Birthday Dinner at wd~50

December 14, 2014 · 0 comments

wd~50

When chef Wylie Dufresne opened his restaurant wd~50 in 2003 he unwittingly sowed the seeds of his eventual demise. Choosing Clinton Street in Manhattan’s lower east side was a clever move, in that the rent was cheap due to the sketchy neighborhood, but the restaurant was so good that the area improved due to the influx of tourists. That stretch of Clinton Street is now so valuable that the restaurant will be demolished, to be replaced with an apartment building. Irony.

When I heard that they would be switching to ticketed reservations for November, their final month, and that the last week’s seatings would be a “classics” or “chef’s favorites” menu, I was determined to get a table for my birthday dinner. As luck and some furious clicking would have it, I managed to land a table at 7:30 on the night of my birthday.

Ready to Dine

Our first indication that the menu would stray from the ordinary was the bread service, a box of paper-thin sesame crisps. These were so good that She Who Must Be Obeyed asked for a second batch to take home. I’m hoping to reverse engineer them.

Sesame Crsipbread

Pu-Pu Platter: Shrimp Macaron, Corned Duck, Honey-Caviar, Sweetbread-King Oyster Udon

Champagne “Grand Cellier” Vilmart & Cie NV / Champagne, France

Pu-Pu Platter

Four amuses presented on one plate: a shrimp macaron with wasabi filling, corned duck breast on a rye crisp with mustard and horseradish, caviar with honey and a Guinness foam, and fried sweetbread with julienned king oyster “noodles.” The duck was clearly the best bite on the plate.

Everything Bagel, Smoked Salmon Threads, Crispy Cream Cheese

Everything Bagel

A round of bagel-infused ice cream with poppy and sesame seeds, shredded dried smoked salmon, a piece of dehydrated cream cheese, and pickled red pearl onions. Taken in one bite, it tasted exactly like a bagel with lox, cream cheese, and onions.

Foie Gras, Beet-Kalamansi, Candied Olive, Pea Soil

Dewazakura “Omachi” Ginjo / Yamagata Prefecture, Japan

Foie Gras

When I cut into that perfect round of foie gras, I discovered that it was filed with beet-citrus gelée, a clever play on the usual sweet compote accompaniment. The sake pairing was inspired, much more subtle than the usual blast from a sweeter white wine.

Eggs Benedict

Torrontes “Don David” Michel Torino / Salta, Argentina

Eggs Benedict

This is the dish I’m still thinking about two weeks later. Sous vide egg yolk cylinders garnished with chives and Canadian bacon chips, and cubes of fried hollandaise in an english muffin crust. When you bit into a cube, it was crunchy on the outside, but still hot and liquid on the inside, the result of some very clever manipulation with hydrocolloids.

Grilled Octopus, Avocado, Juniper, Lychee-Campari

Ilias IGP “Kallisto” Mercouri Estate 2013 / Peleponnese, Greece

Octopus

The octopus was cooked sous vide until tender, then finished on the grill – smoky without being chewy. It was garnished with a juniper crisp, avocado mousse, and shaved lychee that has been compression-infused with Campari.

Miso Soup, Sesame Noodles

Chardonnay, Mt. Eden 1997 / Santa Cruz Mountains, California

We were presented with a bowl of smoked miso soup with mushrooms and a small squeeze bottle:

Miso Soup

As instructed, we squeezed the contents of the bottle into the soup, which resulted in sesame noodles;

Sesame Noodles

I knew the trick behind this dish: The sesame paste was mixed with methylcellulose, which gels at high temperatures. Adding it to the hot soup made it solidify. If the soup had cooled to room temperature, the noodles would have dissolved, but it tasted too good to let that amount of time pass.

It was during the wine pairing for this course that I sat up and took notice. We were being served a rare chardonnay out of a magnum bottle, and when I asked to have a closer look at the label, our server informed us that they were emptying out “all of the good stuff” from the cellar.

Turbot, Black Licorice Pil-Pil, Fried Green Tomato, Fennel

Xynomavro “Old Vines” Alpha Estate / Peleponnese, Greece

Turbot, Licorice

This was not the first pairing of fish and licorice (this was) we had tried, so it was less of a surprise but no less delicious.

Squab Breast, Sweet Potato, Yellow Beet

Cabernet Sauvignon, Figgins 2010 / Walla Walla, Washington

Squab

Squab breast with squab confit, yellow beets costed with sweet potato ash, and blood orange sauce. I wanted more of this. Who am I kidding? I wanted more of everything.

