Was: New York in three meals

A couple of years ago, when my team was in New York, our resident foodie Barry lured us to WD 50 for an evening with Wylie Dufresne’s tasting menu. The evening and the menu left an impression on me, so when I realized that Devon and I were going to be in “The City”, I went online and tried to get a reservation. Hah – fat chance. Looked like a slot might be available some time in mid-autumn.

But Barry counseled that if we got there right when they opened, we might be able to get a spot at the bar without too much wait. A call to the restaurant suggested that yeah, as long as we were flexible, something would open up at the bar.

Sunday evening, we hopped off VX22 into the terminal at JFK about 6 p.m. and decided we’d chance it – caught the “J” train to Delancy street and walked the three blocks to the restaurant. I was dressed in my best “quirky-but-endearing-professor” tweed blazer, and spent the walk trying to figure out the most ingratiating way of asking if they could seat us. “We’ve just flown in from San Francisco (gestures at bags) in hopes of being able to eat here…” No, how about…?  Eh.

Well, we found ourselves at the unpretentious entrance before I could think of anything suitably clever, and just went in, figuring we’d wing it. Glanced at the bar – not an empty seat – and smiled at the nice young lady standing to greet us. “Um, any chance you can fit a couple of people for food at the bar?”

Alas, no, she said. But they did have a table, if we would like. “Huh?”  “Oh, I mean, yes. Yes, please!”

The table was in the bar area, but it was an honest-to-god table, placing us with backs to the leather-clad dining room, looking out at the bar and passersby. Sunday night, and we’d picked up a walk-in table at WD 50.  I cocked my head and listened for a moment to the background music at the bar –  John Lennon, from side one of “Imagine”.  Am I in heaven yet?  I smiled at Devon; yeah, close enough.

The tasting menu at WD 50 is a crazy, wonderful thing, and I think sitting “at the bar” (at least functionally) made it even more so. We didn’t have a single dedicated waiter, as far as we can tell. A young man came by, chatted us up and asked about drinks. A few minutes later, an older gentleman dressed like a maitre-d’ inquired if we had any questions about the menu. Not unless he had any reason to talk us out of the tasting menu, I told him. No, not at all. Not at all.  That was the end of the ordering – after that, every few minutes one of the gentlemen behind the bar would come over with a tray and equip our place settings with new utensils. A moment later, yet another new person would appear from behind us to set down a pair of small plates, describing the conceptual theme of the dish in question, its ingredients and composition.

We’d ooh and ahh noises, poke our forks in, take a taste, and make appropriate squee noises before fading into gastronomic bliss. A still-different person would come by to clear the plates, wake us from our reverie and seem genuinely delighted that we’d appreciated the way that sweet Tabasco reduction kicked off unexpected flavors in the caviar-mashed-potatoes.

Anyhow. The tasting menu at WD 50 changes a lot, but at the moment consisted of 12 mini-courses (click on the little camera icon to see the restaurant’s image of the dish, assuming they keep them up):

  • Tai snapper, butternut squash, sour plum, molé consommé 
  • Everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, crispy cream cheese 
  • Foie gras, passionfruit, chinese celery 
  • Scrambled egg ravioli, charred avocado, kindai kampachi 
  • Cold fried chicken, buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar 
  • Striped bass, chorizo, pineapple, popcorn 
  • Beef and bearnaise 
  • Lamb loin, black garlic romesco, soybean, pickled garlic chive 
  • White beer ice cream, apple, caramel, caraway 
  • Rainbow sherbet, plum, tarragon, orange, olive oil 
  • Soft chocolate, beet, long pepper, ricotta ice cream 
  • Cocoa packets. Chocolate shortbread, milk ice cream 
But as amazing as the basic descriptions were, it seemed that each dish had its own back story. This was culinary theater, at its best. For example – the “Everything bagel, smoked salmon and crispy cream cheese”. It was a complete trompe l’oeil. That miniature bagel? Yes, it was clearly an itty-bitty “everything” bagel. Until you put your fork into it, and it turned out to be something like ice cream. Bagel-flavored ice cream. Yes, with sesame and poppy seeds. The smoked salmon had been spun to the consistency of cotton candy. How did they do that? I’ve got no idea. but putting it all together, and in your mouth, it just worked. It was one of those lightbulbs that goes off in your head, like the first time you tasted lemongrass, or when that cute girl you’ve always had a crush on looks furtively around, leans over, and gives you a big smootch. Your mouth says “I don’t know what just happened, but I liked it.”

Some times the theater was a visual trick, some times it was a theme. The idea behind “cold fried chicken”, we were told, was “trailer trash food done right” (meaning with a buttermilk-ricotta confection replacing the mashed potatoes, a topping of caviar, and a splash of a sweet Tabasco reduction).  When our seventh or eighth waiter cleared the plate from that one, he found me and Devon leaning against the back wall with goofy grins on our face. He smiled knowingly – “It works, doesn’t it?” We nodded dreamily. “Yeah, I like getting that reaction.”

The closest thing to a straightforward dish was the lamb. Just a small chunk of the tastiest lamb I’ve ever had. With a smear of black garlic paste to keep it company, and finely diced soybean. In fact, the soybeans were the only thing we had all evening that were just “Eh – okay.” Could’ve taken or left them. But the awesomeness of the lamb more than made up for it. Almost even made up for the guilt I feel for eating baby mammals before they get all grown up and less cute. Almost.

We kept trying to pick our favorite dishes. Mine might be the “White beer ice cream, apple, caramel, caraway” – I’m not going to try to describe it; just can’t be done.  But three and a half hours later, by the time we got to the modestly-described “chocolate shortbread, milk ice cream” (aka little round Oreo balls from heaven), I had at least four favorites. No, wait, five. No, wait…

I was going to describe our visit to New York in terms of the three very different meals we ate there: WD 50, a couple of slices of thin-crust pizza (for me – I skipped out on the “Preparations for 2011 Liberian Presidential Election” luncheon briefing Devon attended), then Korea-town barbecue with our friend Gregor.  But I’m just going to stop with this one. I don’t think I can write about food any more.

I would love to write about our hotel too; the Standard Hotel is funky and fabulous in the same way that WD 50 is. Okay, maybe not quite as funky – it would have to have bellhops emerging from secret panels in the ceiling to be in the running there. But the neuromorphic decor of the lobby, and Dante-esque video that slowly scrolls down the wall-mounted video screens in the elevator definitely scream “funky”. In a I-think-that’s-the-kind-of-funky-I’m-okay-with sense of the word. The hotel itself straddles the High Line on two big pylons, and towers 18 stories above it with ceiling to floor windows (the welcome packet reminds guests that when the windows work both ways and asks guests to be discreet in consideration of park-goers. A Google image search for pictures of the hotel instead turned up a trove of photos park-going photographers have taken of guests who have not heeded the hotel’s warning).

Yeah, I could go on about the hotel, but I won’t for now – this post has already gotten too fragmented, and as 21st century as I’m trying to be, I’m still not used to the idea that I can be blogging something from 34,000 feet.

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