The fun starts here: When you visit WD-50 on the Lower East Side to try its excellent new tasting menu, you don’t need to dress the part of Person Going to a Fancy Restaurant.
The dining room warbles with caftaned aunties visiting from out of town, sexless retirees in pleated, knee-length shorts, buff young men in brightly colored polo shirts discussing the menu with their dates, and disheveled cooks from other restaurants arriving to the bar like pilgrims, happy to spend their week’s wages on two sweet hours. Me, I went in jeans and sandals, with a sheen of sweat on my forehead and a lightness in my heart. Dressing down for a tasting is just the sort of thing that gets a few old white men flustered each year, pointing their fingers like sausages to declare the death of fine dining. But what could be wrong with a restaurant that welcomes you as yourself?
And that’s exactly what Wylie Dufresne has been doing since he first renovated the San Jose bodega on a grubby patch of Clinton Street almost 10 years ago and hit us with his eccentric, avant-garde cookery. Since May, he has been offering two tasting menus, a 12-courser composed of brand-new dishes ($155) and a five-courser of greatest hits ($75). The new tasting is an epic, culinary love story set in New York City. And it is a must-eat, packed with edible tricks and technique-bolstered extras you might expect from the science-loving chef who brought us squirt-your-own noodles and deep-fried hollandaise. It is also delicious, fun as hell, and well worth the fatso price tag.
The meal begins with a sticky nigiri of cured Spanish mackerel and salsify, beaded with pearls of trout roe and spherified seaweed, which you are encouraged to eat with your hands. It is soft and sensual and unexpectedly natural looking, as if we’d been eating it just like this for thousands of years. Pho gras, a mash-up of hot Vietnamese noodle soup with a cold torchon of foie, made me nostalgic for my first year in the city, during which Pho Grand’s cheap bowls of broth and noodles could sometimes be the brightest part of my day. As the waiter poured the centrifuge-clarified broth table-side, the sweet smell of star anise came up to greet me and I was moved, for just a moment, to tears.
“Can I get you anything?” the waiter said flatly to us after our third dessert. “Perhaps madame would care for a bean burrito?” Part of what adds to the joy of the place is WD-50’s distinct style of service. The staff is attentive, without hovering; casual, without being overly friendly. They’re knowledgeable, too—even the busboy who clears your table will know what that smear was from two courses ago and tell you how it was made.
Now we’ve got Ko, with its backless bar stools, and Brooklyn Fare, with its industrial steel communal table, but when Dufresne opened in 2003, his approach to fine dining was quite cheeky. A simple space with no tablecloths, no dress code, and unisex bathroom stalls? Hydrocolloids? It was kind of a big deal. It still is.
Some dishes, like the tiny nest of wide hot-pink noodles made from lobster roe, cradling halved grapes, reveal a particularly sexy collusion of technique and flavor. They are gone too soon. Others are more complicated, like the sticky, amaro-cured egg yolk, neatly packaged in ribbons of carrot, which comes with a few tiny scoops of carrots dusted with pea powder, pretending to be peas. This garnish is oddly intense and strange, but you keep popping these carrots in disguise. (Why? Because they give you access to some long-forgotten memory related to frozen, precooked vegetables.)
Desserts are exceptional. They’re the work of Malcolm Livingston II, formerly of Per Se and Le Cirque. His light, refreshing pre-dessert of cucumber with chartreuse and jasmine is a seductive invitation to move into the sweet courses. Such is the pacing, the order of dishes, and the portion sizes, that you will not want the meal to be over before it is. You will feel full, though, eventually.
Although Dufresne uses science to make his food more clever and tasty, the new menu makes it clear that he’s a thoughtful, brilliant chef, and not some wacky, show-off Dr. Frankenstein. But halfway through dinner, I did see a man go silly and wondered if the comparisons of WD-50 to a laboratory were right after all. The man folded his napkin into a hat, balanced it on his head, and grinned hopelessly at his date. Tasting menus are generally expensive and impressive, and often exhausting—but fun? Two tables away, I saw a grown-up break a thin sheet of cucumber sorbet like the top of a crème brûlée while making the sound of a four-year-old flying his imaginary airplane into the chartreuse-colored clouds. If WD-50 is Dufresne’s lab, then we’re some lucky bunnies.