was as perfectly prepared as at any classical establishment, but its accompaniments were Chef Dufresne's inspiration. The tamarind cashew was delightful with the lamb, and adding cilantro, a herb that awakens the most jaded taste bud, was most welcome.

I was less impressed by the root vegetable lasagna with a sweet and sour mushroom broth. Denying ourselves starch may be a culinary strategy, but lasagna is beloved for a reason. This plate seemed chill and harsh, made less appealing through a sweet and sour broth. Chef Dufresne routinely denies us the warmth of pasta, but why do so in this post-Atkins age? The dish was vinegary and mean.

Odd, too, was "Pork Belly, Sauerkraut Spaetzle, Swiss Cheese Consomme, and Romaine." Again the chef takes a beloved comfort food - here the corned beef sandwich - and extracts the comfort, denying us our pleasure. Yes, this spare dish deconstructed Katz's Deli, but to what end? Katz's version would be mine any day. Perhaps Swiss cheese consomme scores high on the Cute-O-Meter, but if chefs wish to create homages they should equal what they are honoring.

Desserts were something of a muddle. The PBJ combined a sourdough wafer with a lovely, rich grape sorbet. Crispy crunches and a peanut "dirt" completed the effort. While I loved the sorbet, the nutty dust left me cool. Our chefs wish to reclaim their childish delicacies, but when they have to do so it must transcend. Chef Achatz did this at Alinea with his famed, funny PBJ (his grape robed in peanut butter), but Chef Mason seems all jammed up.

Better was the eggless lemon curd with a huckleberry smear and basil meringue. These flavors and textures work together in a splendid melding of herb and fruit. A happy ending.

Had only we stopped there. The last dish, butternut squash sorbet (with pumpkin seeds, I think - my notes are incomplete) over chocolate soil seemed filled with off-tastes, salty and bitter notes that never met in triumph. This autumnal dessert needs work before winter appears.

The conclusion was, as before, a splendid Cocoa Cotton - a truffle of cotton candy: a true and delightful tribute to carny cuisine. As with the great clowns, one leaves WD-50 with a grin.

Despite my mixed responses, I enjoy dining at WD-50. Chefs Dufresne and Mason make me think. They do not permit diners to sleep and chew, but to masticate their ideas. I hope to return, not because the third time is the charm, but because the charm of WD-50 can be seen when dishes stumble as well as when they fly.

50 Clinton Street
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

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