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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?

  


To download the full version visit vuze.com

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

Like clockwork

I was cringing by the time I finished reading the first paragraph of the latest Houston Press review of Voice at Hotel Icon. I was wrong, Randy was right and it was only a matter of time before he went off like a hand grenade.

The disagreement Randy and I had a few weeks ago was about Robb Walsh and what Randy called his limited palate (there is some creative license there with the exact terminology). I have always liked Walsh’s reviews and had never given much thought about his palate, but it does seem as though he prefers rustic American fare and ethnic food to what’s loosely classified as fine dining. I didn’t argue that Robb Walsh doesn’t have a strong affinity for burger shacks, taco trucks and pho houses, only that I didn’t think he was entirely one dimensional in his coverage.

I still love Walsh’s writing, but maybe Randy has a point. When your experience with a gastronomic restaurant begins and ends with burgers, perhaps you are missing the point.

To be fair, Walsh does seem to like the food at Voice, but what he really likes are the bar snacks. The beef sliders are his favorite. The rest of the review is full of complaints about high prices, small portions and more mentions of hamburgers than seems necessary. To really drive the point home, he suggests that people intent on eating at Voice stop by a nearby convenience store first and grab a $4 cheeseburger before their dinner.

High end dining is a funny business. The very same people who complain about spending more than $60 on a meal in Houston are very likely to go out of town and gladly fork over twice as much in a subpar restaurant like Aqua in San Francisco – enjoying themselves immensely in the process. That visit will be justified by glowing reviews from local critics who play up to the well heeled readership and the Michelin rating of 2 stars. In reality, the food is much better at Voice than at Aqua. Voice just happens to be in a “wrong” city, where critics love a good burger.

I cannot explain why Robb Walsh would form an opinion about Voice based on bar snacks and business lunch boxes, when the restaurant clearly excels at multi-course dinners. The tasting menu at Voice is the best way to experience what Michael Kramer can do at a reasonable price. At $80 for 7 courses (there is also a 5 course option for $65) it’s a relative bargain, when you compare it to restaurants in the same class that charge $100-$130 on the West Coast. A review of that experience would have been the review I would have liked to read, even if it was a hatchet piece.

Before you start down the “people in Texas would never spend that kind of money on a meal” argument, consider this. Harris County is 6th in the country in number of millionaires; close to 100,000 households in all. This economic class spends freely on leisure and entertainment when they travel and many of them are very sophisticated diners. Is it possible that Houston Press readers may be interested in something other than the local greasy spoon? (a rhetorical question, for the most part).

Some photos from a Voice lunch in May. My friend had a rather stellar burger. Oh, the irony…

July 12, 2008   5 Comments

News around town: Max’s Wine Dive and Cafe Rabelais

Interesting bit of news today, via Alison Cook at the Chronicle. Max’s Wine Dive plans to expand outside of Houston. A second location is planned in Austin, which will probably appreciate Max’s irreverent atmosphere more than most other cities.

Strangely enough, I have never had dinner at Max’s and have only visited them during brunch, when I don’t have to fight for a table with party crowds on Washington. I cannot tell if Max’s has gone downhill, having never been there when JJ was still at the helm, but my few brunch visits have been very good.

Most recently, I went for the Nutella and banana stuffed French toast, which was a decadent combination of intensely sweet French toast, chocolate, perfectly crisp salty bacon and Serrano chile spiked roasted potatoes (what salmonella warning?). The dish is pure Texas and it tastes great.

 

Today I visited Cafe Rabelais for the first time since Jason Blankenship left. I have heard from several people that Rabelais has subsequently gone downhill, which is most unfortunate. The kitchen wasn’t always reliable, but Cafe Rabelais has long been one of the best French bistros in town.

Normally, showing up at Cafe Rabelais after 11:30am meant that you were pushing your luck and may have to wait for a table. Today, I found the restaurant almost entirely empty. The place filled up a more within the hour, but the crowds have clearly figured out that the quality has slipped.

Only it hasn’t. Maybe the food was subpar over the last few months, but my lunch today was very good. I’ve had the merguez sandwich at Rabelais once before, and it was almost completely dry. Today, the same sandwich was served on fresh loaf of bread and was perfectly grilled. The fries, which tasted battered to some people, taste light and crispy to me. I doubt there is batter on them, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were properly double fried and dusted in potato starch, which would account for a difference in texture. Either way, I thought Rabelais is better than ever. The question is why?