Cornbread Ice Cream

Cornbread Ice Cream

Cornbread ice cream over a cornbread crumble. This dish was invented by Christina Tosi before she moved on to run Momofuku Milk bar.

Soft Meringue, Passionfruit, Banana, Star Anise

Sparkling Apple Cider “La Transparente” Ciderie du Vulcain NV / Fribourg, Switzerland

Soft Meringue

An obvious parallel to the foie gras course, the meringue was filled with passionfruit puree, garnished with crispy meringue and banana sauce, and dusted with star anise and pink peppercorn.

Cherry Covered Chocolate, Molasses, Lime

St. John Commanderia NV / Cyprus, Greece

Cheery Covered Chocolate

These cylinders of chocolate mousse were covered with cherry gel, an inversion of the standard chocolate cordial.

Birthday “Candle”

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She Who had informed the kitchen that it was my birthday, so they presented me with a (mostly) edible candle: a vanilla ice cream base supported a candle that was covered with a white chocolate tuille shade.

Mignardises

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From right to left: Creamsicle chews, Rice Krispie ice cream bon bons, Raspberry-chocolate truffles, cinnamon mini-churros.

Once the meal was over, we were invited to take a quick tour of the kitchen:

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What differentiated this kitchen from others I’ve toured wasn’t the  high-end Bonnet stove or the row of immersion circulators – it was the “wall of powders,” the collection of hydrocolloids and other texture-modifying agents, the use of which made Dufresne a pioneer.

When we were introduced to the chef, I mentioned that we had met a few years previously at his Harvard lecture. He said “I had a great time there, but they haven’t invited me back. Could you put in a good word for me?” I’ll get right on that.

It’s no stretch for me to rank this dinner as one of the top five best meals I have ever eaten. The presentations were clever and designed to surprise, but they were always secondary to flavor and texture. There wasn’t a single off note the entire evening.

As we left, we noticed this in the window:

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I can’t wait to see what Wiley does next. Until then, here’s a summation of what he has done so far:

YouTube Preview Image

Iconic Chefs Remember wd~50’s Most Influential Dishes

A Decade of Influence: The wd~50 Family Tree

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Pasta My Prime

September 28, 2014 · 2 comments

Pasta Flyer

I‘m something of a Kickstarter junkie. I’ve backed projects as diverse as interacive fiction games, immersion circulators, titanium collar stays, graphic novels, music, and more. When I saw the campaign for Pasta Flyer, I practically screamed SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! How could I not contribute? I would get a chance to work with chef Mark Ladner of New York’s Del Posto restaurant (part of the Batali/Bastianich empire), work on a food truck, and determine once and for all if it was possible for gluten-free pasta to not be an abomination. And, of course, I would get to work in a restaurant-like setting, even if only for a few hours.

My education began on Tuesday in the kitchen of Alden & Harlow in Harvard Square, where prep started at 8 AM. We were sharing the space with A&H’s morning crew.

Prep Kitchen

After a quick introduction, chef Ladner put me to work. For the next two hours I blanched basil and parsley for pesto, chopped roasted onions, poached eggs, ran tomatoes through a food mill, resuspended cheese in an Alfredo sauce, and cooked off a whole lot of diced pork belly.

Pork Belly

By 10:30 it was time to head to the truck, which was parked in front of Harvard’s Science Center. (What’s the difference between MIT and Harvard? MIT has a Humanities Department, Harvard has a Science Center.)

Unlike the bog-standard refitted step van, the Pasta Flyer “truck” is a restored 1970 Airstream Nomad outfitted with a Garland cooking suite.

Kitchen

The propaner-stove and flattop were dedicated to keeping pots of water as close to a boil as possible. Ladner’s original plan was to par-cook the pasta in water, then finish individual portions in a microwave, a technique he had tested extensively. Unfortunately, using the microwave in addition to all of the other appliances on the truck tripped the circuit breakers, a result with which I was all to familiar. Plan B was par-cooking the pasta, portioning it out, and then giving it a quick dunk in boiling water to finish when ordered.

The menu presented on the Pasta Flyer site was deemed overly ambitious for the truck’s maiden voyage (Harvard was the first stop on a month-long cross-country tour), so the ordering matrix was reduced to three pasta shapes (screws (fusilli), tubes (rigatoni), and elbows (elbows));  three sauces (tomato, Alfredo, and pesto); and three toppings (meatballs, crispy bacon (the pork belly), and truffled poached egg. That’s a lot of possible combinations, all of which were tracked from the cash register, which generated the expedite ticket for each order.

