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After hours @ WD-50

A discussion about New York restaurants on the Houston Chowhounds list made me think about my visit to WD-50 last year and a great episode of After Hours filmed in its kitchen. 

I expected After Hours to be full of New York food scene elitism. An even more insipid version of Dinner for Five, but with restaurateurs. Instead its just a couple of food geeks screwing around in the kitchen and serving up baby eels (why don’t they ever put that stuff on the menu?) to their friends. Daniel Boulud even seems genuinely interested in Wiley Dufresne ‘s food experiments. No hint of superiority one would expect from an traditional French chef.

After Hours is a great show and the WD-50 episode is one of the best. Where else can you watch Daniel Boulud burn the desert and learn how to pronounce “clafouti” all in one scene?

  


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Like any proper food obsessed fanboy I am fascinated by things that go on in kitchens and After Hours lets you see a kitchen unlike any other. WD-50 is more like a lab than a kitchen, stocked with as many chemicals and Rube Goldberg machines as items humans might actually identify as food.

While the guests seem interesting enough, I had a lot more fun watching Dufresne teach Boulud how to make instant vanilla yogurt by combining pectin, syrup and milk. Prediction – within 5 years the Food Network is going to cancel the nonsense that has become of Good Eats and replace Alton Brown with a food chemist mixing edibles up in a lab. Every kid is going to want the Fisher Price Molecular Gastronomy Set with an optional thermal immersion circulator, which is going to become the biggest selling Christmas toy since the Furbie.

WD-50 is an interesting place. It’s your average neighborhood joint that serves avant-garde food that every red blooded American wants to have close to home. Searching for the address in New York I actually passed it several times because I thought it was a laundromat.

WD-50 does not seem like a restaurant chasing Michelin stars. You come here to eat. All dishes are available ala carte. Prices are downright affordable for the level of R&D that goes into the food. I made reservations, but at 7:30 there were plenty of seats inside. I walked in, grabbed a seat at the bar and never for a minute got the impression that I was at one of the best restaurants in NYC.

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Slow poached egg, chorizo, pickled beets, dried black olives

WD-50 is a perfect example of how little molecular gastronomy, for lack of a better term, has to do with the science and chemicals, and how much of it is the art of isolating rare flavors in ways conventional cooking techniques simply do not allow. Foams, emulsions and gels show up on dishes at great restaurants such as Nana in Dallas, but there they seem foreign and forced in less capable hands.

Contrast that with one of the Wiley Dufresne’s creations I tried on my visit there and you walk away with a much better understanding of what he is trying to do. When I first tasted the eel dish at WD-50 I hit that space that only comfort food takes you – the flavor was reminiscent of etheral chopped liver that only Jewish grandmothers unafraid of chicken fat know how to make. I only later figured out that the brown stuff on the side of the eel was chicken skin emulsion.

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Smoked eel, blood orange “zest”, black radish, chicken skin

How and why Dufresne choses to go where he does with flavors and textures doesn’t even matter as much as his brilliant ability to successfully combine something that triggers flavor memory with a dish built around eel – which no Jewish grandmother in her right mind would dare touch (is eel even Kosher?).

If food is supposed to take you on a journey, WD-50 does just that. I can’t wait to go back.

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

July 13, 2008   16 Comments