One possibility is that there is some fresh talent in the kitchen. I spotted a new chef I have never seen before sporting a toque that said “Jason Kerr” at Rabelais today. Could this be the same Jason Kerr who has been keeping the lights on at Zula? If so, I expect Rabelais to continue going strong.

July 10, 2008   7 Comments

Tenacity supper club, round one

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Hidden Kitchen in Paris, which has tossed all haute dining conventions aside and became one of the most talked about “restaurants” in town. Shortly after, I went to a similar anti-establishment dinner, served at Randy Rucker’s home, in Houston and found some truly inspired cooking. Is it really possible that some of the best food today is served outside of professional kitchens and multi-million dollar dining rooms? Seems that way.

The night turned out to be such a success, Randy is considering making it a regular event and the second dinner will be held this Thursday. Getting a reservation at this point may be difficult. Meanwhile, you can entertain yourself with a recap of the first evening, complete with over 100 photos. If you want to see a larger slide show, just click on the gallery and it will take you to my Flickr page.


Randy lives in a picture perfect house in the Heights and almost every bit of land is used to grow something that can be used in a kitchen. I am not exactly the “go off the grid and live on the commune” type, but there is something really appealing about getting the produce to the table in minutes, rather than days. When you consider the lunacy people go through in cities where population density creates the prototypical urban landscape, where there is barely any space for humans, much less other living organisms, you really begin to appreciate what Houston has to offer.

The people gathered for the first supper club were an eclectic bunch, which made the conversation almost as interesting as the food. Several chefs. A couple of art society types. More than a couple of people better at writing about food than cooking.

I had an especially good time listening to the chefs talk shop. I spend most of my time around people who get really excited about computing, and this is really the first time I am around people who feel the same way about food. You can tell these guys really feel like they are creating something. I imagine this is what the Homebrew Computer Club must have been like back in the days.

The Food

cured rainbow trout in yusu with microbasil, Korean chili threads – the trout had an interesting flavor that reminded me of the preserved roe I had at Sawa Sushi in Sunnivale, but the real depth came from the Korean chili threads, which I thought was some whacky saffron that had a hit of heat to it. Turns out they were Korean chile threads. I have no idea where you buy those, but they were good.

tilefish tiradito with lemon verbena, fennel blossoms and kimchee consomme – my favorite dish of the night. Ceviche preparations sound simple, but balancing the acidity with the delicate flavor of the fish can trip up even the most talented chefs, as I found out at Nishino earlier in June. Randy really nailed this one, despite the complexity of the ingredients involved. I don’t know how he decided to put together fennel and kimchee, but it was a brilliant combination. Although not mentioned in the description, what really brought the dish home were the Thai chilis, which added the level of heat you would never find on a tasting menu in a restaurant in NY or California. Absolute Houston.

smoked vichyssoise, foamed dashi, gulf crab, garlic flowers – a very close second best dish, this thing had perfectly balanced flavors and textures. I am not even going to try to describe it, because it wouldn’t do it justice. Read the other blog posts (links are above), if you must.

roasted gundermann’s farm peach, red komatsuma lettuce, warm lime-eucalyptus emulsion, and fenugreek meringue – one of those dishes where technique fades into the background and ingredients take over. Everything on the plate, from the meringue to the lime-eucalyptus emulsion (which could have been a disaster) worked really well together, but the peach carried most of the load.

toasted “bacalhau” gnocchi, trumpet royal mushrooms, & pea shoots – one of the best courses of the night. The bacalhau is in quotes because randy used trout that he salted for almost a week for this dish. Not sure I understand why it was hard to get bacalhau, since I come across it all the time in Houston, but this dish did not suffer the substitution much at all. At least for me, the dish flipped and the main ingredients were just supporting players to what I thought was the best thing on the plate – the pea shoots Randy cut down from his garden right before serving. The same happed to me on my first visit to Manresa, when I realized that Into the Vegetable Garden was the best dish I had all night. You simply cannot beat pristine produce.

mr buddy’s compressed pork, japanese cucumber, and “sauce” ravioli – a perfect example of how much a good story can enhance the flavor of the dish. Even with additional pork fat, the hog lacked the fat content to make the Coca-Cola and Indonesian spice braised meat truly tender, but overall the Aquavit-inspired dish was a success. I tried the compressed pork before it hit the saute pan and it was a bit more moist and had a completely different flavor than what came across in the final preparation. I think it actually would have worked very well as a terrine course.

frozen lemon balm gazpacho & opal basil – an excellent dish with very intense, layered flavors, that also displayed some skillful play on temperature and texture. If I remember right, the same gazpacho was served in a sorbet form, as well as a soft foam on top. Very nice.

strawberries, yogurt, and mint – very simple (and entirely too small) course of strawberries, which I think may have been compressed, yogurt and homegrown mint. Strange as it sounds, I think the dusting of the espresso ground really brought a whole new dimension to this dish.

