With WD-50, Wylie Dufresne created one of the country’s most exciting restaurants.
When it opened in 2003, it was a rare outpost for fine dining on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Dufresne used advanced techniques and odd flavor combinations to produce delicious food. The chef took mayonnaise and deep fried it. He paired foie gras with spicy kimchi puree instead of the usual sweet Sauternes.
It all worked -- just as WD-50 somehow succeeded as an inviting, affordable neighborhood joint with a high-end menu.
In 2005, you could drop in, without a reservation, for an 11-course tasting at $95. In 2009, you could sit by the bar sipping a carbon-dioxide infused gin fizz, long before such concoctions began showing up at hip places.
A few Fridays ago, I stopped in for a sparkling Americano. The hostess shook her head. “Sorry, the bar is reserved for dining tonight.”
Fair enough. If only I’d been allowed to enjoy a libation standing up. Instead, I was told to return another evening. Oh, and the bar was empty.
So WD-50 isn’t what it used to be. A la carte options were eliminated last spring. Now it’s Wy’s way or the highway: You choose between five courses for $90 or 12 for $155. Add $95 pairings, tax and tip and the long menu comes to $644 for two.
These prices and prix-fixe policies aren’t out of line with New York’s most ambitious spots like Atera, Corton and Torrisi. The cost might make some weird sense if WD-50 was even better than it was in the a-la-carte days.
It isn’t. Half the savory courses on the $90 “From the Vault” menu, which highlights dishes from years past, are snoozers.
You begin with a single indifferent slice of octopus confit. Then come under-seasoned monkfish medallions with red pepper oatmeal. Beef tongue, once served with that lovely fried mayo, is now delivered atop cherry miso with king oyster mushrooms. Fine, and forgettable.
WD-50 remains an unusually civilized space. Despite the hard floors and lack of tablecloths, the room rarely gets noisy. Champagne (Pierre Gimonnet) starts at $80 the bottle, about $30 less than other high-end venues. And the $95 pairing shows off great aromatic whites from Alsace (Sylvaner Dirler Cade) and Oregon (Maresh Pinot Gris).
With a bit of magic and butter, Dufresne turns popcorn into soup. Tastes like the movie theater variety minus all the oil. Into that mix he tosses powerfully briny shrimp cakes, for wonderfully reinvented popcorn shrimp.
But sometimes Dufresne takes a classic and manipulates all the taste out of it.
Bone marrow is rendered into a gel that’s piped into a potato hollowed-out to look like a bone. It’s awesome, until you eat it. Marrow should be hot, oozy, jiggly. Here it’s flavorless and tepid.
That marrow is part of the $155 tasting, which begins with sliced Japanese sea perch, called madai, served over a mound of salsify-imitating rice. It falls apart when you pick it up, and the grains aren’t warm, so there’s no contrast to the dish. It’s subpar sushi.
Pho gras, a punny take on foie gras and Vietnamese soup, is a near-success. The tepid broth isn’t hot enough to melt the cold liver and release its delicate flavors.
Better is the smoked duck, a study in how to perfectly render animal fat. Pig tails, pressed, fried and paired with olive oil jam, are a yin-yang improvement on bacon with maple syrup.
Sweet bay scallops get a dose of umami-packed nori and seafood meringue. It’s one of the few palate-wakening tastes on the menu.
Another is the Wagyu flatiron. It packs more minerality than 99 percent of the steaks in this town and it’s paired with what tastes like beef jerky but is, in fact, mushroom.
That’s the Wylie we remember, the guy who still serves passion fruit tarts in tahini crusts and gives us marshmallows made of ice cream. WD-50, despite its flaws, is still a fine place for a quick bite at the bar. Just remember to call ahead.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Tasting at $90; $155. Bar diners can order two plates for $25, additional plates at $15.
Sound Level: Subdued, usually around 70 decibels.
Date Place: Yes.
Special Feature: The kitchen will accommodate vegetarians.
Inside Tip: Excellent selection of sakes.
Back on My Own Dime: For beef at the bar.
WD-50 is at 50 Clinton St. Information: +1-212-477-2900; http://wd-50.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com).
Muse highlights include Patrick Cole on music and David Shribman on books.