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It looks like a perfect fried egg, sunny-side up. The yolk even oozes properly when pierced with a fork. Then I take a bite and my taste buds are delightfully shocked. The yolk is sweet with hints of carrot juice and maple syrup while the white speaks of coconut and cardamom.
What is this stuff? Culinary trompe l'oeil, that's what. The egg is the second course on the 11-dish tasting menu at wd˜50, chef Wylie Dufresne's restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Here, as I quickly realize, things are not as they appear. Dufresne, a bespectacled young chef with shoulder-length brown hair, wants you to expect the unexpected, whether flavors, textures, or presentation. You won't find pedestrian pasta or cliché chicken preparations at Dufresne's restaurant, or at chef Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago, Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in Bray, England, and Ferran Adrià's elBulli in Cala Montjoi, Spain. Instead, these leaders of an avant-garde culinary movement known largely as "molecular gastronomy" blend cutting-edge scientific techniques and equipment -- such as enzymes, lasers, and liquid nitrogen -- with more traditional culinary practices. The end products are unique, to say the least, and appeal to diners with an adventurous spirit.
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Followers of molecular gastronomy look to understand the scientific processes behind cooking -- for example, figuring out what temperature the egg yolk cooks at compared with the white or how a one degree difference in the oven can affect the roasting of beef. The movement has attracted not only restaurant vanguards but mainstream foodies with an intellectual curiosity such as Nick Spinelli, executive chef at the nation's No. 1 foodmaker, Kraft Foods (KFT). Even Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft (MSFT), experiments with the concept in his own kitchen, which is decked out with high-tech gear. "We're learning. We're becoming better cooks," says Dufresne. "It's a misconception that we're the crazy chefs in lab coats."
Yet, it's easy to see why there might be some confusion. The $105-a-person tasting menu at wd˜50 is like taking a tour through the left and right sides of Dufresne's brain. With intellectual savvy and an unorthodox approach, he serves up surprising flavor combinations like smoked eel and whipped caramel and presents foods in an entirely different form. In his shrimp cannelloni, for example, the pasta is made of shrimp. To prepare it, he purees the shrimp and mixes it with an enzyme, transglutaminase, that allows the protein to bond so he can create the pasta-like wrapper. In your mouth, it has the feel of pasta, but the taste of shrimp. The stuffing combines shrimp, dates, Thai basil, and preserved lemon, so the dish delivers the shrimp flavor in two different ways. To create the egg-like texture of his carrot-coconut "sunny-side up," Dufresne uses industrial gums, like locust bean gum, usually found in processed foods.
His steaming bowl of miso soup is authentic with its bits of scallions and shitake mushroom. But instead of the usual chunks of clarified tofu, diners get a small plastic bottle of a pasty sesame tofu. Dufresne mixes in methylcellulose -- a chemical compound derived from cellulose -- so that the paste gels into a "noodle" when it hits the hot soup. At wd˜50, it's O.K. for grown-ups to play with their food.
The dish of beef tongue, fried mayo, and tomato molasses has the flavors of a bologna sandwich. But Dufresne manipulates the textures so that it's a completely different experience from the lunchbox standard. The thinly sliced braised beef tongue is accompanied by fried cubes of mayonnaise, warm and creamy on the inside and crusty on the outside. The rich, smoky paste of tomato and molasses is akin to a fine barbecue sauce.
The innovations don't end with the main course. Desserts, now under the watchful eyes of Alex Stupak, formerly of Alinea, often include the sweet and the savory. A peach puree is paired with a buckwheat-flavored ice cream. In another, a dark chocolate ganache is accompanied by an avocado puree, a licorice syrup, and a lime ice cream.
Interesting. But is it any good? Looking around the dining room, you'll see patrons peering at the end of their forks contemplatively before they take a bite. During my meal, my dining companion and I chatted with the strangers at the table next to us about the distinctive flavor pairings, the unusual textures, and our impressions. We were delighted by the tender spring lamb with carob, honeydew, and fava beans. Not every dish was a hit. The foie gras with clarified beet juice, while amazing at first, was too large a portion for such a rich dish. What really stands out, though, is the journey. Here, dinner is an intellectual and sensory experience that provokes discussion.
It's part of the fun of wd˜50. It's also a big reason such restaurants remain a niche category. These meals don't evoke the same emotional cues as more traditional ones, and some won't find this type of cooking satisfying. "When you take food in this direction, it becomes less rooted in tradition and more an expression of that chef's vision," says Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, one of the bibles of the molecular gastronomy movement. Dufresne's egg may not be conventional, but it's definitely worth a taste.
By Adrienne Carter