There was also a table of garnishes: roasted onions, sautéed chard, peperonata, chick peas, ricotta, crispy capers, grated parmesan, sriracha, Frank’s hot sauce, and olive oil:

Garnishes

Five people filled that tight space: the cashier, the pasta dunker, the expediter, the assembly chef, and me, who tried to keep out of the way while still making myself useful. Orders would come in, the expediter would read off the paste type for the dunker to finish, cups of pasta were set in bowls for assembly, and the chef would build the order. His station consisted of three large rice cookers which kept the sauces warm, and three slow cookers that held each of the toppings. Pasta would get tossed with sauce in a mixing bowl, then toppings would be added before being served up. Here’s a bowl of screws with tomato sauce and meatballs:

Screws, tomato sauce, meatballs

Simple sauce, flavorful beef meatballs, and pasta cooked just al dente – proof that gluten-free product can hold its own as long as it’s not overcooked.

During my three-hour shift I wiped countertops, cracked eggs, restocked garnishes, portioned pasta, and expedited orders once the lunch rush had passed. We did 150 covers in three hours – almost an order a minute.

I took a break in order to see chef Ladner’s lecture to the students in the Physics of Soft Matter class, where he demonstrated his gluten-free pasta method.

Pasta Demo

And, of course, pictures or it didn’t happen, so here’s the Instagram post from Erin, the social media manager:

Instagram

The other fellow is Greg, another Kickstarter pledge. And, yes, chef Ladner is very tall.

What did I learn? That serving food to a lot of people in not a lot of time is hard work. I didn’t embarrass myself in prep or service, so I consider the experience a minor victory, but it convinced me (again) that restaurant cooking is a young(er) person’s game.

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Lunch at The Fat Duck

September 21, 2014
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Our August trip to attend Loncon 3 was a thinly veiled excuse to get together with overseas friends, visit three countries, and, of course, eat. Thanks to the efforts of gourmand extraordinaire Scott Edelman, one of our eating destinations would be The Fat Duck. To say that I was excited about the meal would be […]

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Can’t Talk, Eating

September 16, 2014
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At the end of this post, I concluded: I hope this doesn’t escalate into a food war. Who am I kidding? I hope this does escalate into a food war. I was right, it did escalate into a food war. That dinner became the inaugural entry for Can’t Talk, Eating, our dining club. Four couples convene at […]

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Salep Happy

August 2, 2014
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Mess around with enough ice cream recipes and you discover the differences in texture created by certain ingredients. My go-to recipe uses egg yolks to make a denser, more custard-like ice cream than Philadelphia-style, which is made without. Adding various hydrocolloids (carageenan, guar or xanthan gums) inhibits ice crystal formation but changes the texture. I thought […]

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Ninth Annual Birthday Dinner

May 18, 2014

The date for the 9th annual birthday dinner for She Who Must Be Obeyed had been chosen months ago. Two weeks before that date, it was decided that the web site for Secret Internet Project (post to follow, I promise) would go live on May 1. My menu planning up to that point had been no more […]

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Membership Has Its Privileges

February 13, 2014
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One of my regrets about not attending every one of the Harvard lectures that accompanied the Physics of Soft Matter course was that I never got to hear chef Ferran Adrià. Last night I was able to remedy that gap in my culinary education when I attended “Deconstructing the Chef: Ferran Adrià and the Experience […]

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Goldbird Variations

December 5, 2013
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This year we stayed home for Thanksgiving. which gave me an opportunity to try another non-stadard turkey preparation. The key to perfect dark and white meat is to cook the bits separately, giving each the time/temperature treatments necessary to produce juicy meat. I had already figured out the perfect method for confiting the legs, so […]

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20th Anniversary Dinner

November 20, 2013
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She Who Must Be Obeyed and I have been married for twenty years. Or, as  prefer to explain it, She Who has allowed me to live for twenty years. Rather than travel to New York to mark the occasion (as we did for our respective 50th birthday celebrations), we chose to remain in Boston and dine […]

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Do As the Singaporeans Do

October 16, 2013
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In April I started a new job working on a Seekrit Internet Project. Until said SIP launches – at which time I will tell you all about it – I have had precious little time to blog, preferring to spend my non-working hours cooking and occasionally sleeping. I contimue to try new things, but sometimes the new […]

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