At the suggestion of Pastry Chef Chavigny of Daniel and a generous birthday gift from my brother, the next stop on my explorations was WD-50, a restaurant known for its use of weirdo ingredients and au courant culinary tools like liquid nitrogen (for flash freezing), hydrocolloids (or various “gums” for changing the consistencies of liquids), and dehydrators. Leading the charge in the pastry kitchen is Chef Alex Stupak, formerly of Alinea in Chicago, another major player in the world of cutting-edge cookery.
For just $38, you can get your own 3-course dessert tasting. Since I was with a friend, I asked our waiter whether Chef Stupak would condescend to give us 3 different desserts each, so that we could try a total of 6. We waited on tenterhooks for him to return from the kitchen with the verdict… which was Yes– huzzah!
Every plate was like a playground for the senses and also a puzzle… for my mind. I hardly knew where to start with each one. Some dishes had delicious elements all around– you could enjoy each one alone, or combine them with others. Other dishes were truly deconstructed desserts, where each element alone tasted either bland or downright nasty, but when combined with others created a perfect balance of sweet, bitter, salty, etc. Here are some observations, which you should follow along with the fine pics above, as this can get a mite complicated.
Vanilla ice cream and raspberry streusel w/ balsamic vinegar middle (amuse bouche) - the streusel tasted like those dehydrated raspberries they’ve been putting in cereals a lot these days, very dusty and tart; the balsamic sauce that I almost forgot about from the description came bursting out when I reached the middle– I wanted to run away and hide from it, and the ice cream was too unobtrusive to protect me from its bracing vinegary-ness; I would not want an entire dessert of this, but it was effective in setting the stage for the UN-dessert desserts that were coming up.
Cheesecake, pineapple, raisin, saffron, lime - my favorite of all; each little cheesecake morsel melted into wonderful creaminess in my mouth; there were 4 different forms of pineapple on the plate: pineapple itself in delightful twists, cheesecake, foam, and pineapple “shards” (or little window pane-like candies that reminded my friend of breath strips); such fun!
Sicilian pistachio cake, meyer lemon, chartreuse, honeydew ice cream – I always feel wicked eating green dessert– and so many hues were presented here; the honeydew was refreshing and sweet; the chartreuse foam was luxurious; there was a hidden flavor I couldn’t make out that the waiter informed me was lemon balm purée; WHEW!
Coffee ice cream, pecan, cocoa, argan oil – you better like coffee for this one, because it basically took all the different pungent flavors of the Bean and broke them down; the ice cream must’ve had one of those “gums” working at it, because it had a pock-marked appearance, like a light-brown moonrock; the argan oil dollops were slightly bitter. Quick aside about argan oil – It comes from the nuts of the argan tree, which is native to Morocco. It’s probably best known in these parts as an ingredient in beauty products, as it’s rich is vitamin E, fatty acids, and such, but many Berbers and Chef Stupak like to eat it, as it has a nice nutty taste. Since the nuts’ shells are so hard to crack, one method is to wait for the goats to eat them so that they soften in their digestive tracts, then collect them from their feces. But that’s not done as often because (surprisingly) the seeds tend to pick up a bad odor this way. Check out these argan-eatin’ goats! How did they get up in those trees?!
Caramelized brioche, apricot, buttercream, lemon thyme – the most forgettable; the brioche was a-ite; it was strange having what is normally cake frosting (the buttercream) presented as a separate element striped across the plate; the apricot flavor, though present in multiple elements, was too faint to be noticed.
Soft chocolate, peppermint ice cream, black cardamom, toffee - as is my custom, I had been eagerly awaiting the first official chocolate dessert of the evening; the soft chocolate came in the form of “plugs” (their word, not mine) that looked so lovely, but were actually almost sugarless; the bizarre cocoa scribbles that reminded me of alien antennae (such as the Sesame Street variety) were really just plain cocoa; that toffee pool in the middle was my savior– supremely sweet, I realized it should be used as a wading pool for the bland elements; one spoon with all the elements together = what is chocolate.
Hazelnut tart, coconut, chocolate, chicory – a return to the safer waters of everything tasting scrumptious on its own.
Birthday brown butter ice cream, tuile, & streusel w/ passion fruit middle – there was a birthday candle inside the tuile chimney, but it took me so long to try to get a decent picture of it, it started burning the tuile; after putting out the fire, I enjoyed another wonder in contrasts with the sweet brown butter cream and tart fruit middle.
Chocolate shortbread-covered ice cream balls (amuse bouche) – I guess they must’ve had some ingredients left over from the other dishes, but I’m not complaining.
Cocoa packets (amuse bouche) – such a fun way to “wrap up” the evening; these tasted like chocolate Fruit Roll-Ups filled with crunchy chocolate streusel bits.
You can see some beautiful photos on WD-50′s website of most of these, but I wanted to document them myself to see if the plating was as precise and artistic, which of course it was.
Overall, I had a soaring learning experience that forced me to closely examine the components that make up the foundation of Dessert (yes, with a capital “D”). I can’t wait to go back and see what else Chef Stupak conjures up within the unassuming brick walls of WD-50.WD-50 50 Clinton St. New York, NY 10002 212-477-2900 http://www.wd-50.com/
For further reading on “avant-garde” pastry making (or whatever you want to call it), check out this article from the March ’08 issue of Vogue: “Cold Comfort,” by Jeffrey Steingarten.
UPDATE (3/8/11): Malcolm Livingston II, former pastry sous chef, is now the head pastry chef at WD-50. Alex Stupak has moved on to open his own Mexican restaurant, Empellon, in the West Village. Good luck to him!