“moonshine” – a rather intense bit of booze Randy brewed up in his kitchen and forgot about for 3 months. I am not a drinker, but this thing was awesome.

In the short time I have known Randy I got a sense that he is a true food enthusiast. I doubt there is anyone in Houston more curious about every aspect of food, which makes him an interesting guy to be around. But it didn’t at all mean he could cook, so I was going to the dinner with somewhat muted expectations.

I’ve been to a fair number of restaurants that walk the fine line between being a science experience and delivering really special food. Randy definitely fits into the latter category, which makes him one of the few chefs where technique and ingredients become a small part of a broader palette used to create new flavors and textures.

As long as he’d doing his supper club, I’ll be there to take it all in.

July 8, 2008   4 Comments

BBQ wars

Arguing BBQ supremacy is a tough business, especially in Texas, where distance makes building a credible CV difficult and there is no shortage of joints in far flung towns to contend for the top spot.

Flame wars seem to break out every time Texas Monthly publishes their annual BBQ list and rage on for months. No one is really wins, because few people live close enough to great BBQ to have it on regular basis.

As if straining already fragile relations between Central Texas towns and major cities isn’t enough, this year the Texas Monthly top pick was Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, population 1,178. Unphazed? Snow’s is only open on Saturday from 8am (best time to eat smoked meat, apparently), until the cue runs out, which has been only a few hours as of late. Take that!

Houston never does well on the Texas Monthly BBQ lists (for a good reason in my opinion), but that didn’t stop a rather enthusiastic group of chowhounds from setting up their own tasting competition to set the record straight. Around the same time Pat Sharpe found herself defending the Texas Monthly picks in her blog from people who question the very existence of Central Texas BBQ belt.

I wasn’t able to attend the Houston BBQ tasting this weekend, but I have been sneaking trips down to Luling/Lockhart when I am in the area to see what all the fuss is about. The BBQ I tried really is some of the best I have ever had, but even at ground zero of Texas BBQ greatness your mileage may vary.

My first visit to City Market in Luling completely ruined all hope that anything remotely like it exists in Houston. The brisket at City Market was revelatory. Strange as it sounds, it reminded me of smoked wagu I had at Alinea about a year ago. A perfectly tender slab of meat with incredibly smooth smoke flavor was so good it actually made me forgive the City Market for their “no forks” silliness.  

But another “Top 5″ pick was rather disappointing. The macabre pit contraptions at Kreuz Market look like they handle serious BBQ and Kreuz has the reputation to back it up, but the brisket I tried was completely dried out. If not for excellent jalapeno cheese sausage, the trip would have been a complete waste. I’ll probably come back and try the smoked pork chop some day.

How can two places in the upper echelon of BBQ greatness be so different? Lot’s of reasons. BBQ is more an art than a science, difficult to replicate on large scale and Kreuz Market is definitely a commercial operation. Turnover matters. Come in at the height of the lunch hour and you may get perfectly cooked meat. Come a few hours later and you get something left behind once the pit master already went home. The giant dining hall at Kreuz Market was empty at 3pm, which explains the terrible brisket. The City Market should have been dead around 4:30pm, but the place was packed with locals taking out huge brown bags of meat home for dinner.

All of that makes rating BBQ difficult, to say the least. And sort of pointless. Who cares if best BBQ is in Luling if you live in Galveston? Find a place with a pit master who cares about their craft, figure out what they do best, be smart with your order and make sure you come when there is a line out the door. You’ll probably get pretty good BBQ.

One last thing. Goode Company may have come in close to last in the chowhound tasting, but it’s one of my favorite places for BBQ in Houston. Here’s how you get the best they have to offer: order a 3 meat plate with jalapeno pork sausage, smoked duck and brisket off the fat end (this is important). Skip the sauce.

Let me know how that works out for you.

July 1, 2008   2 Comments